who should rule the schools

Diane Ravitch to Assembly: Mayor shouldn't select the chancellor

Norm Scott warned this morning that historian Diane Ravitch, who has emerged as one of the Department of Education’s most vocal critics, would be delivering blistering testimony at today’s Assembly hearing on mayoral control.

Indeed, that’s what Assembly members just heard. “Never before in the history of NYC have the mayor and the chancellor exercised total, unlimited, unrestricted power over the daily life of the schools,” Ravitch said in her testimony. “No other school district in the United States is operated in this authoritarian fashion.”

Ravitch recommended that legislators mandate an independent school board that would publicly review proposed policies and budgets. The board, and not the mayor, should appoint the chancellor, Ravitch said. “If the chancellor is appointed by the mayor, his first obligation is to the mayor, not the children,” she said.

Ravitch also joined a large contingent of people who are calling for an independent agency to monitor and evaluate Department of Education data. She offered evidence for why city students are doing no better than before the mayor took over the schools.

Assembly members said they appreciated Ravitch’s testimony, Elizabeth reports from the hearing. Said Assemblyman James Brennan to Ravitch: “I can see now see why you have a PhD.”

As always, you’ll find Ravitch’s complete testimony after the jump.

Testimony of Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education, New York University, Hearings of New York State Assembly Committee on Education, February 6, 2009

I am a historian of education on the faculty of New York University. My first book was a history of the New York City public schools, entitled The Great School Wars. It was published in 1974. It is generally acknowledged to be the definitive history of the school system. Since then, I have continued to study and write about the New York City school system.

When the Legislature changed the governance of the school system in 2002, I supported the change. I supported the idea of mayoral control. I looked forward to an era of accountability and transparency. From my historical studies, I knew that mayoral control was the customary form of governance in our city’s schools for many years. From 1873 to 1969, the mayor appointed every single member of the New York City Board of Education. The decentralization of control from 1969 to 2002 was an aberration.

Having observed the current system since it was created, however, I have become convinced that it needs major changes.

It needs change because it lacks accountability. It lacks transparency. It shuts the public out of public education. It has no checks or balances. It lacks the most fundamental element of a democratic system of government, which is public oversight.

Never before in the history of NYC have the mayor and the chancellor exercised total, unlimited, unrestricted power over the daily life of the schools. No other school district in the United States is operated in this authoritarian fashion.

We have often been told by city officials that the results justify continuation of this authoritarian control. They say that test scores have dramatically improved. But no independent source verifies these assertions.

The city’s claims are contradicted by the federal testing program, called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The federal tests are the gold standard of educational testing.

New York City is one of 11 cities that participate in the federal testing program. On the NAEP tests, the city’s scores were flat from 2003-2007 in fourth-grade reading, in eighth-grade reading, and in eighth-grade math. Only in fourth-grade math did student performance improve, but those gains had washed out by eighth grade. The eighth-graders were the product of the Children First reforms, yet these students showed no achievement gains in either reading or math. The federal tests showed no significant gains for Hispanic students, African American students, white students, Asian students, or lower-income students. The federal data showed no narrowing of the achievement gap among children of different ethnic and racial groups.

The SAT is another independent measure. This past year, the city’s SAT scores fell, reaching their lowest point since 2003, at the same time that national SAT scores held steady. The students who take the SAT intend to go to college; they are presumably our better-performing students. Yet the SAT reading score for New York City was an appalling 438, which is the 28th percentile of all SAT test-takers. The state SAT reading score was 488, much closer to the national average than our city students.

Are graduation rates up? The city says they have climbed from 53% to 62% from 2003-2007. The state says they have climbed from 44% to 52% from 2004-2007. Either way, the city’s graduation rate is no better than the graduation rate for the state of Mississippi, which spends less than a third of what New York City spends per pupil.

We must wonder whether we can believe any numbers for the graduation rate, because the city has encouraged a dubious practice called “credit recovery,” which inflates the graduation rate. Under credit recovery, students who failed a course or never even showed up can still get credit for it by turning in an independent project or attending a few extra sessions. A principal told the New York Times that credit recovery is the “dirty little secret of high schools. There’s very little oversight and there are very few standards.” (NY Times, April 11, 2008).  Furthermore, the city doesn’t count students who have been discharged; these are students who have been removed from the rolls but are not counted as dropouts. Their number has increased every year. Leaving out these students also inflates the graduation rate.

We have all heard that social promotion was eliminated, that students can’t be promoted from grade 3 or 5 or 7 or 8 unless they have mastered the work of the grade. Nonetheless, a majority of eighth-graders do not meet state standards in reading or math. And two-thirds of the city’s graduates who enter CUNY’s community colleges must take remedial courses in reading, writing, or mathematics. These figures suggest that social promotion continues and that many students are graduating who are not prepared for postsecondary education.

The present leadership of the Department of Education has made testing in reading and mathematics the keynote of their program. Many schools have narrowed their curriculum in hopes of raising their test scores. The Department’s own survey of arts education showed that only 4% of children in elementary schools and less than a third of those in middle schools were receiving the arts education required by the state. When the federal government tested science in 2006, two-thirds of New York City’s eighth grade students were “below basic,” the lowest possible rating. These figures suggest that our students are not getting a good education, no matter what the state test scores in reading and math may be.

The Department of Education, lacking any public accountability, has heedlessly closed scores of schools without making any sustained effort to improve them. Had they dramatically reduced class sizes, mandated a research-based curriculum, provided intensive professional development, supplied prompt technical assistance, and taken other constructive steps, they might have been able to turn around schools that were the anchor of their community. When Rudy Crew was Chancellor, he rescued many low-performing schools by using these techniques in what was then called the Chancellor’s District. Unfortunately this district—whose sole purpose was to improve low-performing schools–was abandoned in 2003. There may be times when a school must be closed, but it should be a last resort, triggered only after all other measures have been exhausted, and only after extensive community consultation.

The Legislature owes it to the people of New York City to make significant changes in the governance of the New York City public schools.

First, the governance system needs checks and balances. Having the chance to vote for the mayor once in four years is no check or balance, nor does it provide adequate accountability. The school system needs an independent board, whose members serve for a fixed-term, to review and approve the policies and budget of the school system. This board would hold public hearings before decisions are made. It would review the budget in public and give the public full opportunity to express its concerns.

Second, the performance of the school system should be regularly monitored by an independent, professional auditing agency. This agency should report to the public on student performance and graduation rates. Those in charge of the school system should not be allowed to monitor the system’s performance and to give principals and teachers bonuses for higher performance. Such an approach does not produce accountability; instead, it only encourages principals and teachers to find creative ways to boost their test scores and graduation rates.

Third, the leader of the school system should be appointed by the independent board, not by the mayor.  The chancellor’s primary obligation is to protect the best interests of the students. If elected officials say that they must cut the schools’ budget, the chancellor should be the voice of the school system, fighting for the interests of the children and the schools. If the chancellor is appointed by the mayor, his first obligation is to the mayor, not the children.

There are many challenges facing the New York City school system. Many of the students that it serves are disadvantaged by poverty, are English language learners, or have special needs. Changing the governance of the school system will not solve all the problems of educating more than one million students.

Nonetheless, the Legislature must learn from experience. It should correct the flaws in the law passed in 2002. That law went too far in centralizing all authority in the Mayor’s office and in excluding the public from any voice in decisions affecting their communities and their children. It is time to change the law.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.