victory lap

City’s top education officials claim victory after big increases in English test scores

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Mayor Bill de Blasio

The city’s top education officials celebrated historic gains on state tests Monday — and argued the improved scores prove their education initiatives are working.

“This has been a three-day celebration,” said Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, speaking to the press at Tweed Courthouse, the Department of Education’s headquarters. “From the minute I got the news until today, I can’t stop smiling.”

For an agency that has suffered some high-profile struggles lately — including the departure of principal Michael Wiltshire from Boys and Girls High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant — the good news was presented as vindication.

The share of city students passing the English exam jumped by almost 8 points, and matched the state’s average for the first time. Math scores also inched up by roughly one point. Both Fariña and Mayor Bill de Blasio said the improved scores show that their approach to education policy, a marked departure from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s, is proving effective.

“A lot is changing,” de Blasio said. “And this is pure hard evidence that these changes are working.”

De Blasio plugged many of his signature initiatives on Monday, including his college-focused “Equity and Excellence” agenda and his “Renewal” schools program, which provides extra resources and wraparound services to struggling schools. Overall, the percentage of “Renewal” school students demonstrating proficiency increased by 5.3 points in English and 1.5 points in math.

The test score gains come after a wave of bad press about the city’s turnaround program. Former State Chancellor Merryl Tisch said the program was “ridiculous” after Chalkbeat reported in December that “Renewal” schools have more modest improvement goals than other schools.

The state cautioned Friday that this year’s test scores are not an “apples-to-apples” comparison to last year’s test scores, since tests were shortened and students were given unlimited time to complete them for the first time. (Students across the state showed big gains in English test scores.)

But that didn’t seem to dampen de Blasio’s excitement. He argued that, if anything, the tests were more authentic this year.

“We think actually the new approach is a truer look at how kids are doing academically,” de Blasio said. “This test, because they changed the structure of the test, allowed a cleaner, better look at how a child is actually doing.”

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.”