First Person

19 Months Of Stalling By The NYC Education Department

This post also appeared on The Hechinger Report’s Eye on Education blog.

It’s nearly springtime, when a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). At least in odd-numbered years. I’m not so young, but lately I’ve been thinking about NAEP, which is widely regarded as the best barometer of changes over time in the academic performance of U.S. students. No assessment can do all that we ask of it, but NAEP is a well-designed project supported by $130 million per year in federal funds.

Though not a substitute for careful evaluations of particular programs and policies, NAEP does crop up frequently in education policy circles. In New York state and New York City, for example, the discrepancy between trends in performance on the fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math NAEP tests (which were largely flat between 2007 and 2009) and the performance of the same population of students on the state’s own annual assessments (which skyrocketed over the same period) led New York state to change the threshold for student proficiency in 2010, and to make the state tests more challenging and less predictable.

The disparity also called into question Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s and Chancellor Joel Klein’s claims about progress in student performance and closing the city’s achievement gaps. There’s little doubt that the mayor and chancellor were annoyed with pesky reporters and bloggers using NAEP scores to poke holes in their claims.

This led me to speculate about how they might have responded. If you believe that tests are de facto measures of student learning, and that therefore test prep and teaching to the test are to be encouraged rather than vilified, why not do test prep for NAEP? It’s probably not illegal—although test prep for NAEP would certainly distort comparisons of performance over time and across urban school districts. Might Joel Klein, in the waning days of his tenure as chancellor in 2010, have put in place a NAEP test prep initiative for the Spring 2011 NAEP administration in New York City?

I don’t know. But I figured I could ask. So in July 2011, I filed a request for public records with the New York City Department of Education. New York state, as is true of most places, has enacted a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) that provides public access to most records maintained by public agencies, to support an open and responsible government. There are, of course, records that are exempt from disclosure, such as those pertaining to trade secrets or those that would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

I wasn’t asking for anything like that, and an agency can always redact anything it deems irrelevant to the request or inappropriate to disclose. (This is why so much of Joel Klein’s email correspondence released in response to FOIL requests consists of blacked-out pages.) I was fairly specific in my requests, asking for email communications and letters among Department of Education (DOE) personnel relating to preparing students to take the 2011 NAEP assessments, including test preparation materials, memoranda, directives and/or instructions issued to central DOE personnel and/or personnel at elementary and/or middle schools regarding the policies and procedures for preparation for, and administration of, the 2011 NAEP assessments in New York City. There were a few other specific requests, and I followed guidance from successful requests in crafting the language of the letter. For example, I asked that the DOE disclose records as soon as they were identified rather than wait to gather all records.

New York’s FOIL law requires that an agency respond within five days to a reasonably described record request, and either (a) make the records available; (b) deny the request in writing; or (c) if it is unable to respond to the request within 20 business days, state in writing both the reason for the inability to grant the request within 20 business days and a reasonable, specific date when the request will be granted in whole or in part.

But the New York City DOE routinely fails to comply with this provision of the law.

Every month, I receive a letter that reads: “Pursuant to Section VI.B of Chancellor’s Regulation D-110, due to the volume and complexity of requests we receive and process, and to determine whether any records or portions thereof will be subject to redactions permitted under Public Officers Law 87-2, additional time is required to respond substantively to your request. Accordingly, a response is currently anticipated by [date],” where the date given is one month in the future. And, when that date rolls around, I get the next month’s letter, identical except for a new anticipated date.

My initial reaction was that this Chancellor’s Regulation must be pretty powerful to trump state law. But the regulation simply states how the NYC DOE is to comply with the FOIL law. Section VI.B pertains to responses to FOIL requests, particularly the responsibility of the Central Records Access Officer to determine a reasonable amount of time in which to grant the request. State regulations do allow the volume of requests and their complexity to be taken into account in determining a reasonable time.

But neither the FOIL law nor the Chancellor’s Regulation that must adhere to it allows an agency to delay a response indefinitely. I requested these records 19 months ago, and still have no idea when, if ever, the DOE will grant access to them, as the law requires.

I’m not alone in this situation. Advocates for Children of New York and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed an unsuccessful lawsuit seeking to compel the DOE to comply with a series of FOIL requests to which the DOE only partially responded. Their case showed the same pattern of monthly unilateral delays in responding.

Fernanda Santos, former New York Times beat reporter for the city schools, just got a partial response to a FOIL request she filed 26 months ago. Santos is now the Phoenix bureau chief for The Times, but she’s passed the information on to her successor, Al Baker. And, outside of New York, journalist John Merrow, whom I respect greatly, has been stymied in his efforts to get to the bottom of how the District of Columbia Public Schools responded to allegations of test cheating under Chancellor Michelle Rhee. District of Columbia agencies have not responded to his FOIA requests from nearly eight months ago for a memo that is known to exist.

The obvious counterpoint to this record of delays in New York City and Washington, D.C. is how the NYC DOE responded to the FOIL requests submitted in October 2010 by many New York media organizations for public release of the Teacher Data Reports, the city’s version of value-added measures of teachers’ performance. Despite the complexity of the request, the DOE was prepared to respond the day after the request—and maybe even the day before.

Public agencies shouldn’t be able to pick and choose which requests for public information they respond to, escalating some while stalling on others. It’s antithetical to the spirit and letter of the law, which exists to promote openness, responsiveness and trust in our political institutions.

Did New York City put its thumb on the scale by engaging in test prep for NAEP? Are officials hiding the presence of their thumb? We don’t know, because the DOE has not released any relevant records in the past 19 months. In the meantime, the 2013 NAEP administration is already under way.

Thumbs down on public transparency and accountability.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.