study says...

Internal report stokes questions about city's closure strategy

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A high school’s size and its concentration of low-achieving and overage students strongly predicts its graduation rate, according to an internal Department of Education study obtained by GothamSchools today.

The 20-page report, prepared for the city by the consultant firm Parthenon Group in 2008, gives fodder for both supporters and critics of the city’s strategy of closing low-performing large high schools and replacing them with new small schools.

The presentation shows that large schools struggle to serve large concentrations of challenging students. But it also suggests that the Department of Education knew about this problem years ago but continued to allow many large schools to be flooded with low-performing students.

Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and an outspoken critic of the city’s school closure efforts, provided the report to GothamSchools.

The report examines how a students’ chance of graduation varies widely depending on the type of high school he or she attends.

For example, a hypothetical black or Hispanic girl with the median city test scores and middle school attendance and no special needs would have an 83 percent chance of graduating from a small school with a low concentration of challenging students. The same student would have just a 55 percent chance of graduating from a large high school with much higher percentage of students with special needs.

Those predictions were born of a model the Parthenon Group drew up to predict high schools’ graduation rates using their size and concentrations of challenging students. The consultants then compared their predictions to city schools’ actual graduation rates, and found that they were spot on 77 percent of the time. Just a fifth of schools posted rates 10 percentage points above or below their predictions.

Just one large high school with a high concentration of students who enter ninth-grade low-performing, overage or with low attendance rates — Harry Truman High School — posted higher graduation rates than the consultants’ model predicted.

The model’s success suggests that as large high schools currently slated for closure began to enroll higher numbers of challenging students — as a report released today showed they did — it would seem likely that their graduation rates would decline. Critics of the city’s practice of closing schools frequently argue that the city flooded previously well-functioning large neighborhood high schools with low-achieving students and then punished the schools with closure as they began to flounder academically.

The report also shows a wide gap in graduation rates between the new small schools opened under the Bloomberg administration and other city high schools. But most of that gap is accounted for by local diplomas awarded by the schools.

Other studies have shown that small schools relied heavily on the local diploma to power their higher graduation rates. The Parthenon report adds a comparison to large high schools — and finds that the large and older high schools are not much further behind.

For example, for students entering high school with a low level 2 on their eighth grade state tests, new small schools post graduation rates that are 26 percentage points higher than other schools. But the gap between those students who eventually earn Regents diplomas is much smaller — just 7 percent.

That distinction is important because the state is in the process of phasing out the local diplomas, arguing that they are not rigorous enough to prepare students for college. Observers have warned that small schools’ reliance on local diplomas mean graduation rates could plummet when the new tougher requirements go into effect, though city officials have said they are making changes at the middle school level to prepare for the change.

The report also questioned small schools’ ability to sustain their high performance, a criticism that has been made by other studies, including a 2009 report from the New York City Center for Public Affairs.

But the report also showed that a disproportionately high number of the schools outperforming their predicted graduation rates are small schools with relatively high rates of overage and low-performing students. Of the schools that the report says “beat the odds,” 34 percent are small schools with medium to high rates of students entering ninth grade overage.

City officials said today that the report helped inform and validate their small school approach and described the reports’ findings as precursors to more recent studies that found small schools boost graduation rates.

“This was an internal study, but it confirms what we’ve seen time and again: our new small schools have been enormously successful in educating students and helping them graduate,” said DOE spokesman Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld.

In its concluding slide, the presentation asks several questions raised by the reports’ findings. One of those questions suggests that the city could have prevented some large high school’s academic slide by changing admissions policies to prevent them from enrolling much larger numbers of struggling students:

Should we consider constraints on the [high school] admissions process that take into consideration the predicted graduation rate of the school? (e.g. “don’t allow any school to have a predicted rate less than 45%”)

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.”