Progress reports could prove a double-edged sword for Klein

The city schools are likely to be heaped with praise tomorrow when Schools Chancellor Joel Klein announces this year’s progress report grades. But a dearth of low grades could actually turn out to be a double-edged sword for Klein.

When the progress report initiative was first announced, Klein said the grades would be used to determine which schools to close. This year, if the chancellor decides to close more schools, he could find himself in the position of arguing that his own accountability system did not accurately reflect a school’s shortcomings.

The grades are also sure to add to the scrutiny currently being given to the test scores that account for most of each school’s grade. The vast majority of a school’s progress report grade — 85 percent — depends on its students’ scores on state math and reading tests, with the bulk of that based on how much each student’s scores increased since 2008. (The remaining 15 percent of each score is based on attendance data and the results of surveys given to parents, teachers, and students.)

Under this formula, this year’s citywide jump in test scores could give rise to a significant jump in progress report grades. Indeed, we’ve heard from several sources that most elementary and middle schools are getting very high grades, and only a handful are getting failing grades. Last year, nearly 70 elementary and middle schools got D’s or F’s last year, and 79 percent got an A or a B.

But several recent studies have suggested that the state tests have grown easier to pass. On top of that, scholars have argued that the progress reports’ formula is not statistically sound. The formula has also delivered results in the past that contradict widely held perceptions: Some low-performing schools have received high grades, while other schools that are considered highly desirable got low ones.

Not every school will receive a progress report tomorrow. High school grades, which incorporate August graduation data, won’t come out until at least next month, according to Andrew Jacob, a department spokesman. Last year, high school grades were released in mid-November, just weeks before eighth-graders’ high school choices were due. The grades will come out earlier this year, Jacob said.

And the department’s new “parent-friendly” version of the reports, which showcase a stripped-down set of numbers, also won’t be ready tomorrow, Jacob said. Those reports, developed in response to criticism that the original reports were too complicated for the average parent to understand, will come out before parent-teacher conferences later this fall, he said. The first set of parent-teacher conferences, for high schools, happens at the end of October.

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.”