accountability absence

Under de Blasio, no measures of success or failure for schools serving the neediest kids

(Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)

Thousands of families were left wondering how well their children’s schools are performing this week after the city released new school report cards — but left out schools serving the city’s neediest students.

Together, the schools enroll as many students as the city of Buffalo. Yet they have not received public report cards since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office nearly two years ago, even though the same schools received yearly progress reports under the previous administration.

Schools that have now been left out of two rounds of annual reports include “transfer” schools, which enroll drop-outs and students who fell far behind at traditional high schools, and schools in District 75, which serve students with severe disabilities at over 300 sites across the city. Together, the two groups of schools enroll roughly 35,000 students.

“There’s no information for you to make your own assessments outside of visiting the schools in person,” said Lori Podvesker, a policy manager at INCLUDEnyc, a support agency for young people with disabilities, and whose son attends a District 75 school in Manhattan. “That’s so fundamentally wrong.”

Most city schools were issued two public reports Tuesday: a “snapshot” for parents and a “guide” for educators. The reports include key school data, including test scores, graduation rates, and the results of parent and teacher surveys.

The reports are designed to hold schools publicly accountable for their results and to help families decide where to enroll their children. They are also meant to give schools “a set of urgent priorities on which to focus improvement efforts,” as an education department press release put it.

An education department spokeswoman said the city is still deciding how to fairly measure the performance of transfer and District 75 schools, since they serve such challenging populations. In the meantime, the most recent report cards available for those schools date from 2013 — before de Blasio took office.

“You’re sort of letting those schools off the hook in terms of any accountability measures,” said Kim Nauer, education research director at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. The need to come up with fair metrics for those schools should not keep them waiting indefinitely for reports, she added.

“Parents need them,” she said, “and the schools need to know that people are looking at their results.”

The city began issuing schools annual “progress reports” in 2007 under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The reports, which assigned schools A-to-F letter grades, were used to reward top-ranked schools and to identify some low-performers for closure.

District 75 schools initially did not get reports, but within a few years the city designed modified reports for those schools that used different metrics. For instance, transfer schools were rated partly by how many students graduate within six years of entering high school — not four years, like traditional high schools. Both groups of schools were judged in comparison to how well other schools were doing that served the same types of students.

On the campaign trail, de Blasio promised to remove the letter grades from school reports and replace them with more nuanced metrics. Soon after he took office, his new schools chief, Carmen Fariña, said during a conference for city educators that the new administration would also find a fairer way to assess transfer schools, according to Erin Santana, a transfer school employee who attended the 2014 conference.

As promised, de Blasio’s revamped school reports did not feature letter grades when they were introduced last fall. But transfer schools did not receive reports with updated measures — instead, they got no reports at all.

“Fariña definitely stood on the stage and told us to our faces that they were going to change the way they evaluate transfer schools to reflect the population that we serve,” said Santana, who runs a job-readiness program at Aspirations High School, a Brooklyn transfer school. “To my knowledge, that hasn’t happened.”

It is no easy task to find reasonable and valid ways to evaluate these schools, which work with very specific groups of city students. District 75 schools serve students with autism, cognitive delays, and other serious disabilities, many of whom do not take the state’s typical standardized tests. Transfer schools enroll older students who have struggled at traditional high schools or stopped attending school altogether, often because they became caught up in the criminal justice system.

Using normal metrics to rate those schools would likely provide an unfairly negative view of their performance. Since transfer schools have some control over their admissions, it could also discourage them from accepting students who are the least likely to graduate — and who most need their services.

Still, experts say it is possible to come up with fair rating systems for the schools. For instance, District 75 schools could be judged on the progress their students make in reaching their individual learning goals and to what extent they provide students their mandated special-education services.

Meanwhile, the lack of any reports for these schools creates challenges for families who want to monitor how their children’s schools are performing, or who are looking to move a child to a different school. That is especially true for transfer schools, since they each have different admissions criteria. And to make matters more complicated, the city has not published an updated directory for those schools as it has for traditional high schools.

“When a student has to find a transfer school, it’s already a difficult process,” said Ashley Grant, a staff attorney at Advocates for Children. “So to not have all that information in one place is extremely challenging.”

Education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said that parent and teacher surveys are still available for these schools, and that students can also ask their guidance counselors for help. She added that the schools have “unique challenges,” and that the department is working with educators to find a way to a fair and accurate way to evaluate them.

Update: Kaye sent the additional response below after the story was published.

She pointed out that former Mayor Bloomberg did not introduce progress reports for any schools until five years after taking office, and said those for transfer and District 75 schools were “oversimplified” and did not include measures that matter to parents, such as a school’s social-emotional support for students and its efforts to help them prepare for college or work.

“‎The first full school year of the de Blasio administration was 2014-15 and the data for that school year was available as of September, 2015,” she added in a statement. “We just finished the reports for the largest school types and we are working on developing the first fair and useful reports for the other school types to best inform students, parents, educators and community members.”

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”