report card

100 days in, Fariña offers her vision for school accountability

PHOTO: Sarah Darville

After 100 days of running the city school system, Carmen Fariña took stock on Saturday, repeating her commitment to making teachers and principals feel respected and previewing changes to the Bloomberg-era system of school accountability.

She also unveiled new initiatives aimed at the city’s more vulnerable students, including a new science and technology program for English Language Learners and the doubling of program meant to curb summer learning loss for low-income students.

Her remarks, delivered Saturday morning at Teachers College, departed rarely from the themes she has focused on since Mayor Bill de Blasio chose her as chancellor. She championed a number of what she called “amazingly simple” solutions centered on forcing people to solve problems by talking to each other.

“We don’t need to cook up some secret sauce for success,” Fariña said.

Looking ahead, Fariña offered some specifics about how the Department of Education will enact de Blasio’s campaign promise to eliminate the city’s system of assigning letter grades to schools. She twice said the current system can be “arbitrary,” citing the 75 schools that earned a C, D, or F on their progress report even though their students scored above average on state exams.

Those progress reports weigh student progress more heavily than overall achievement, and were a centerpiece of the Bloomberg era of school accountability. That system was designed to more equitably measure the success of both typically high-achieving and low-achieving schools, but it also often distressed schools where students do well but don’t meet the city’s progress targets.

Today, Fariña promised that the grades will be replaced by a report that includes “qualitative measures,” something even the architects of existing system acknowledged was necessary last year.

“Accountability must occur in a way that’s conducive to achieving results, because you don’t reach historic heights for kids when morale in our system has plummeted to all-time lows,” Fariña said.

The most visible education initiative in Fariña’s first 100 days has been the mayor’s own push to secure funding for an ambitious pre-kindergarten expansion, which has been largely directed by City Hall. Fariña praised the pre-K effort on Saturday, pointing to one classroom she visited where four-year-olds were tackling the word “carnivorous.”

“But make no mistake: our efforts to provide every child with an excellent education do not stop here,” she added.

That begins with making sure that what teachers are doing is aligned with the Common Core learning standards, she said, which will improve student achievement.

But for all of her alignment with the mayor’s pre-K vision, her speech revealed one continuing distinction from her boss: she refuses to say the school system she runs is “falling short” or “failing.”

photo (32)De Blasio has been much more direct in saying he believes the city’s schools aren’t up to par. “We need to be able to say that despite the good efforts of so many, the school system is still broken in so many ways,” the mayor said in his own education speech three weeks ago just one block from Teachers College.

Fariña spent little time addressing the charter school space controversy that led to de Blasio’s speech, though she noted that the city was committed to working with all of its students.

“Space-sharing has often been distorted as an us-versus-them battle, particularly between district and charter schools,” Fariña said. “We seek progress by getting out of headquarters, inside schools, and to the bottom of problems.”

The chancellor announced that she was working with universities in the city to forge partnerships with district schools, though she didn’t say what those partnerships would provide. To help low-income students, the city is looking to double the number of spots available in Summer Quest, a program designed to keep kids reading. (Last year, though, that program was not shown to have an impact on summer learning loss.)

She also announced that the department’s Division of Students with Disabilities and English Language Learners will be renamed the Division of Specialized Instruction and Student Support, and that the city would be launching a new science, technology, engineering, and math initiative specifically for bilingual students.

“These are the types of programs that will help level the playing field,” Fariña said.

Want the full text of Fariña’s speech? It’s here. Looking to stay up to date on New York City education news? Sign up for our morning newsletter here.  

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.