going gentle

Bloomberg shifts tone on school reforms in last annual address

Listening to Mayor Bloomberg’s final State of the City address, delivered today, one would not know the mayor has spent the last decade closing schools, fighting with the teachers union, and touting high test scores.

Although Bloomberg opened the shorter-than-usual education portion of the speech by noting that the city’s high school graduation rate has risen faster than the state’s, he did not utter the words “failing schools,” “the United Federation of Teachers,” or “test scores.”

He also did not bring any new education ideas to the Barclay’s Center, the Brooklyn stadium where he delivered the speech.

Instead, he focused on the new schools he plans to create during his last year in office — including eight designed expressly to boost college readiness among low-income black and Latino students —  and tougher standards that the state has already adopted.

Bloomberg worked to manage expectations about this year’s state test scores, the first based on exams aligned to the new standards, known as the Common Core. State officials have warned that proficiency rates are likely to fall, but Bloomberg had not until today acknowledged that his final test scores are likely to drop in his final year in office.

“Make no mistake: The tests will be different and harder and they will establish an entirely new baseline for measuring student performance. They won’t be compared to past years’ test results,” he said in the speech.

But he added that he had confidence that the city would weather the setback. “No matter where the definition of proficiency is arbitrarily set on the new tests I expect that our students’ progress will continue outpacing the rest of the state’s — the only meaningful measurement of progress we have,” he said.

Last year, Bloomberg launched an offensive against the United Federation of Teachers during his State of the City address, which he delivered at a Bronx high school closed while he was mayor.

Today, even as Bloomberg vowed to create dozens of new schools before leaving office, he did not mention school closures, the policy that has given the city space to launch hundreds of schools over the last decade. He also did not mention the United Federation of Teachers — or teacher quality, the topic of last year’s most aggressive policy proposals — even once.

Bloomberg did take aim at the school bus drivers union, which is currently on strike over contract terms. And he did lash out at the “special interests” that oppose allowing charter schools to share space in district school buildings. The UFT unsuccessfully sued to halt a slew of charter school co-locations last year, and now several mayoral candidates who are vying for the union’s endorsement have said they would end the practice, which has allowed the charter school sector to flourish under Bloomberg.

“This September, we’ll open 26 new charters and we’ll work to approve many more for 2014,” he said. “Some of them will be located within existing public school buildings even though there are special interests who want to prohibit that from happening. … How dare the special interests try to lock out our children!”

Bloomberg said his administration would also replicate technology-themed schools that have opened recently, including the Academy for Software Engineering and Brooklyn’s Pathways in Technology Early College High School. In his State of the Union address this week, President Barack Obama mentioned P-TECH and said he would help states and districts open new schools like it.

And he said the department would recruit extensively, including from beyond the education world, for leaders to design eight new schools to open in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Through the Expanded Success Initiative School Design Fellowship, the new school leaders will draw on practices found to have boosted college readiness among the city’s lowest-performing students, according to a recruitment brochure.

Bloomberg also said he would aggressively lobby Albany to pass a state DREAM Act to allow students who are not documented citizens to receive state financial aid for college. And he said all city schools would adopt food recycling programs as part of a citywide effort to reduce waste.

For the most part, Bloomberg’s speech — delivered with a festive soundtrack on the mayor’s birthday inside a stadium built under his administration — focused on his administration’s successes. He also laid out plans for the 320 days before a new mayor takes over, mostly for infrastructure, economic, and environmental projects.

The portion of the speech that deals with education issues is below:

“Of course, the best way to reduce unemployment – and keep young people out of trouble is to continue improving our schools. Since 2005, as I mentioned earlier, we’ve raised high school graduation rates by 40 percent while they’ve gone up only 9 percent in the rest of the state.

“At the same time, our college readiness rate has doubled even as our dropout rate has been cut in half. But we know how much unfinished business we have – because our goal is empower all of our children to achieve their dreams.

