Keeping score

Report outlines what New York City schools are doing to increase diversity — and advocates respond

PHOTO: Mary Ellen McIntire
City Council members Carlos Menchaca (left) and Brad Lander hosted a parents forum in 2014 to discuss diversity in schools.

The New York City Department of Education expanded an initiative to help schools promote diversity in admissions, opened gifted programs in areas where there weren’t any, and helped more students prepare for tests to get into elite high schools.

Those are just a few of the efforts the department outlines in its second annual diversity report, released Tuesday.

For the first time, the report includes a demographic breakdown of the city’s pre-K students. And the admissions methods used at each school have been broken out into a separate, easier-to-read list.

The report was released along with a promise that the DOE is working on “a larger plan this school year” to improve diversity — something the mayor has also said publicly, though no details have been shared.

City Councilman Brad Lander, who championed the 2015 School Diversity Act, the local law that mandates the report, called that pledge “a big deal.”

“That’s the change we were hoping this law would help move forward, and we’re encouraged to see we’re moving in the right direction,” he said.

New York City’s schools are among the most segregated in the country — an issue that has attracted growing attention and advocacy.

On the same day the diversity report was released, Public Advocate Letitia James called for the city Department of Education to appoint a chief diversity officer to “implement and oversee efforts to reduce segregation in New York City’s public schools.”

Here are some of the city’s initiatives, as listed in the report:

— The DOE enabled all schools to apply for its “Diversity in Admissions” program, which allows schools to set aside some seats specifically for students who are poor, learning English or who have other risk factors, such as being involved in the child welfare system. After an initial pilot, the program has been expanded to a total of 19 schools.

— The department started new gifted and talented programs in Districts 7 and 12 in the Bronx, and Districts 16 and 23 in Central Brooklyn. None of those had offered a gifted program in at least five years. The new programs start in third grade, and allow teachers to consider multiple measures rather than rely on a test for admission.

— The Specialized High School Admissions Test, which is required to get into the city’s elite high schools, will be offered during class time at seven schools, as part of a pilot project. The city hopes this change, along with expanded test prep, will increase the number of black and Hispanic students who take — and pass — the exam.

While the new initiatives represent improvement, they are still relatively modest, said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank focused on inequity.

“I give these efforts a B-minus,” he said. “We’re making a good start, but now we need to really push further to make an important difference in students’ lives.”

The Diversity in Admissions plans affect only a tiny set of New York City’s roughly 1,800 schools, and gifted programs are often criticized for their segregating effects. Meanwhile, at least one of the city’s efforts to increase diversity at its specialized high schools actually does more to help white and Asian students.

Still, there has been “really significant progress,” said David Tipson, executive director of New York Appleseed, which has pushed for school diversity initiatives.

Tipson was particularly encouraged by the report’s mention of district-wide diversity initiatives.

Districts 1 and 13 are using state grants to explore socioeconomic integration models such as “controlled choice,” though some community members say the initiative has been tied up in bureaucratic red tape at the DOE. Still, last year’s report didn’t even acknowledge the district-wide plans, and instead focused on single-school efforts that are also a part of the grant.

That shift is “very significant,” Tipson said. “I have a lot of confidence that really means something.”

The city has also taken steps to encourage integration in pre-K classrooms, which a recent report found to be more segregated than kindergarten.

The city now allows low-income students, whose pre-K is funded by the Administration for Children’s Services, to be served in the same classrooms as other city pre-K students. It also increased outreach to make sure homeless families enroll their children and know about gifted programs.

“Students learn better in diverse classrooms – including their peers and educators,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement. “We’re committed to using a range of localized and systemic strategies to get at this important issue.”

measuring progress

At some Renewal schools, the city’s new ‘challenge’ targets require only tiny improvements

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

When education officials settled on the goals each school in its high-profile Renewal program would have to meet, they allowed them to take three years to meet what are typically one-year goals.

