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College readiness hits progress reports but doesn't sway scores

The biggest change to this year’s high school progress reports, being released this morning, won’t affect schools’ scores.

In a nod to the growing recognition that a high school diploma does not guarantee college success, the Department of Education is adding three “college readiness” data points to the annual reports. They will calculate the percentages of students who passed college-level exams or courses; who would not require remedial courses at CUNY colleges; and who enroll in college the fall after they graduate. Starting next year, those figures will factor in to schools’ final grades, but this year the department is including them for informational purposes only.

Another change to the reports does reflect the growing focus on the quality of high school work — and is factored into the results. The credit accumulation metric, which looks at how many courses each student passed, has been narrowed to focus on classes completed in the core subjects of English, math, social studies, and science. In the past, a student was counted as having appropriately accumulated credits if he passed 10 classes, regardless of what they were. Now, at least six of the classes have to be in the core subjects.

One thing that won’t be on the reports: credit recovery numbers. Since last year, the department has been collecting data on the number of students who receive credit through non-traditional means after failing a class. The practice is sanctioned in policy but has been accused of being abused at some high schools, where students have been awarded credit after doing only minimal work.

Another change will help some schools relax. In the past, a high-performing high school could theoretically get a failing grade on its progress report. Now, schools whose graduation rate is in the top third citywide — about 80 percent in four years —  will not be able to score lower than a C. Scores of D or F, or three C’s in a row, put schools at risk of closure, according to the department’s guidelines.

The department has also ended the practice of splitting the data points of students who transfer schools across both schools’ progress reports. Now, the students who are on the register Oct. 31 are the ones whose grades, scores, and attendance will count on the year’s progress report. An advantage of this change, according to the department’s explanation of methodological changes, is that schools won’t be penalized for taking “over-the-counter” students late in the year.

Just as on the elementary and middle school progress reports that came out last month, the high school reports will for the first time award extra credit for moving students with disabilities to less-restrictive environments, a priority of a special education initiative that is mid-rollout, and posting gains among the low-scoring black and Latino male students who are the focus of the city’s Young Men’s Initiative. The city is also giving extra credit for gains made by students who were considered English language learners or who were in restrictive special education settings within the last five years, even if they no longer are.

All of the tweaks make it surprising that some elements of the reports — like the score ranges for each letter grade and the formula that assigns schools to a “peer group” — did not change at all.

And taken together, the changes mean that there can’t be a perfect comparison between this year’s scores and last year’s. Still, more than the elementary and middle school reports, which are based mainly on single math and reading test scores, the high school reports offer a peek into the experience that each school offers. And because they include a variety of data points, sharp year-to-year changes should be seen as grounds for further investigation, rather than the product of built-in variation. A school whose score jumps dramatically might really have improved substantially — or found a way to look like it has. This year, the city launched audits at 60 schools whose scores reflected suspicious patterns, so sharp drops could be more likely than ever to reflect the effects of new scrutiny.

First Person

First Person: Why my education nonprofit is bucking the coastal trend and setting up shop in Oklahoma

PHOTO: Creative Commons

“Oklahoma?! Why are you expanding to Oklahoma?!”

The response when I told some people that Generation Citizen, the nonprofit I run, was expanding to central Texas and Oklahoma, quickly became predictable. They could understand Texas, probably because our headquarters will be in the blue-dot-in-sea-of-red Austin. But Oklahoma?

My answer: Generation Citizen is expanding to Oklahoma City because no one would expect us to expand to Oklahoma City.

Our nonprofit is dedicated to empowering young people to become engaged citizens by reviving civics education in schools. We help middle and high school students learn about local politics by guiding them as they take action on issues they care about, like funding for teen jobs or state resources for teenage moms.

I founded the organization after graduating from Brown University in Rhode Island in 2009. Since then, we’ve expanded our programming to Boston, New York City, and the San Francisco Bay Area. All are urban areas with wide swaths of low-income young people, unequal schools, and disparate power dynamics. Our work is needed in those areas.

At the same time, all of these areas have predominantly liberal populations. In fact, according to The Economist, they are among the 10 most liberal cities in the country.

Generation Citizen is a non-partisan organization. We do not wish to convince young people to support a particular candidate or party — we just want them to engage politically, period. But the fact that we are preparing low-income young people in liberal urban centers to become politically active complicates this narrative.

So despite the fact that we could work with many more students in our existing cities, we made a conscious decision to expand to a more politically diverse region. A city that had real Republicans.

As we started talking about expansion, I realized the extent to which the dialogue about political and geographic diversity was a rarity in national nonprofit circles. While several large education organizations, like Teach for America and City Year, have done an admirable job of in working in conservative and rural regions across the country, a lot of other organizations follow a more predictable path, sticking largely to cities on the east and west coasts and sometimes, if folks feel crazy, an Atlanta or Miami.