“Success in college and careers requires good writing and critical thinking skills as well as good math and science skills. Unfortunately, the State has never tested for them. I’ve supported basing standards on those skills for many years and I’m glad to say that the State has now done that, by adopting what’s known as the Common Core standards. Starting this spring, State exams for grades 3-8 will test for these critical skills.

“They’ll give teachers and parents the information they need to keep students on track for success. Make no mistake: the tests will be different and harder and they will establish an entirely new baseline for measuring student performance. They won’t be compared to past years’ test results.

“But no matter where the definition of proficiency is arbitrarily set on the new tests I expect that our students’ progress will continue outpacing the rest of the State’s the only meaningful measurement of progress we have.

“Time and time again over the last decade, we have raised the bar and our students and teachers have cleared it and our black and Hispanic students have helped lead the way. Now, we’ll accelerate their progress by selecting 12-15 leaders to design eight new high schools based on the most promising college readiness strategies. It will be a year-long fellowship sponsored by our Young Men’s Initiative. And afterwards, the fellows will become leaders at the schools they designed.

“Fellows can come from any field from education experts to entrepreneurs and their new schools will enroll students primarily from five neighborhoods with high rates of poverty and low rates of college readiness: Harlem, East New York, Brownsville, Jamaica and the South Bronx.

“Children in every neighborhood deserve great schools, and no matter who stands in their way, we will fight to deliver for them. We will not give up on any child. One of the reasons we’ve been able to increase graduation and college readiness rates is that we’ve created many more high quality school options.

“We’ve opened 576 new schools over the past 11 years, and we’re on track to have added 100,000 new classroom seats by the end of this year. 149 of those new schools have been charters and yet there are still more than 50,000 children who are still on charter school waiting lists. Those children and their parents have waited long enough.

“This September, we’ll open 26 new charters and we’ll work to approve many more for 2014. Some of them will be located within existing public school buildings even though there are special interests who want to prohibit that from happening.

“But as we all know, charter schools are public schools and their students deserve access to public school facilities. How dare the special interests try to lock out our children. We are one city and one public school system and we will not tolerate those who try to deny resources to some public school children.

“That’s why we’ve also put our bus contracts out to bid. For more than 30 years, the unions and the bus companies have had a virtual monopoly on the contracts. This week, we received the opening bids for the new contracts and there’s the potential for hundreds of millions of dollars in savings. We will plow that money back into our schools where it belongs.

“I’m glad to report that every day more and more buses are on the road transporting our students to school. I urge all bus drivers to return to work and I urge Local 1181 leaders to recognize their strike is a lost cause, and to stop hurting our children and their members.

“If you notice, we haven’t had a lot of political support in taking this issue on. But that’s exactly why we’re doing it: because it’s the right thing to do and if we don’t do it now it may never get done. And our children will be worse off for another three decades. We won’t let that happen.

“To prepare our students for success, we’ll also create new schools that connect students directly to college and work. In his State of the Union address, President Obama highlighted our partnership with IBM and CUNY to create a high school that includes two years of college which we call grades 13 and 14. When students graduate, they receive an associate’s degree – and an interview at IBM. The President wants to see more of these types of schools across the country. And we’ll deliver.

“We’ll create a high school with grades 9 through 14 in the South Bronx, focused on the health care industry; and we’ll create one in Long Island City focused on the energy industry. Both industries are growing in our city.

“And since no industry is growing more rapidly than our tech sector we’ll open our second Academy for Software Engineering high school. With private support, we’ll also bring computer science classes to 20 more schools next September. And we’ll begin giving more adults the chance to learn computer science skills, as well.

“Therefore, our top priority in Albany will be passing the DREAM Act which will make college affordable for thousands more young people who deserve the chance to go and who will help build the future of our city and country. New York City has always been the face of immigration to the rest of the country and now we must be the face of immigration reform by passing the DREAM Act in this session.

“We’ll also take food recycling in schools citywide. There is no better way to teach the next generation about the importance of recycling than to make it a part of their school day routine. It has been phenomenally successful where we’ve tried it – and I want to thank all the parents who were so supportive. I know some of them are with us today – please stand up so we can give you a hand.”

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.”