study says...

Closing schools serve students with greater needs, report says

picture-3The 25 schools the city is trying to close are low-performing, but their students are among the city’s most challenging — and are only getting needier over time.

Those are the findings of a report released today by the Independent Budget Office, the city’s data watchdog.

City officials argue that these low-performing schools should be closed because other schools serve similar student populations with better results. But critics of the closures often counter that the schools were set up to fail after the city sent them comparatively larger numbers of under-prepared, special needs and English language learning students.

The report confirms that many of the schools slated for closure have been enrolling increasingly high percentages of the city’s most challenging students since 2005.

In 10 of the 14 high schools on the closure list, for example, ninth-graders who entered the school in 2009 arrived with lower scores than their predecessors in 2007. The percentage of students entering the schools overage has grown to more than double the citywide average.

For the second time, the IBO report compared the academic performance of the schools slated to close both to citywide averages and to other schools the city says are similar. It also takes a close look at the demographics of the students who attend schools on the closure list, and how those demographics have changed over time.

City officials responded to the report by citing two studies conducted by the research group MDRC and funded by the Gates Foundation that found that the city’s small schools boosted academic performance for low-income students of color.

“Our reform efforts are absolutely focused on our students that need the most help, and independent research shows new small schools that replace large failing schools serve more disadvantaged students on average and help these students graduate at higher rates,” said DOE spokesman Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld.

Among the report’s other findings:

  • Academic achievement at the schools was much lower than citywide averages. Their performance also  fell below the average performance of the 11 schools the city selected last year to undergo the “transformation” model of school improvement and the three high schools that were on the closure list last year but were granted a reprieve this year.
  • But the schools produced mixed results when compared with other schools that the city says serve similar students. Three schools out of the 14 high schools on the closure list had more students earning course credits than more than half of their peer schools. Just three had credit-accumulation rates that were in the lowest tenth of schools in their peer group. Two of the 14 posted attendance rates that were in the lowest 10 percent of their peer group schools.
  • The schools slated for closure saw an increase in their rates of students receiving special education services or living in temporary housing that was larger than the increase citywide.
  • A disproportionate share of students in closing schools are in the Bronx. Nearly 40 percent of students who attend schools slated for closure do so in the Bronx. That’s compared to just over 20 percent of all city students who attend school in that borough.
  • Of the schools replacing closing schools as they phase out, 23 are new or existing small schools. Eight are new or existing charter schools, and seven are new zoned elementary or middle schools. The city has not yet released the plans for three schools set to open in buildings where a school is closing.

Read the full IBO report here.

(This post has been updated to provide the DOE’s response to the report.)

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.”