rhetoric and realism

Renewal schools get three years to meet one-year goals, clashing with mayor’s rhetoric

PHOTO: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced new education initiatives for New York City schools at Bronx Latin earlier this year.

The city has given the 94 troubled schools in its expensive new improvement program a special pass: They have three years to hit academic targets that other schools must meet in one year.

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, every school in the city is assigned annual goals that take into account how needy its students are. But unlike other schools, the 94 struggling schools in the “Renewal” program won’t get new, harder goals every year.

Instead, they have until 2017 to achieve goals they received in 2014. In the interim, they must reach benchmarks that are a fraction of the size of a typical school’s.

The city has previously refused to release lists of the goals it gave Renewal schools, and education department officials have not publicly discussed how they were created. In response to questions from Chalkbeat on Wednesday, they acknowledged that the Renewal goals were one-year targets spread out over three years.

The officials insisted that the Renewal schools, which serve a disproportionate share of needy students and have struggled for many years, require the extra time to reach their final targets. Several people who work in the schools — which could face closure or other consequences if they fail to achieve the goals — said they agreed, calling the targets “reasonable” and “reachable.”

“I don’t know where those numbers came from,” said an administrator at one school, “but we were pleased that they were as low as they were.”

The goals raise questions about the extent and pace of change that education officials expect to result from the nearly $400 million turnaround program, which de Blasio promised would spur “fast and intense improvement” at these bottom-ranked schools. Despite an infusion of support services for students and training for teachers, the improvements may be more modest and slower to materialize than the mayor’s rhetoric would imply.

The special accommodations also suggest that the city’s annual goal-setting formula could not account for the grim condition of the Renewal schools, or that officials adjusted the targets to help ensure that these much-scrutinized schools would hit them.

“Either their current goals are unrealistic,” said Kim Nauer, education project director at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, or officials are “hedging their bets for a press release two years out.”

The customized annual goals the city has given schools since 2014 center on attendance, state test scores, graduation rates, and class credits. They are based on the past performance of schools that serve students of similar demographics and skill levels.

The education department used that same formula to calculate goals for the Renewal schools, which enroll a higher-than-average share of students who are still learning English, live in temporary housing, or have disabilities. But officials decided that even though the formula factored in the schools’ high-needs students, the resulting goals still had to be stretched out over three years to be attainable.

“Whatever system they used to project targets for each school,” explained a person who works with Renewal schools, they “basically said for a Renewal school you get three years to meet that same target.”

For Renewal schools that are performing far worse than schools that serve comparable students, the goals may still be quite challenging to meet. For higher-performing schools, the targets require minimal growth.

For example, Banana Kelly High School in the Bronx must raise its four-year graduation rate from 41 percent this year to 57 percent by June 2017.

But M.S. 53 in Queens only needs to boost its students’ average score on the state reading exams one-hundredth of a level by 2017: from 2.14 to 2.15. It must increase their average math score from 2.03 to 2.12. (Students must score at least a level 3 out of 4 to be considered proficient.)

Other schools started this school year having already hit their 2017 targets.

For instance, Brooklyn Generation School’s final four-year graduation target is 67 percent, yet it posted a 68 percent graduation rate this June. And the middle-school students at the Bronx School of Young Leaders earned an average English score of 2.2 this spring, even as the school’s 2017 goal is a 2.19 average.

Even Banana Kelly, which is still far from meeting its graduation goal, already surpassed one of its 2017 targets this year: 16.5 percent of student met a certain “college readiness” measure, when the school’s final goal is just 6.8 percent.

Eric Ashton, the education department’s executive director for school performance, said in an interview that the agency is still deciding what to do about schools that met their goals early. Officials don’t want to discourage progress by issuing successful schools new, higher targets.

However, he said the “vast majority” of Renewal schools will need to make significant gains to meet their goals. Considering how needy many of their students are, and how long most of the schools have floundered, it is only fair to give them extra time to reach their targets.

“Most Renewal schools have been struggling for many years,” he said in a statement. “We cannot expect them to turn around overnight.”

Aaron Pallas, a sociology and education professor at Teachers College, said many past studies have shown that interventions at struggling schools take several years to bear fruit — and even then, they often produce disappointing results.

Setting modest improvement targets for troubled schools can prevent hard-working staffers from becoming demoralized, he said. It also can serve a political purpose, since the mayor’s critics will be sure to pounce if many Renewal schools miss their targets despite the costly intervention.

“Low-balling the goals,” Pallas said, “is a slightly defensive strategy to fight against that possibility.”

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.