There is nothing wrong with these decisions (and we were originally following this trajectory). A big reason for the coastal-focused expansion strategy is the availability of financial resources. Nonprofits want to raise money locally to sustain themselves, and those cities are home to a lot of people and foundations who can fund nonprofits.

But a more problematic reason seems related to our increasing ideological self-segregation. Nonprofits lean toward expanding to places that are comfortable, places that their leaders visit, places where people tend to hold similar values and political views.

One of the fault lines in our democracy is our inability to talk to people who disagree with us (highlighted daily by this presidential election). And non-profits may be exacerbating this reality.

This schism actually became more apparent to me when our board of directors started having conversations about expansion. Oklahoma City had come to the top of my proposed list because of my personal and professional contacts there. But I quickly realized that no one on my board lived more than five miles from an ocean, and save a board member from Oklahoma, none had stepped foot in the state.

“Are we sure we want to expand there? Why not a gateway city?” (I still don’t know what a gateway city is.)

“We can hire a Republican to run the site, but they can’t be a Trump supporter.”

“Are we sure that we can raise enough money to operate there?”

It wasn’t just my board. Whenever I talked to friends about our plans, they’d offer the same resistance.

The stereotypes I heard were twofold: Oklahoma was full of bigoted conservatives, and it was an incredibly boring location. (The dullness narrative got an unquestionable boost this year when star basketball player Kevin Durant left the hometown Thunder. It became quite clear that a main rationale for his leaving the team was Oklahoma City itself.)

But as I met with folks about Generation Citizen’s work, I met citizen after citizen who was excited about our mission. The state is facing tremendous budget challenges, and its voter participation rates amongst the worst in the country. Given these realities, there seemed to be widespread recognition that a program like ours could actually be helpful.

I did not talk about national politics with most people I met. Indeed, we might disagree on whom to support. But we did agree on the importance of educating young people to be politically active, shared concerns about public school budget cuts, and bonded over excitement for the Thunder’s playoff chances.

Still, the actual expansion to Oklahoma will be a challenge for our organization. Despite our local ties, we are coming in from the outside, and we do have the perception of being a progressively minded organization. What will happen if one of our classes wants to advocate for open carry at schools in response to a shooting? How will my board handle working in a site where they wouldn’t ordinarily visit?

I am excited to tackle all of these challenges. And I would push other similarly sized non-profits to think about working in a more diverse set of areas. It is not possible to be a national organization and avoid entire swaths of the country. But more importantly, given these tenuous political times, it feels important to interact with people who may not hold our beliefs.

Nonprofits can’t fix our national dialogue alone. But by expanding where we work, we might help improve the conversation.

honor system

Meet Derek Voiles, the Morristown educator who is Tennessee’s newest Teacher of the Year

PHOTO: Tennessee Department of Education
Derek Voiles, Tennessee's 2016-17 Teacher of the Year

Derek Voiles, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher in Morristown, is Tennessee’s 2016-17 Teacher of the Year, the State Department of Education announced Thursday.

One of nine finalists for this year’s award, Voiles teaches at Lincoln Heights Middle in Hamblen County Schools in East Tennessee. He received the top teacher honor at a banquet in Nashville.

Voiles, who has been teaching for six years, has long shared his teaching practices publicly — on Twitter, through a blog he wrote with a colleague, and as a state ambassador for the Common Core standards. In recent years, according to a state news release, his classroom became a hub as teachers from across his district observed his teaching in hopes of replicating his practices, which often improved the performance of students far behind their peers.

“All students are capable of achieving great things, and all students deserve a teacher who believes this and will do whatever it takes to make it happen,” Voiles said in the release. He is also a doctoral candidate at East Tennessee State University.

Now, Voiles will gain an even wider stage, as Tennessee’s representative to the National Teacher of the Year program. He will also share insight from the classroom as part of committees and working groups with the Tennessee Department of Education.

All nine Teacher of the Year finalists, representing each of the state’s regions, will serve on the Commissioner Candice McQueen’s Teacher Advisory Council during the 2016-17 school year.

The department also recognized two division winners from Middle and West Tennessee. Cord Martin, a music education and enrichment teacher at Whitthorne Middle School in Maury County, was recognized for his innovative teaching strategies and connecting content to contemporary culture. Christy McManus, a fifth-grade English language arts and social studies teacher at Chester County Middle School in Henderson was honored for equipping her students with the end goal in mind: a college-ready twelfth grader.

Voiles follows Cathy Whitehead, a third-grade teacher from Chester County, who served as Tennessee’s 2015-16 Teacher of the Year. Whitehead teaches at West Chester Elementary School in Henderson in West Tennessee.