tough choices

One challenge for city high schools: The process to get in

picture-82
Image courtesy of the ##http://www.newschool.edu/milano/nycaffairs/##Center for New York City Affairs##

The city’s complicated high school application process makes low-income and non-English-speaking students more likely to wind up in low-performing schools, some advocates and researchers say.

To get into high school, New York City students must navigate a labyrinthine application process that can stump even the savviest parent. The Center for New York City Affairs illustrated the process with a flow chart in its recent report about small schools.

The report found that a disproportionate number of the city’s neediest students continue to wind up in large, lower-performing high schools, even as the number of small schools has increased. Their concentration has in turn caused the large schools to struggle even more, the report concluded.

The city’s primary source of information intended to help families maneuver though the process is its annual directory of all 500-odd high schools. This year’s 640-page directory is being distributed to seventh graders before the end of the week, with one major change: Now, schools’ progress report grades and quality review ratings are included. Before last year, each school’s page included its 4-year graduation rate and its math and English Regents exam passing rates. Last year’s directory included no performance data at all.

The new data is more robust than what the directory included before, according to a department spokesman, Andrew Jacob. That’s because the progress report grades take into account graduation rates and Regents pass rates as well as other performance data, Jacob said. The reports have been criticized for being difficult to understand and not statistically sound, although their critics have said the high school metrics are more reliable.

Flimsy high school information can lead to bad choices, especially for 13-year-olds who are navigating the application process largely on their own, according to panelists speaking last week at discussion about the small schools report.

One problem is that when schools advertise, they don’t always share the complete or most accurate picture, said New York University professor Pedro Noguera.

Another problem, he said, is that middle school guidance counselors often do not have the resources they need to help students make good decisions.

Steven Duch, the principal of Hillcrest High School in Queens, agreed, saying the sheer number of high schools, combined with guidance counselors’ workloads, means the counselors have little more information than students can find in the directory. “They don’t know what the high schools look like,” he said. “They haven’t visited, they dont have information at their fingertips. They probably dont have the data.”

(One place where counselors could find a lot of this information is on Insideschools.org, the Web site that provides school reviews written by trained reporters along with comments from parents, teachers, and students. But Insideschools is set to close up shop next week unless it secures substantial new funding. I used to work at Insideschools.)

High school choice has been a mixed bag for the city’s neediest students, panelists said. “You have to have the resources to access the choice,” said Noguera.

“On the other hand, no choice meant Thomas Jefferson for all of the kids in East New York,” responded Clara Hemphill, the panel’s moderator and the lead author of the report. She was referring to the large high school in Brooklyn that the city closed in 2007 because of its poor performance.

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.”