measuring up

Understanding New York City’s latest round of school report cards

New York City’s schools got new, redesigned report cards on Tuesday.

For the second time since the de Blasio administration scrapped the A-F letter grades once assigned to schools, the city released a set of parent-friendly school guides and deeper data dives for most of its 1,800 schools. [Look up your school’s data here.]

This year’s school guides include more data than last year’s did, and line up with Chancellor Fariña’s new school “framework” — with measurements for trust and collaboration appearing alongside metrics of academic success. P.S. 15 on the Lower East Side, for example, exceeded the city’s target for school leadership but is only approaching its target for student achievement.

Those targets are new this year, and reflect city officials’ latest answer to a tricky question: How do you measure and reward a school for its progress, while also giving parents a clear sense of whether students are passing state tests or are ready for college?

The Bloomberg-era letter grades were often criticized for their focus on progress, leaving some high-performing schools with low letter grades and some low-scoring schools with As and confusing parents. Last year’s reports, the first released by the de Blasio administration, nixed the grades. In their place were descriptors based on in-person “quality reviews,” among other metrics.

City officials say the new targets are here to stay, and are meant to be realistic goals for schools to meet each year.

For parents glancing at the results, the reports are also generous: Only four high schools are labeled as not meeting their targets for student achievement, though another 106 fell short and are labeled “approaching target.” Just two high schools are labeled as not meeting their targets for rigorous instruction.

Seven of the 94 schools in the city’s turnaround program met or exceeded their targets in all categories, including student achievement.

The goals also vary widely. The selective Millennium High School needed a 93 percent four-year graduation rate to meet its target (seven points lower than its actual 100 percent graduation rate), while the long-struggling Dewitt Clinton High School would have needed 67 percent (a full 22 points higher than its 45 percent graduation rate).

The variation comes from the fact that each school got its targets based mostly on a group of peer schools with similar demographics, but also based on citywide averages.

“The Snapshots do a good job translating a large amount of school data into language that is meaningful to parents,” said Nicole Mader, the education policy analyst at the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School. “But it would be very hard to use these Snapshots to compare multiple school options available to their children.”

Next year, the city is ditching peer schools altogether in favor of comparisons between each school’s individual students based on grade level and demographics. Lisa Merrill, a research associate at the Research Alliance for New York City Schools who works with school survey data, said that will provide more sophisticated comparisons.

Those peer comparisons already appear on this year’s reports below prominent statistics, including a school’s pass rate on state tests and its graduation rate. But critics said the city’s attempts to translate the data into understandable graphics — with Boys and Girls High School, which has a low graduation rate, earning two out of four bars for student achievement — are misleading.

“The administration would rather give parents a falsely rosy picture than admit schools are not performing,” StudentsFirstNY’s executive director Jenny Sedlis said.

Others, including Mader, noted that presenting school data always involves trade-offs.

The snapshots, she said, are a fair way to account for challenges each school faces while pushing them to do better. The question is whether parents will dig deep enough to utilize them.

“While I applaud the administration’s desire to move away from one summary grade or statistic for each school,” Mader said, “I worry that parents who are pressed for time or overwhelmed with options are going to ignore most of what this Snapshot is offering them, focusing on one number like test scores instead.”

fact-finding mission

Signal Mountain leaders look to Shelby County as model for school district secession

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Bartlett City Schools Director David Stephens and Lakeland School System Director Ted Horrell update state legislators on their new districts in 2015.

A cluster of towns that broke off from Shelby County Schools to create their own school systems in 2014 is about to host visitors from another Tennessee town looking into the viability of leaving Hamilton County Schools.

A committee from Signal Mountain, on the outskirts of Chattanooga, is scheduled next week to visit with leaders from Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Millington and Germantown. Along with Lakeland, the six towns have just completed a third year of operating their own school systems, just outside of Memphis.

Signal Mountain is in its second year of discussions about a possible pullout from the Chattanooga-based district. The community has three of Hamilton County’s higher-performing schools, as well as fewer poor and minority students. Its Town Council created the committee in January to look into the feasibility of creating a separate district, which would siphon off both students and revenue from Hamilton County Schools.

As part of their visit, the seven-member panel will hold open meetings with municipality leaders at Arlington High School. Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley and Councilwoman Amy Speek are scheduled to join the sessions.

“We felt it was valuable for us to meet with board members and school officials to gain insight on how the process went, what they learned, what they might do differently,” said committee chairman John Friedl.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he added.

The visit will come days after Shelby County’s secessions were spotlighted in a national report on the trend of wealthier and whiter communities to splinter off from larger school systems that are poorer and more diverse. The report was crafted by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group that focuses on school funding and equity. The report also listed Signal Mountain among nine towns across the nation that are actively pursuing pullouts.

The town of Red Bank, which is just east of Signal Mountain, also recently announced it will investigate launching a separate district.

If Signal Mountain residents vote eventually to create their own school system, they would use the same Tennessee law that allowed municipality voters in Shelby County to exit Tennessee’s largest district. The law, which EdBuild calls one of the most permissive in the nation, allows a town with at least 1,500 students to pull out without the approval of the district it leaves behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

Signal Mountain leaders will focus next week on lessons learned by leaders in Shelby County.

After breaking off in 2014, the municipalities gained about 30,000 students, 33 schools and all of the challenges that come with launching new school systems. That includes funding, staffing and facilities. “We all started out with a central office staff of one, … and we had to build from there,” Millington Municipal Schools Director David Roper said during a 2015 presentation to state lawmakers.

The Shelby County breakaway also ended up in court over charges that the exit was racially motivated. But a federal judge eventually dismissed that lawsuit by Shelby County Schools.

The Signal Mountain exploration also has been met with some community resistance. A group called Stay with HCSD is advocating staying with Hamilton County Schools.

You can view the full schedule of Signal Mountain leaders’ visit below:

Breakaway districts

Memphis-Shelby County spotlighted in national report on school district secession

PHOTO: EdBuild
Six suburban towns pulled out of Shelby County Schools in 2014 to start their own districts in the wake of the 2013 consolidation of city and county schools.

The 2014 exodus of six suburban towns from the newly consolidated Memphis school system is one of the nation’s most egregious examples of public education splintering into a system of haves and have-nots over race and class, says a new report.

The Shelby County towns are among 47 that have seceded from large school districts nationally since 2000. Another nine, including the town of Signal Mountain near Chattanooga, Tenn., are actively pursuing separation, according to the report released Wednesday by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group focusing on education funding and inequality.

EdBuild researchers said the growing trend toward school secession is cementing segregation along socioeconomic and racial lines and exacerbating inequities in public education.

And Shelby County is among the worst examples, they say.

“The case of Memphis and Shelby County is an extreme example of how imbalanced political power, our local school-funding model, and the allowance of secession can be disastrous for children,” the report says.

After the 2014 pullout, Shelby County Schools had to slash its budget, close schools under declining enrollment, and lay off hundreds of teachers. Meanwhile, the six suburban towns of Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington have faced challenges with funding and facilities as they’ve worked to build their school systems from the ground up.

The report says Tennessee’s law is among the most permissive of the 30 states that allow some communities to secede from larger school districts. It allows a municipality with at least 1,500 students to pull out without the approval of the district it leaves behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

PHOTO: EdBuild
States that don’t prohibit secession from school districts are shaded in blue.

“This isn’t a story of one or two communities. This is about a broken system of laws that fail to protect the most vulnerable students,” said EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia. “This is the confluence of a school funding system that incentivizes communities to cordon off wealth and the permissive processes that enable them to do just that.”

The Shelby County pullout is known in Memphis as the “de-merger,” which happened one year after the historic 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools with the suburban county district known as Legacy Shelby County Schools. The massive changes occurred as a result of a series of chess moves that began in 2010 after voters elected a Republican supermajority in Tennessee for the first time in history.

Under the new political climate, Shelby County’s mostly white and more affluent suburbs sought to establish a special school district that could have stopped countywide funding from flowing to the mostly black and lower income Memphis district. In a preemptive strike, the city’s school board surrendered its charter and Memphians voted soon after to consolidate the city and county districts. The suburbs — frustrated over becoming a partner in a consolidated school system they didn’t vote for — soon convinced the legislature to change a state law allowing them to break away and form their own districts, which they did.

Terry Roland, a Shelby County commissioner who supported the pullouts, said the secession wasn’t about race, but about having local control and creating better opportunities for students in their communities. “There are a lot of problems in the inner city and big city that we don’t have in municipalities in terms of poverty and crime,” Roland told Chalkbeat on the eve of the report’s release. “We’re able to give folks more opportunities because our schools are smaller.”

The report asserts that money was at the root of the pullouts. Through taxes raised at the countywide level, suburban residents were financially supporting Memphis City Schools. The effort to create a special school district was aimed at raising funds that would stay with suburban schools and potentially doing away with a shared countywide property tax, which would have been disastrous for the Memphis district.

"These policies are still relatively new in Tennessee. But I think a tsunami is coming as a result."Rebecca Sibilia, CEO, EdBuild

“What we’re talking about here is the notion of people pulling out of a tax base that’s for the public good,” Sibilia said. “That’s akin to saying you’re not going to pay taxes for a library because you’re not going to use it. … You can see this as racially motivated, but we found it was motivated much more by socioeconomics.”

The report asserts that funding new smaller districts is inefficient and wasteful.

The United States spends $3,200 more on students enrolled in small districts (of fewer than 3,000 students) than on the larger districts (of 25,000 to 49,999 students), according to the report. Small districts also tend to spend about 60 percent more per pupil on administrative costs.

Under Tennessee’s current law, Sibilia believes the Shelby County de-merger is only the first of more secessions to come. She notes that Tennessee’s law is similar to one in Alabama, where a fourth of the nation’s secessions have occurred. Already in Chattanooga, residents of Signal Mountain are in their second year of studying whether to leave the Hamilton County Department of Education.

“There’s a direct link between very permissive policies and the number of communities that take advantage of them,” Sibilia said. “These policies are still relatively new in Tennessee. But I think a tsunami is coming as a result.”

Editor’s note: Details about the merger-demerger have been added to this version of the story.