Devil in the details

City: "Turnaround" schools won't have to replace half their staff

Department of Education officials are telling principals of schools slated for “turnaround” not to worry about quotas when they decide which teachers to hire for next year.

This guidance conflicts with the federal guidelines for the reform model, which require a school to replace at least half its teachers. It also contradicts the words of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other city officials, who have done little to dispute this figure before alarmed teachers, students and parents at meetings held throughout the city.

The 50 percent figure has been repeated again and again in months since Bloomberg’s announcement, at forums, protests, union press conferences, and city presentations. Superintendent Aimee Horowitz told families and staff at Brooklyn’s William E. Grady High School and Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School that “up to 50 percent of the remaining faculty can be re-hired,” while at least 50 percent will have to leave. At a meeting of the Citywide Council on High Schools, Deputy Chancellor Elaine Gorman distributed a presentation that said part of the plan was to “re-hire no more than 50 percent.”

But behind the scenes, department officials have been telling principals to ignore this requirement. They said they have told principals at the 33 schools to hire the best teachers available without fretting over whether they are new or would be returning.

“Our goal is for schools to hire and recruit the most qualified teachers who meet the high standards set by their principals — not to remove a certain percentage of staff,” said Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg. “As that happens, we will work with the state to secure millions of dollars in funding that these new schools need and deserve.”

Principals who have been working on developing plans for the replacement schools say they plan to follow the department’s instructions and are anticipating replacing far fewer teachers than 50 percent. Multiple principals said they were expecting to replace about a quarter of their teachers over the summer.

GothamSchools reported in January that the city was exploring the option of replacing fewer teachers at the schools under an allowance in the federal guidelines for some teachers who have been hired in the last two years. Department of Education officials declined to say how many of the schools’ 3,400 teachers are recent hires. But the latest directives to principals at the schools slated for turnaround could easily open the doors to far more returning teachers than the federal regulations would allow.

It could be that the city is anticipating hitting the 50 percent mark anyway, by using attrition and the limited exceptions to cut against rehiring. Or it could be that principals will be asked to do some trimming after selecting their initial roster of teachers for next year. But it could also be that the city intends to take advantage of the state’s role as arbiter of whether the city should receive federal funding to try to skirt the federal regulations. The city submitted applications for the funding this week, and now it is up to State Education Commissioner John King to decide whether they meet the federal rules.

King has so far commented on the plans only to say that the city’s initial description of turnaround—which suggested that it would be replacing half the teachers at each school—was “approvable.” Last week, state officials emphasized that the city must adhere to the federal regulations if it wants the millions of federal School Improvement Grant dollars that are on the line over the next two to three years.

“In order to approve SIG grants, they have to be in compliance with the federal regulations,” Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the State Education Department, said about the city’s plans.

Rejecting applications on the basis of the 50 percent rule would put King in a difficult position. He would have to deny funding to schools that serve some of the state’s most needy students even though the principals of those schools say they have devised aggressive changes that are best for the students. When teachers unions across the state opposed new teacher evaluations and stalled SIG funding earlier this year, they were lambasted for undermining struggling students—and the state could face a similar backlash.

On the other hand, awarding funds to the city for applications that flout some rules could jeopardize funding for the other nine New York State districts that are eligible for SIG funding. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned New York last year that if it did not improve its compliance with the requirements of a different federal funding program, Race to the Top, it could lose funding. Failure to comply with SIG’s requirements could draw a similar threat.

The United States Department of Education has never asked a state to return SIG funding, which is allocated on a yearly basis, but it has delayed awarding year two and year three funds to states that have implementation problems in their districts. In general, however, it leaves administering of the grants—and cracking down on compliance problems—up to the states in order to empower them. The USDOE monitors states for compliance with their rules, and reports those findings on its website, federal officials said, but it does not intervene between states and their districts participating in the program, even when accountability questions are raised.

New York is among the states that has punished districts for failing to follow the guidelines, even witholding funds. But in other places, even when districts have skirted some of the requirements, states have approved their funding, and federal monitors have rebuked them without setting consequences.

The guidelines do contain a great deal of flexibility, particularly around the rehiring of recently hired teachers. The regulations say that anyone who was hired within the past two years may be counted as new hires under turnaround — as long as they were chosen using “locally adopted competencies,” education jargon for criteria set at the district or school level naming qualities that successful job candidates must possess.

The regulations do not spell out how a district can prove that a school has already been undergoing a reform effort or is using locally adopted competencies, and federal officials said it is the state’s job to interpret them.

That latitude could be one reason that Sternberg and other department officials are confident that the city will receive SIG funding for the schools, even though principals are being told they can hire back more than half of their teachers.

The math suggests that the confidence might be warranted. Depending on the make-up of the staff at a particular school, and how many of those teachers are recent hires, the school could re-hire 75 percent of its staff or more and still be following the guidelines.

For example, if a school with 60 teachers hired 10 of them in the last two years — a reasonable expectation in a city where many teachers leave their schools, or the school system entirely, within two years — and is set to lose another 10 this year through regular and turnaround-motivated attrition, the principal could hire back as many as three quarters of the remaining 40 teachers and still meet the federal regulations.

This scenario would be different for every school, and schools with more recent hires will have the most flexibility. The federal regulations contain no special dispensations for teachers who have been in place for more than two years. City officials stressed that they are not advising principals to remove teachers who have been at their schools for more than two years.

Sternberg said he was confident the state would approve the plans regardless of the number of teachers who stay on and how long they’ve been working at their schools.

But advocates of the federal turnaround model say the city could be straying too far from the educational philosophy behind it.

“If a school has struggled for years and years, no light-touch intervention is going to make much of a difference,” said Justin Cohen, president of the School Turnaround Group of the nonprofit Mass Insight Education.

“There’s nothing magic about 50 percent, but if you’re going to change the culture of a school you have to be very careful to make sure every adult in the building has the tools to be great, and also believe that things can be different,” Cohen added. “I’m sure that there are folks and students lamenting the short-term pains they’re going through, but the question to ask is what’s tolerable about the status quo.”

Betsy DeVos

‘Underperformer,’ ‘bully,’ and a ‘mermaid with legs’: NYMag story slams Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: New York Magazine
A drawing of DeVos commissioned by an 8-year-old starts the New York Magazine article.

A new article detailing Betsy DeVos’s first six months as U.S. education secretary concludes that she’s “a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

That’s just one of several brutal critiques of DeVos’s leadership and effectiveness in the New York Magazine story, by Lisa Miller, who has previously covered efforts to overhaul high schools, New York City’s pre-kindergarten push, and the apocalypse. Here are some highlights:

  • Bipartisan befuddlement: The story summarizes the left’s well known opposition to DeVos’s school choice agenda. But her political allies also say she’s making unnecessary mistakes: “Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.”
  • A friend’s defense: DeVos is “muzzled” by the Trump administration, said her friend and frequent defender Kevin Chavous, a school choice activist.
  • The department reacts: “More often than not press statements are being written by career staff,” a spokesperson told Miller, rejecting claims that politics are trumping policy concerns.
  • D.C. colleagues speak: “When you talk to her, it’s a blank stare,” said Charles Doolittle, who quit the Department of Education in June. A current education department employee says: “It’s not clear that the secretary is making decisions or really capable of understanding the elements of a good decision.”
  • Kids critique: The magazine commissioned six portraits of DeVos drawn by grade-schoolers.
  • Special Olympics flip-flop: DeVos started out saying she was proud to partner with the athletics competition for people with disabilities — and quickly turned to defending a budget that cuts the program’s funding.
  • In conclusion: DeVos is an underperformer,” a “bully” and “ineffective,” Miller found based on her reporting.

We’ve reached out for reaction from DeVos’s team and will update when we hear back.

teachers with borders

Schools near state lines perform worse — and rules discouraging teachers from moving may be to blame

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Want a leg up in school? Don’t attend one near a state border.

That’s the surprising finding of a new study published in the Economics of Education Review. The likely culprit: certification and pension rules that discourage teachers from moving between states, limiting the labor pool on each side of the border.

The peer-reviewed paper focuses on test scores at public middle schools near a state boundary. Eighth-graders attending those schools, the researchers find, perform consistently worse in math than students at non-boundary schools. (The results are negative in reading, too, but smaller and not always statistically significant.)

One reason the findings ought to catch the attention of policymakers across the country: the data comes from 33 states, including big ones like Florida, New York, and Texas.

“We estimate that roughly 670,000 students are enrolled in middle schools nationally that are [considered] ‘intensely affected’ by a state boundary in our study,” the researchers write.

Of course, schools and students are not randomly assigned to be near state boundaries, so the study can’t definitively conclude that boundaries are the cause of lower performance. But the researchers — Dongwoo Kim, Cory Koedel, Shawn Ni, and Michael Podgursky, all of the University of Missouri — control for a number of student characteristics that might affect performance.

And while the study can’t pinpoint why a boundary seems to hurt test scores, the researchers have a theory: “state-specific pension and licensing policies” that discourage teachers from moving between states, likely forcing border schools to draw from a more limited pool of potential teachers.

In some places, those pension rules mean a substantial loss of retirement wealth if teachers move states mid-career. Complicated licensure rules that in some cases require experienced teachers to take certification exams or obtain additional degrees can also make that kind of switch practically difficult. Other research has found that teachers rarely move across state lines, even if they live near a boundary.

Why might that harm performance of schools near state lines?

Say a school in New York City has two science teachers and no math teachers, while a school right across the river in New Jersey has two math teachers and no science teachers. If each school needs exactly one teacher per subject, the solution is easy in theory: the New York City school gets a math teacher and loses a science one, and vice versa for the New Jersey school. But if certification or pension rules prevent that from happening, both schools lose out — and student achievement might suffer.

States aren’t typically eager to change those policies, though, for several reasons.

For one, states that require prospective teachers to clear a high bar to become certified may worry that making it too easy for an out-of-state teacher to receive a license could reduce teacher quality. A study from North Carolina provides some evidence for this argument, showing that teachers trained elsewhere were less effective than teachers trained in-state, though the difference was very small.

Another argument is that limiting teachers’ ability to bring pension money along with them when they move helps states hold on to their educators — even if they are in turn harmed when they can’t recruit teachers from elsewhere.

The latest study suggests that the net impact of those restrictions are negative. Still, the effects on students are quite small, implying that changes to pension and certification policies are unlikely to lead to large improvements in student performance.

But, the study points out, policies that eliminate the harm from attending school near a state line could help hundreds of thousands of students.

“Although the boundary effects are small on a per-student basis, they are spread across a very large population,” the researchers write.