stuck in the middle

How one struggling Bronx school got caught in the crossfire between Cuomo and the State Education Department

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin-Office of the Governor/Flickr
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press conference in 2014.

When the state announced a new accountability system designed to hasten turnaround efforts in New York’s lowest-performing schools, it came with a stern warning: Make improvements or risk being taken over by outside management.

A year after that policy took effect, just one school — J.H.S. 162 in the Bronx — has been threatened with a takeover.

The State Education Department celebrated that announcement as a success: Only one school failed to meet its targets, evidence that the program is encouraging most schools to make progress.

But Governor Andrew Cuomo, who pushed for the law, isn’t happy with how it’s been implemented. His office agrees with the state that receivership is working, but says the State Education Department has let too many schools leave the program, significantly weakening its impact.

Some experts and observers argue this is intentional: The State Education Department and Board of Regents are moving away from aggressive accountability measures and are purposely watering down the program.

“It’s probably ongoing evidence of a political struggle over control of the city’s schools,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College. “The state doesn’t want to be in the business of reaching too far in.”

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The logic of Cuomo’s receivership program, modeled after a Massachusetts law, was that schools like J.H.S. 162 needed stricter incentives to improve. In contrast with the city’s union-friendly “Renewal” turnaround program, which costs hundreds of millions of dollars and infuses schools with social services, the receivership program expects schools to make progress in just a year or two. It offers some extra funding and gives districts wider latitude to restructure schools while circumventing union rules, but threatened them with outside management if they didn’t meet their targets.

Unsurprisingly, when the receivership program was floated in 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio blasted the idea. “The notion of a group of bureaucrats 150 miles away trying to determine the fate of our children sounds like a formula for disaster,” he said.

Under the law that passed later that year, Chancellor Carmen Fariña was granted extra authority — the ability to ask teachers to reapply for their jobs, for instance — over city schools the state flagged as its lowest performers. Sixty-two city schools were identified, meaning they were ranked in the lowest five percent statewide, and seven of them had been in the lowest five percent since 2006.

Those seven “persistently struggling” schools, including J.H.S. 162, were given a year to show improvements on everything from test scores to school climate, or else face the specter of independent management.

But almost as soon as the program got underway, it was clear that state education officials wanted to ensure it wouldn’t be too hard to meet mandated improvement goals, which were selected in consultation with the schools themselves.

“These schools had such a long history of low performance,” said Ira Schwartz, assistant commissioner for accountability at the State Education Department, who added that it didn’t make sense to set unreachable targets. “We’re looking really for green shoots at this point.”

Cuomo’s office agrees that it makes sense to set modest goals, but is critical of the state’s decision to release so many schools from the program. The State Education Department has reduced the number of schools in the program over the last year — just 27 remain in New York City, down from 62 when the program launched.

“It’s clear the new law is working – improving our academic institutions so New York’s best and brightest have a fair shot at success,” Cuomo spokeswoman Abbey Fashouer wrote in an email. “This makes it all the more perplexing that SED took action to remove a number of schools from this successful program. There is still a long road ahead, and all parties must be held to account.”

The education department pushed back against the implication that schools leaving the program would not receive state support. “We all know that fragile schools, even those moving in a positive direction, continue to require critical funding and appropriate monitoring so they can continue the important work of supporting students,” SED spokeswoman Emily DeSantis wrote in a statement. (The state is currently involved in litigation over whether some schools that were released should still be eligible for extra receivership funding.)

Asked why more than half of New York City’s receivership schools were dropped from the program since its inception, state officials said they reevaluated each school’s status in February based on 2014-15 data, instead of the 2013-14 data initially used to determine their eligibility. Officials confirmed no new schools have been added to the program, but said more could be added in the future.

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That isn’t much solace for J.H.S. 162, the only school in the state that failed to meet its targets this year, and is now subject to takeover or possible closure.

