explainer

Unraveling three and a half months of "turnaround" twists: Part I

Since Mayor Bloomberg announced plans to “turn around” dozens of struggling schools during his State of the City speech in January, the city has hammered out specifics while holding two rounds of raucous meetings at each of the schools that could be overhauled.

Meanwhile, community members, politicians, and union officials have argued against turnaround at rally after rally — even as the city’s plans evolved. On Thursday, they will air those arguments one more time as the Panel for Educational Policy — which has never rejected a city proposal — sits down to hear public testimony and then vote on 26 turnaround plans.

In two posts, we will summarize how the city got here, what turnaround entails, and what could happen after Thursday. First, some recent history:

What exactly is turnaround, anyway?

Turnaround is one of four federally prescribed school overhaul strategies that cities can adopt to qualify for School Improvement Grants. The SIG program was developed to entice states and school districts to improve the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools after U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan committed to funding overhauls. The program has gotten mixed reviews across the country but still has sent school districts into a frenzy trying to win scarce funds, which can amount to millions of dollars per school for three years.

If districts want the funds, they must select one of the four strategies for each school on the list. They can close the schools and disperse their students; partner them with nonprofit groups or turn them into charter schools under “restart”; add new resources and programs under “transformation”; or choose turnaround.

Turnaround is the most aggressive strategy and requires that a school’s principal and programming be changed. In the most controversial requirement, it also mandates that at least half of teachers be replaced. This requirement has made turnaround highly controversial in many districts that have tried to use it.

In the version of turnaround that New York City has developed in an effort to follow rules set out in its contract with the teachers union, the schools would be closed and reopened immediately. A team of administrators and union members would rehire a portion of teachers using a process outlined in the contract’s 18-D clause.

Why does the city want to use turnaround?

The initial impetus for the turnaround plan, which Mayor Bloomberg announced during his State of the City speech in January, was pragmatic: The city wanted to be able to receive federal School Improvement Grants for the schools without adopting new teacher evaluations, which was a requirement for the less aggressive overhaul strategies.

The switch was also political: Bloomberg said he was forced into the plan because the union refused to agree on new evaluations. (In fact, the city had backed out of negotiations about evaluations in the 33 schools in late December, then struck an agreement in February on the main issue that had impeded a deal.) Announcing the turnaround plan allowed Bloomberg to appear tough on the union and sound like he had moved closer to his oft-stated goal of being able to low-performing weak teachers.

But city officials have also argued that turnaround is also the fastest way to help the schools improve because it would allow them to shake up their teaching staffs overnight. Here’s what we reported when Bloomberg vowed to go through with the turnaround plans even after the city made progress on teacher evaluation negotiations:

Bloomberg said the aggressive overhaul strategy was necessary because no teachers would be removed from schools because of low scores on the new evaluations for at least a year and a half.

“It would be unconscionable for us to sit around for two years and do nothing, so we’re going to use the 18-D process,” he said, referring to a clause in the city’s contract with the teachers union that the city says allows turnaround’s rehiring process.

Department of Education officials have made educational arguments for the changes at public hearings in the last month. They say an aggressive change could be successful at jolting schools into improvement where other efforts have fallen short.

Why these schools?

Schools have taken a circuitous path onto Thursday’s PEP agenda. All sit on the state’s list of “Persistently Lowest-Achieving” schools, which was first generated in January 2010 and updated in December 2010 in accordance with guidelines set out by the U.S. Department of Education. Schools landed on the list if they had the lowest test scores of all schools receiving Title I funding, which goes to schools with many poor students, or if their graduation rate was under 60 percent for three straight years.

At the time that the lists were compiled, the city’s graduation rate was under 60 percent, and many high schools were added to the PLA list. In 2010 and 2011, the city began overhaul strategies at 33 of the schools but halted them after the breakdown in teacher evaluation talks in December. When Bloomberg announced the turnaround plan in January, 27 of the schools remained on the list, but the city added six new schools to replace others that it opted not to propose for turnaround, including two that were already slated for closure.

The list of low-performing schools had not been updated in more than 16 months, and some schools had shown improvement, often by crossing the 60 percent graduation rate threshold. Last month, the city removed seven schools from the list that had received A’s and B’s on their most recent city progress reports, leaving the 26 whose turnaround proposals are set to go before the Panel for Educational Policy.

Why is the PEP involved?

Since 2009, when the state law about the city’s school governance system was revised, the panel has had to listen to public comment before deciding on city proposals to close or site schools. The panel is only deciding about whether to close the schools, not whether the turnarounds will get federal funding; that decision is up to State Education Commissioner John King, who has said he wouldn’t finish evaluating the city’s applications until next month. The city has said it would go through with the overhaul strategy even if King does not sign off on the federal funds, although officials have signaled that they do not think that outcome is likely.

What does the teachers union think about turnaround?

For many reasons, the United Federation of Teachers is livid about the city’s turnaround plans. The union has long opposed school closures and has even sued to stop them in each of the last two years. Second, the turnaround closures are especially galling to the UFT because Bloomberg blamed the schools’ struggles on teachers at the schools, rather than on dysfunction in the school organizations, which the city has cited in other school closures. Department of Education officials have dialed down that rhetoric in the months since Bloomberg’s announcement, but the original branding still smarts.

In addition, the turnaround process that the city devised strikes, at least in ideology, at two concepts that the union holds sacrosanct: that layoffs should happen according to reverse seniority, and teachers should not be blamed for low academic performance at schools with many high-needs students. Many of the turnaround schools have large numbers of English language learners and students who entered already far below grade level.

And, perhaps most important, the city is blaming turnaround on the union’s recalcitrance in teacher evaluation talks. But the union called for mediation to smooth talks back in December, and the city demurred, even after an agreement on the sticky issue of appeals for low-rating teachers. An evaluation deal would have allowed the schools to be switched back into less aggressive overhaul processes that do not require any teachers to be displaced, an outcome that seems less likely with every day that preparations for turnaround are underway.

The union’s resistance hasn’t come in the form of organized protests. UFT President Michael Mulgrew has petitioned King not to approve the federal funding for the city, and individual schools’ union chapter leaders spoke out at closure hearings. But the larger effort is likely to be happening behind the scenes, where union lawyers are sure to be going over the department’s adherence to procedural rules with a fine-toothed comb. Any missteps would be fodder for a legal challenge.

Pre-K outcomes

New York City’s latest pre-K quality data includes success stories — and room for improvement

PHOTO: Rob Bennett/Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio
Mayor Bill de Blasio visits Sunnyside Community Services Pre-K in Queens on March 14, 2014.

At P.S. 276 Louis Marshall, there’s a “hand-to-hand” policy for pre-K students: Parents come straight to the classroom to drop off and pick up their children, who pass directly from the hands of their caregivers into those of their teachers.

Along the way, parents are encouraged to read a book with their child — classroom libraries are stocked with titles in parents’ native languages, like Arabic and Haitian Creole — or chat with a teacher about their child’s progress.

Principal Yasmine Fidelia says that has been the secret to becoming one of the most-improved pre-K programs in the city. According to data released this week by the city Department of Education, P.S. 276 in Canarsie, Brooklyn jumped from 2.6 to 4.6 on a 7-point scale. That is well above the 3.4 threshold to be considered an effective program.

“The parents and the teachers were able to work more closely because we have a hand-to-hand policy,” Fidelia said. “It just made it easier to form a relationship.”

As New York City raced to make free pre-K available for all 4-year-olds, fulfilling Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vision, observers have worried about whether quality could keep up with access. On Tuesday, the city released a second round of pre-K data that shows there is plenty of room for improvement — but also that some centers seem to have benefitted from the Department of Education’s emphasis on teacher training and curriculum.

Citywide, 84 percent of the sites evaluated between 2013 and 2016 earned a 3.4 or higher — up from 77 percent of the sites evaluated between 2012 and 2015. The tool — the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale – Revised — relies on a three-and-a-half hour observation and assesses things like teachers’ interactions with their students and whether kids get enough time to play.

P.S. 335 Granville T. Woods, on the border of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, Brooklyn, also showed an impressive leap in scores.

The program’s initial review found that teachers needed to work on building their students’ language skills. With the help of an instructional coach who visits twice a month and an on-staff coach that the school dips into its own budget to fund, teachers learned how to encourage deeper conversations with and among their students.

Principal Karena Thompson said she can see the difference. Now, teachers will listen to their students speak and follow up with questions like, “How do you know that?” or “What makes you think that?”

“We’re trying to make sure that the conversation and the language we use strengthens their thinking,” Thompson said. “They’re naturally so curious, so you want to tap into that.”

