accountability movement

City begins setting ‘rigorous, but reasonable’ targets for Renewal schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Carmen Fariña

Since Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled his strategy for turning around the city’s lowest-performing schools seven months ago, officials have said all 94 schools would have to meet specific goals to avoid serious changes, including closure.

The city is now moving closer to determining those goals, as officials shared initial rubrics with schools this month and began setting goals for the next two years. Unlike the city’s “school snapshots,” which measure schools in identical ways, the schools in the Renewal program will have some choice as to how the city determines whether they’re measuring up.

With state deadlines approaching, the Department of Education is finalizing that menu of data points that struggling schools will use to measure their progress over the next two years. Attendance, state test scores, and graduation rates are included, and officials said they are still crunching parent and student survey data to come up with a half-dozen other metrics.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the menu showed that she was serious about holding schools accountable for improvement.

“We have established clear and rigorous school-specific benchmarks that schools must meet, or they will face consequences including changes to leadership and faculty of the school, school consolidation, and even closure as a last resort,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement.

Improved attendance will be a required goal for all schools and is the only metric that elementary and middle schools will be expected to show improvement on next year. High schools next year will also be expected to grow their share of students making progress toward graduation, based on how many courses and Regents exams they have completed.

In addition to attendance, elementary and middle schools will have to choose five other data points for which to set goals, three of which must be based on state test scores or former students’ credit accumulation in ninth grade. High schools can choose from graduation rates, pass rates on Regents exams, and course completion. The schools won’t be expected to hit targets for those categories until the end of the 2016-17 school year.

According to sample benchmarks provided to principals, a struggling high school with a four-year graduation rate of 54.8 percent last year would have to improve to 62.3 percent by the end of the 2016-17 school year, a 7.5-point gain over three years. A department official said the targets being set for the schools were “rigorous, but reasonable.”

The to-be-determined benchmarks will be based on a combination of data from parent and student surveys and scores from school quality reviews. Officials said they were only finalizing them now because the surveys were administered last month.

The details come seven months after de Blasio first pledged to spend $150 million over three years to help turn around the 94 schools. At the core of his plan is to flood the schools with resources aimed to support students living in poverty. The money will be used to pay teachers to work extended hours, add after-school summer programs, and hire extra guidance counselors, as well as to provide teachers with on-site training and bring in academic coaches.

It has been an uneven first year for schools under the program, with some receiving extra attention and others complaining that support has been slow to reach them. The program’s pace has been added fodder for critics who say de Blasio’s plan was not aggressive enough to fix schools that have been low-performing for years.

But the administration has put more of a focus on the Renewal schools in recent months, even redirecting more than $50 million from an expansion of the mayor’s after-school initiative.

A principal of a Renewal school said he had noticed the change, saying that a new deputy in his district superintendent’s office has been hired to specifically work with the struggling schools.

“Once I got that person, things started moving more quickly,” said the principal, who said he received a draft of the benchmarks more than a week before a customized version was sent to his school.

Principals and school leadership teams much agree on and submit the goals by June 15, a department spokeswoman said, four days shy of the June 19 deadline for the city to send in a more comprehensive plan for its struggling schools to the State Education Department.

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.