filling in the blanks

Arbitrator: City used "circular reasoning" to justify turnarounds

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s testimony before an arbitrator drove one nail into the coffin of the city’s plans to replace or rehire teachers at 24 “turnaround” schools.

Last week an arbitrator determined that the city violated the city’s contracts with the teachers and principals unions when it moved to replace staff members at the schools. This afternoon the arbitrator, Scott Buchheit, released a detailed explanation of why he ruled the way he did.

The city was trying to use hiring procedures set for closing schools and their replacements. But the unions argued that the turnaround plans were “sham closures” that would not result in new schools. Instead, they argued, the city was unfairly using contractual provisions about “excessing” to remove teachers and administrators it deemed unsatisfactory.

In upholding the unions’ grievance, Buchheit at times turns Bloomberg’s and other city officials’ words against them.

He quotes a 2011 memorandum written by the Department of Education’s chief financial officer, which said, “excessing is not a permissible way to deal with unsatisfactory teachers.”

Yet city officials said they intended to do just that from the start of the turnaround process, Buchheit determined.

When he first announced the turnaround plans during his State of the City Address in January, Bloomberg “repeatedly made clear that the DOE’s new plan concerning the 24 (then 33) schools was based upon the desire to change staffing in the classroom,” Buchheit writes. He quotes Bloomberg saying, “Under this process, the best teachers stay; the least effective go.”

The arbitrator notes that Bloomberg has frequently expressed his distaste for the current process for shedding teachers from schools that are contracting, which is based on seniority, not job performance. “Suffice it to say that at the arbitration hearing the Mayor reaffirmed his dislike,” Buchheit writes.

Buchheit emphasized that he was not passing judgment on the value of the city’s plans for the schools, which State Education Commissioner John King approved in late June. And he said nothing in his decision would prevent the city from continuing with portions of the plans that do not involve using the hiring rules that take effect when schools are closed.

Those rules, outlined in a clause in the teachers union contract known as 18D, call for closing schools to set up hiring committees to review current teachers who apply for jobs at the replacement schools. According to 18D, the committees must hire back at least half of them of the qualified applicants from each school. City officials and school administrators began carrying out 18D procedures in the 24 schools last month with the understanding that the arbitrator could ultimately reverse it.

Department of Education officials had said they were confident that King’s approval of the reform plans would prove that the 24 schools were truly being closed. But Buchheit said King’s decision did not necessarily mean the schools were being closed and replaced with new schools. “New,” he said, typically means “never existing before,” which would not be the case for the 24 schools.

“The evidence here establishes that much would remain the same in the 24 new schools,” he wrote, including the schools’ buildings, student populations, courses, partnering organizations, and, for 18 of them, their principals. He also noted that many of the schools’ new names would still contain the old names, such as August Martin High School, which would change to “The School of Opportunities at the August Martin Campus.”

Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg also suggested that the school closings were inauthentic, the arbitrator concludes, when he wrote in a memorandum to principals shortly after Bloomberg’s speech explaining that their schools would be closed “as a technical matter.”

For the schools to be truly new, Buchheit says, much would have to change, including their overall educational visions and leadership. Instead, the biggest change the city cited was the planned staffing change — but that change could only happen, he notes, if the schools were new.

“The DOE cannot use the end result of Article 18D being invoked as justification for why it is permitted to invoke 18D,” Buchheit writes. “I cannot adopt this circular reasoning for the purposes of contract interpretation.”

On Monday, Bloomberg said the city would appeal Buchheit’s ruling because the arbitrator had not yet explained his rationale. But after reading the opinion, city attorney Georgia Pestana said the city will not withdraw its appeal, which it filed in State Supreme Court on Monday. “The arbitrator clearly exceeded his authority,” she said.

The city had argued that the unions’ grievances were not arbitrable at all. In his opinion, Buchheit rejects each of the city’s three arguments for why the grievance should not be subject to binding arbitration.

Buchheit’s full decision is below:

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.