While city officials have touted the overall improvement across Pre-K for All sites, an analysis by Families for Excellent Schools — a pro-charter group and fierce critic of the city’s Department of Education — found much to criticize.

In order to meet demand quickly, the city relied on both private organizations and existing public schools to provide pre-K seats, with a split that is now roughly 60/40 private vs. public. FES found that privately-run centers are far more likely to be rated “excellent” or “good,” according to the most recent year of ECERS-R data.

Their analysis found that 93 percent of privately-run sites were rated “good” or “excellent,” while only 84 percent of sites run by the Department of Education received those top ratings. The group also reported that city-run programs were far more likely to be rated “poor.”

The performance gap between private and public pre-K centers actually grew six times larger since 2015, according to the advocacy group.

Devora Kaye, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, called the FES report “grossly misleading.” FES only looked at the most recent scores, which Kaye said does not reflect a representative sample of all sites. The report also ignored another evaluation tool used by the department, under which DOE-run pre-K sites perform slightly better, she added.

“The latest data shows that we’ve built quality along with access,” Kaye wrote in an email. “NYC programs’ improvement is on par with nationally recognized pre-K programs.”

deconstructing devos

How New York City’s education world is reacting to Trump education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos

Betsy DeVos

In the hours before and after Betsy DeVos appeared for her Senate confirmation hearing, New York City’s education community began asking how Trump’s education secretary nominee could affect the largest school system in the country.

Their reactions are varied. Some — including United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew — have sounded the alarm that DeVos’s stated interest in expanding school choice could strip funding from traditional public schools.

Others expressed concern that DeVos appeared to not grasp certain key features of federal education policy related to students with disabilities and how student performance is evaluated.

Meanwhile, the head of the city’s largest charter network said DeVos is the right pick for the job.

Here are some of the more notable reactions:

Educators for Excellence, an organization that helps teachers get involved in education policy, pointed out that DeVos has little experience in public schools and there are a number of key issues — such as school segregation and teacher evaluations — where DeVos’s position is still unknown.

“Given the fact that she has no experience as either a teacher or school administrator, we are distressed by the lack of details offered by Ms. DeVos as to how she will address some of the many challenges facing our public education system,” Evan Stone, an E4E cofounder, said in a statement.

In a press conference before the confirmation hearing, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that a voucher program, which DeVos has lobbied for at the state level across the country, would be a difficult sell.

“There is a tremendous feeling for public education in this country, including in rural districts, including in red states, and anything that might undercut resources for our public schools is going to meet with a lot of opposition,” de Blasio said at the Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria, according a transcript. “Just look at the whole movement nationally on some of the high-stakes testing issues, and it tells you a lot. So I think it’s a real concern, but I don’t think it will be easy if [DeVos] is confirmed.”

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, a de Blasio ally, was more convinced that if DeVos were confirmed, federal policy could potentially reshape the local education landscape. If private and religious schools are able to cherry-pick students from the public school system, he said, public schools would increasingly serve only the students who aren’t admitted to private school or are more expensive to educate.

“She believes that a market system is the only thing that should be allowed,” Mulgrew told Chalkbeat on Wednesday. “The people who are in it for the money don’t want [high-need] students.”

Advocates for Children, which helps secure services for students with disabilities and low-income families, expressed concern that DeVos appeared to be confused about how the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act works.

“It is really troubling for Ms. DeVos to say that enforcement of the rights of students with disabilities should be left to the states,” AFC Executive Director Kim Sweet wrote in an email to Chalkbeat. “Even though she seemed to correct herself when she heard that a federal law guarantees these students their rights, her remarks show an inclination toward minimizing the federal role that could leave students with disabilities very vulnerable.”

Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed statewide advocacy group, expressed concern about DeVos’s record of supporting public financing for private schools and deregulation of the charter sector.

“Here in New York, we’ve ​seen firsthand that billionaires involved in ​our ​public schools push for privatization despite a lack of oversight or accountability. The tens of millions of children in our public schools across this nation deserve a secretary of education that will lead with their best interest in mind. DeVos’s track record has proven otherwise,” Advocacy Director Zakiyah Ansari wrote in a statement.

But not all of the reaction was skeptical. Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz, who leads the city’s largest charter network and was herself floated as a possible education secretary, threw her support firmly behind DeVos.