On paper, at least, it isn’t surprising that the school was initially identified for the receivership program. J.H.S. 162, also known as Lola Rodriguez De Tio, has been among the lowest achieving in the state since 2006, and is part of the city’s Renewal program. It has posted single-digit reading and math proficiency rates, and was only recently taken off the state’s list of “persistently dangerous” schools. Nearly 47 percent of the school’s teachers have left over the past three years, according to data provided by union officials.

J.H.S. 162 Lola Rodriguez De Tio
PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
J.H.S. 162 Lola Rodriguez De Tio

But critics say the fact that only one school was ultimately singled out for takeover shows that the program is hardly the sweeping accountability tool Cuomo originally envisioned.

“To single out one school and say it’s the worst school in the state is misleading on so many levels,” said Eric Nadelstern, a former New York City deputy schools chancellor who is now a professor at Teachers College and visited J.H.S. 162 several years ago. “It’s easy for the school to say there are many other schools in the city and state that match the same criteria.”

Asked about criticisms that the current law arbitrarily singled out one of many low-performing schools for outside management, SED’s Schwartz said, “It was the opposite of arbitrary. There was a very precise algorithm that was shared with everybody. No one is saying there is only one troubled school in New York.”

Schwartz denied that the education department is backing away from the receivership program. In fact, he said, it could serve as a model for broader accountability framework the state is designing under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“If anything, this is a generation ahead of ESSA,” Schwartz said, noting that state policymakers will likely borrow from the receivership program’s emphasis on measures other than test scores to evaluate schools. “This is a pilot in a sense. If it is a successful, we will advocate for its wider adoption.”

Some school leaders see that as an encouraging sign. Though there was some anxiety about the prospect of a takeover, the process of coming up with tangible targets under the receivership program “clarified the work that we had to do,” said Edgar Lin, principal of J.H.S 22 Jordan L. Mott, a Bronx receivership school that was also given one year to show progress. The school hit all of its targets this year, avoiding a takeover, but will have to show gains again next year.

“When we all feel personal responsibility for things, behavior changes,” he added. “We were much more creative and adaptive.”

But uncertainty lingers at J.H.S 162, which could be closed or merged if the city decides to avoid an outside takeover.

The school’s principal, Deborah Sanabria, declined to be interviewed for this story. But on a recent afternoon, a handful of teachers and parents who gathered for dismissal said they hoped the administration would push to keep the school open.

“We are fighting, the school is fighting,” said one teacher who declined to give her name because she said teachers were cautioned against speaking to the press. “They need to give the school more time. They’re working as hard here as any other school I’ve been in.”

legislative update

Senators kill two education proposals, but plan to replace ISTEP moves ahead with a new high school test

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The Senate Education Committee had its last 2017 meeting today.

The plan to replace Indiana’s unpopular ISTEP exam took another step forward Wednesday as the Senate Education Committee finished up its work for the year.

The committee killed two bills and passed four, including an amended version of the bill to overhaul the state testing system. The bill passed 7-4, but some lawmakers still weren’t happy with the plan — especially because the bill continues to tie teacher evaluations to state test results and removes a requirement for students to take end-of-course exams that many principals and educators had supported.

The amended bill would:

  • Require high school students to take a national college entrance exam, such as the SAT or ACT, rather than end-of-course exams. The Indiana State Board of Education would choose the specific test and set a passing score needed for graduation.
  • Create tests that would allow Indiana students to be compared with peers nationally.
  • Allow the state to create its own test questions only if the option saves Indiana money or would be necessary to ensure the test complies with Indiana academic standards.
  • Require schools to give state tests on computers or using “digital technology” unless they receive a waiver from the education department.
  • Create a legislative panel to study Indiana’s teacher evaluation laws and draft a final report by Nov. 1.

Some of the changes in the amendment came from state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Earlier this month, she outlined some of those ideas for the committee, which were similar to ones pushed by former schools chief Glenda Ritz. But that still didn’t make it especially popular with the committee today.

“I’m still not comfortable with where we are,” said Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Merrillville.

Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, and Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, also expressed concerns about the bill, although Leising voted “yes” because the state is still required to have a test, she said.

“I’m very disappointed we can’t move away from ISTEP more quickly,” Leising said. “I’m most disappointed that we’re still going to evaluate teachers based on ISTEP results which nobody believes in currently.”

Here are the rest of the bills that passed the committee today. All of them still must face debate by the full Senate, and likely further discussions by the House:

Charter school renewal and closure: House Bill 1382 would make changes to how the Indiana State Board of Education handles authorizers who want to renew charters for schools that have failed for four years in a row. This proposal, as well as other changes, could benefit Indiana’s struggling virtual charter schools — particularly Hoosier Academies.

The bill was amended today to give the state board of education more control over what education and experience charter school teachers need in order to be allowed to teach.

High school graduation rate and student mobility: House Bill 1384 would require the Indiana State Board of Education to consider a school’s rate of student turnover from year to year when it assigns A-F accountability grades.

But it was amended today to change previous language that would have given schools two A-F grades — one reflecting state test results from students who move around frequently, and one based on students who have been at the school for at least a year. The amendment removes the two grades and instead would instruct the state board to consider student mobility in the existing A-F system, and “whether any high school should be rewarded for enrolling credit deficient students or penalized for transferring out credit deficient students.”

This bill, too, has implications for Indiana virtual schools, which have struggled to show success educating a wide range of students. The schools have complained that they often accept students who are far behind their peers and are using the school as a last-ditch chance to graduate.

The bill also includes two proposals regarding private schools and vouchers.

Teacher induction program: House Bill 1449, offered by Rep. Dale DeVon, R-Mishawaka, would create a program to support new teachers, principals and superintendents that would be considered a pilot until 2027.

And here are the bills that died, both authored by House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis:

Elementary school teacher licenses: House Bill 1383 would encourage the state board of education to establish content-area-specific licenses, including math and science, for elementary teachers. It was defeated by the committee 6-5

Competency-based learning: House Bill 1386 would provide grants for five schools or districts that create a “competency-based” program, which means teachers allow students to move on to more difficult subject matter once they can show they have mastered previous concepts or skills, regardless of pace (Learn more about Warren Township’s competency-based program here). It was defeated by the committee 8-3.

secretary statements

Betsy DeVos on American schools: ‘I’m not sure that we can deteriorate a whole lot’

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos isn’t concerned that a push for more school choice could inadvertently harm America’s schools, she said Wednesday — because she believes the nation’s achievement is already too abysmal for that to be possible.

“I’m not sure how they could get a lot worse on a nationwide basis than they are today,” DeVos said of achievement levels. “The fact that our PISA scores have continued to deteriorate as compared to the rest of the world, and that we’ve seen stagnant at best results with the NAEP scores over the years — I’m not sure that we can deteriorate a whole lot.”

DeVos was referring to one international test and another taken by a sample of students across the United States that’s used to compare performance across states. Her comments, made at the Brookings Institution, paint a picture that’s more dire than fully accurate.

On the international PISA tests in reading and science, the U.S. hovers near the international average, though it falls near the bottom of other industrialized countries in math. And on the NAEP tests, often referred to as the “nation’s report card,” math scores have been rising for decades, as moderator Russ Whitehurst noted, while reading scores have also increased, though much more slowly.

The comments reveal an unflinchingly negative guiding premise for the nation’s top education official: With nowhere to go but up, any disruption of the current system is, by definition, going in the right direction. (She pushed that idea further by invoking the fight between Uber and taxi companies as a parallel for the push for school choice.)

At the same time, DeVos indicated that she was uncomfortable using statistics as the basis for some of her own policies.

“I’m not a numbers person in the same way you are,” DeVos said, when asked specifically how she would want her success to be measured. “But to me, the policies around empowering parents and moving decision-making to the hands of parents on behalf of children is really the direction we need to go.”

You can watch her speech and her discussion with Whitehurst afterward here: