Pomp and Circumstance

Graduation rates are up and officials forecast an even rosier future

Mayor Bloomberg announced today that New York’s graduation rates are on the rise for the seventh consecutive year.

According to Department of Education data the city’s four-year graduation rate climbed from nearly 53 percent in 2007 to over 56 percent in 2008. The nearly 4-percentage point jump refers to students who started ninth grade in 2004 and graduated in 2008.

The percentage of students graduating from the city’s public schools fell short of the statewide average of roughly 71 percent. But New York City’s rates were higher compared to those in major cities like Buffalo and Syracuse.

Calling the rate increase “dramatic,” Mayor Bloomberg declared it a victory for the 2002 law that centralized the city’s school governance. The law is set to sunset on June 30.

“The bottom line is, all signs are pointing in the right direction,” Bloomberg said. “And I think everybody understands that mayoral control really has been the key to all of this.”

He added that between 1992 and 2002, the city never saw more than roughly half of its students graduate, whereas in the last seven years graduation rates have increased significantly. Critics of mayoral control have argued that, when it comes to test scores, notable increases began four years before Bloomberg took office. Others have reported that students the city labels as “discharges” may actually be drop-outs, contributing to the city’s lowered drop-out rates.

The most remarkable increase came in the form of a 10-percentage point boost for the city’s English Language Learners — students who are still learning English. In 2008, the graduation rate for these students was about 36 percent, up from 25 percent in 2007. Schools chancellor Joel Klein attributed this jump to the growth of small schools that cater to ELL students.

Both the mayor and Klein emphasized that not only were more students graduating on time, but a slightly higher percentage were earning Regents diplomas, which require students to meet higher standards than a local diploma.

“This year our entire gain was in Regents diplomas,” Klein said, adding that the 4-point bump was composed entirely of students who had earned Regents diplomas.

Pointing to a chart showing the graduation rates of the city’s black and Hispanic students next to those of white and Asian students, Bloomberg declared it “the most encouraging chart of all.”

In 2008, roughly 49 percent of Hispanic students graduated in four years, as did more than 51 percent of black students. That’s compared to roughly 74 percent of Asian students and 72 percent of white students.

For the last four years, the city has followed the state’s formula for measuring graduation rates by excluding students who get GEDs and special education diplomas rather than local or Regents diplomas. The state’s data also incorporates students who complete summer school, allowing them to graduate in August rather than in May. With this last cohort of students added on, the city’s four-year graduation rate for 2008 reaches 60.7 percent.

Reminding his audience of journalists that students’ math and English scores were up, Bloomberg said that next year’s graduation rates would be “even more impressive because many of the kids are going to be in high school.”

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”