the education agenda

Looking beyond pre-K, de Blasio unveils wide-ranging education agenda with big goals

Every year, about 120 Colorado children are hospitalized because of falls from playground equipment. All photos from Tom Peeples.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s agenda-setting speech Wednesday could have been titled: What comes after pre-K? In a word, his answer was college.

After the mayor’s widely heralded expansion of full-day pre-kindergarten, which accompanied the launch of a turnaround program for struggling schools and a reorganization of the education department, many critics and parents were waiting for a clear vision for improving the rest of the school system.

In his speech at a high-performing Bronx high school, de Blasio sought to offer one, saying that his disparate school initiatives would operate in tandem to propel students toward college.

After pre-K, new programs will ensure students can read fluently by third grade and take algebra by ninth grade. In high school, every student will have access to advanced courses and help with college applications. And at all levels, students will learn the basics of computer science, which should make them more competitive as college applicants and job seekers.

The end goal of the these efforts — which are expected to cost $186 million annually when fully in place — is that a decade from now 80 percent of students will graduate high school each year and two-thirds will leave prepared for college-level work, the mayor said. Today, 68 percent of students graduate within four years, and less than half are considered ready for college classes.

[Read more about the specific initiatives, and their timelines, here.]

The speech seemed to strike the right chords. Observers said it balanced ambitious targets with student-focused initiatives that filled in policy gaps and are likely to appeal to parents and outside partners, such as technology companies and philanthropists.

“We can finally see a working vision for school reform taking shape under Mayor de Blasio’s leadership,” said Zakiyah Ansari, a public-school parent and advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education, in one of dozens of statements from advocates, businesspeople, and politicians that City Hall sent to reporters.

Still, the policy speech came with a heap of caveats and questions.

Most of the new programs won’t launch until next fall — after state lawmakers will have had to decide whether or not to extend his control over the city school system — and he will be out of office by the time his 2026 graduation deadline arrives.

Will the city be able to pull off the new programs, which will require extensive teacher hiring and training along with philanthropic funding? And even if the efforts go as planned, will they guarantee that students read proficiently and graduate high school in record numbers?

“Those are lovely goals,” said New York University research professor Leslie Santee Siskin, “but it would take a lot of work and reconfiguring of practice to make them reachable.”

The essence of de Blasio’s new agenda, he said, was summed up in the giant banner that hung over him in the Bronx Latin auditorium Wednesday: “Equity and excellence.” The idea is to improve the quality of all city schools, while making sure every student has access to the same learning opportunities.

That means that all second-grade students will eventually be able to get help from an on-site reading specialist, all eighth-grade students will be able to take algebra at their schools, and all high-school students will be able to take a range of Advanced Placement courses, according to the mayor’s plan. In addition, all 1.1 million city school students will get a chance to study coding, robotics, and other aspects of computer science.

Kim Nauer, education research director at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, said the mayor made a convincing argument that every school should offer stronger reading, math, and computer programs.

Those “struck me as something that the middle class and upper-middle class have always assumed for their children,” she said. “And so here he’s saying, all kids should have access to this quality of curriculum.”

Still, each program faces formidable challenges.

The city is proposing that within six years the reading specialists, combined with teacher training, will be able to more than double the number of incoming third graders who are proficient readers — from 30 percent today up to 66 percent. At the same time, more than 15,000 more eighth-graders who lack access to algebra classes and nearly 40,000 high-school students without AP options will need to receive them.

Meanwhile, the system-wide computer science classes will require some 5,000 trained teachers, officials estimate. And it will cost $81 million over a decade, with half that amount coming from private sources. So far, only about 30 percent of the private money has been committed, officials said.

Even if the city pulls off the extraordinary amount of hiring, training, and curriculum development that those programs will demand, it’s far from certain that they will lead to a 12-point increase in the graduation rate within a decade.

Aaron Pallas, a sociology and education professor at Teachers College, recalled a national education panel in the 1990s setting the goal of a 90 percent U.S. graduation rate by 2000. By 2013, the rate had hit 81 percent. While Pallas commended de Blasio for setting an ambitious target, he said detailed plans are needed.

“It’s easy to set those kinds of aspirations,” he said. “It’s harder to figure out the specific strategies.”

one barrier down

City to eliminate high school admissions method that favored families with time and resources

PHOTO: Monica Disare
At 9:30 in the morning, the line to get into the citywide high school fair last September already snaked around the corner.

New York City will eliminate a high school admissions method that puts low-income families at a disadvantage and has proven vulnerable to abuse, the city announced Tuesday as part of its plan to promote diversity in city schools.

“Limited unscreened” high schools don’t have academic requirements, but give preference to students who attend an open house or a high school fair. For students entering high school in 2019, that preference will be abolished. The change will mark a big shift: about a third of the city’s roughly 700 high school programs were “limited unscreened” this school year.

The goal of the “limited unscreened” designation was to give students a leg up in admissions at schools to which they conveyed their interest. But a Chalkbeat investigation this fall revealed it has not worked as planned because some students were more likely to get priority than others.

City figures show that 45 percent of black and Hispanic students who listed limited unscreened schools as their first choice received priority, while 57 percent of the non-black, non-Hispanic students did.

“The kids in a priority group are more advantaged on every single dimension you can think of,” said Jennifer Jennings, an associate professor at NYU who studies the high school admissions process. “Every single marker of advantage gets reproduced through priority admissions.”

There are several reasons students might struggle to get priority status. For one thing, attending open houses can be a burden for families. They often require a hefty time investment and may be far from students’ homes. Some are during the school day, causing parents to miss work. Other families struggle to pay the subway fare.

Figuring out when to attend an open house can also be tricky. A Chalkbeat analysis found that the education department’s calendar is missing several dates. (In Tuesday’s report, the education department said it had plans to improve this.)

As an alternative, the education department allows students to earn the same preference by signing in with a number of schools during a high school fair. But at this year’s fair, many schools seemed unaware of the rules or were simply not following them. And some schools were collecting surveys and other information about students — raising questions about whether they were trying to screen their applicants.

The “limited unscreened” admissions method was created during the Bloomberg era and has expanded exponentially since it started. Between 2005 and 2012, the number of limited unscreened programs nearly doubled. Part of the idea was that small schools with a specific theme, like marine science or culinary arts, should be allowed to give preference to students who are truly interested in that particular topic.

But even Eric Nadelstern, a former deputy chancellor under Joel Klein who worked at the education department when the policy was created, said the policy had run its course.

“It only made sense to nurture those schools at the beginning,” Nadelstern said in an earlier interview with Chalkbeat. “We’ve now grown into a different period.”

Schools have already started to migrate away from the limited unscreened admissions method, according to city officials. One quarter of this year’s limited unscreened programs have a new way to admit students for next year, they said.

Many of those schools became educational option or “ed opt” schools, according to Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack. Those schools are designed to enroll students with a mix of ability levels, but they often fall short of that goal. The admissions method that will eventually replace limited unscreened will “vary school-by-school,” Wallack said, but a number will become unscreened or ed-opt.

While eliminating limited unscreened admissions removes a barrier for many students, some question whether it will have a diversifying effect. About one third of high school programs are screened, which means they can admit students based on grades, test scores, interviews or other criteria.

Those schools drain off the top-performing students and also enroll a disproportionately low percentage of black and Hispanic students, who are often clustered at limited unscreened and ed opt schools.

“Embedded in this larger diversity plan is an effort to maintain screened schools, said Matt Gonzales, school diversity project director for New York Appleseed. “To eliminate limited unscreened schools, while maintaining all screened schools, is really disappointing.”

Maurice Frumkin, a former city education department official who now runs an admissions consultancy, also thinks the city could go further. It could eliminate District 2 priority, for instance, which gives admissions preference to families who live in a certain geographic area.

In response to those critiques, Wallack said the plan is meant to be “first steps.”

“We are open to taking on additional challenges and issues and we may very well discuss other screened programs,” Wallack said.

In addition to eliminating the limited unscreened admissions method, the city is trying to increase access to screened and specialized high schools and make open houses easier to attend. They are also giving more admissions control to students and families by creating online applications.

Middle schools, meanwhile, will no longer allow schools to see how families rank them, a longtime criticism of the system. That will, in theory, encourage families to rank their actual preferences rather than try to game the system.

But more importantly for Eric Goldberg, a member of the Community Education Council in District 2, it requires schools to reevaluate their admissions rubrics.

“Without this plan,” he said, “the status quo persists.”

super selective?

New York City’s high school applicant stats paint a misleading picture, Columbia researcher says

Thousands of students and parents will soon use New York City’s hefty high school directory to sift through information about more than 400 schools.

But one expert says the directory, released last week, paints an incomplete picture — one that might cause needless stress or discourage students from applying to the city’s top schools.

Samuel Abrams, who runs a research center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, says the city’s inclusion of each school’s “applicants per seat” makes schools seem more selective than they are. He has been making that point since the New York Times published a story titled, “Couldn’t get into Yale? These New York City high schools are more selective.” He considers the premise of that story —  and the stats themselves —  misleading.

“The downside is it generates undue stress,” Abrams told Chalkbeat. “It leads to the wrong conclusions about the city’s schools.”

Unlike college admissions, where students can be accepted at multiple schools, New York City’s high school admissions system is a matching process. Students rank up to 12 schools and get matched with only one, unless they also apply to specialized schools. That means a school may look more competitive than it is, he says, simply because a lot of students put it somewhere on their lists.

Readers of the directory are left with the impression that some schools have an extremely low acceptance rate, Abrams argues, even when they accept a wide range of students. Manhattan Village Academy, for instance, has 55 applicants per seat, but accepts students with GPAs in the 70s and state test scores below the state’s passing mark.

Additionally, many schools have specific requirements for students who apply, asking them to interview, for example, audition or submit samples of their work. Yet, students listed as “applicants” in the directory have not necessarily completed those requirements.

One simple solution may be publishing only the number of students who list a school as one of their top three choices, Abrams said.

The city defended its current approach. “As we work to improve the high school admissions process for students and families, we’ll continue to use the single word ‘applicants’ to describe students who apply to a school,” said education department spokesman Will Mantell. “This is the simplest, clearest and most accurate way to share this piece of information, and we added it to the directory in direct response to requests from families and school counselors.”

This is not the first time information in the directory has been accused of being incomplete or misleading, but city officials are working to rectify some of those problems and provide more information to families. Last year, they launched “School Finder,” an interactive tool for students to search information about each school.

Still, Abrams says this wording remains a major hurdle that may discourage students from applying to top schools. Low-income students of color are often not represented at the city’s top schools, and evidence suggests one reason is that they never apply. An analysis from the city’s Independent Budget Office last year found that even strong students from weak middle schools tend not to apply to top high schools.

Information that exaggerates the idea that schools are out of reach will only compound the problem, Abrams said.

“It stands to discourage guidance counselors,” Abrams said, “especially guidance counselors in disadvantaged neighborhoods.”