And though some schools have struggled to meet those initial goals, most of them, it turned out, met at least one benchmark ahead of time. So the city came up with new ones — called “challenge targets” — to replace and “strengthen” the goals that schools reached early.

But, according to new data released last week, dozens of those challenge targets require the lowest possible amount of improvement: one hundredth of one point.

In total, just over a third of the 86 Renewal schools have to improve scores on either state math or reading tests by only .01 points above their current averages, according to a Chalkbeat review of the city’s benchmarks for this school year.

P.S. 154 in the Bronx, for instance, needs to boost its average score this spring from 2.48 to 2.49 in math, and 2.49 to 2.50 in reading — both of which are considered challenge targets. (The scores refer to state tests that are graded from one to four, and only scores of three or higher are considered passing.)

The modest goals continue to raise questions about the pace of change the city is expecting from the $400 million Renewal program, which infuses schools with social services and extra resources.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised “fast” improvements, rhetoric that is in tension with the benchmarks the city has released. (At a panel discussion last week, the head of the city’s principals union expressed frustration with the program’s incrementalism.)

In interviews, city officials defended the challenge targets, arguing that they are designed to give schools that already met “rigorous and realistic” goals an extra incentive to maintain or surpass their progress. But some observers noted the challenge targets are so similar to the original goals, in some cases, that calling them a challenge is hard to justify.

“When you see a challenge target that’s so close to current performance, you think, ‘What the heck is going on here?’” said Aaron Pallas, a sociology and education professor at Teachers College. “It’s really hard to see a .01 expected increase as a challenging target.”

Pallas said the modest gains expected in the city’s challenge targets could be the product of a central struggle baked into school turnaround efforts: the political need to have regular benchmarks to track progress, while knowing that low-performing schools can take years to accrue gains, if it happens at all.

Still, setting expectations too low is not likely to yield much useful information about school progress, Pallas said. And while it’s “hard to know what a challenging target is,” he said, “it’s probably greater than .1,” — ten times higher than some of the city’s targets for this school year.

For their part, education officials insist that the new goals are challenging — even if they only represent fractional increases — because they are technically all higher than the original goals, which the city has claimed were “rigorous.”

“If they’re ahead of [the original goals], keeping them on that target is definitely a challenge for them,” said Eric Ashton, the education department’s executive director for school performance.

Ashton noted that many of the city’s Renewal goals — which include measures such as attendance, graduation rates, and progress on state tests — are aggressive and require some schools to improve certain metrics by double-digit percentages. (Coalition School for Social Change, for instance, must improve its four-year graduation rate to 63.4 percent this year, a 17 percent increase.)

The city also defended the challenge targets on the grounds that if they were set too high, they might offer a misleading picture of which schools should be merged, closed or face other consequences.

“Targets do not keep increasing as high as possible each year,” education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye wrote in an email, “because we need the Renewal benchmarks to help differentiate between schools that are in need of more intensive interventions such as school redesign or consolidation, closure, or leadership change — and schools that need other forms of support like professional development or curriculum changes.”

“We believe schools must always work towards continued progress,” she added. “And a challenge target sets the bar above their achievement.”

moving forward

New York City officials: Large-scale school desegregation plan likely coming by June

PHOTO: BRIC TV
Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, third from left, discussing the city's integration efforts.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised a “bigger vision” to address segregation in New York City schools, but officials have thus far kept details under wraps.

But they’ve been dribbling out some details, most notably a timeline for when a large-scale plan could be released. Officials at a town hall discussion in Brooklyn Thursday night reiterated that a plan would likely be released by June.

We’re “going to propose some new thinking that we have, both about some of the systems that we run and about ways that we can work together locally to make change,” said Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, who is heading the department’s diversity efforts. “We expect it to come out by the end of the school year.”

BRIC TV host Brian Vines, who moderated the panel co-produced with WNYC, pushed for details. “Is there any one thing that you can at least give us a hint at that’s a concrete measure?” he asked.

But Wallack didn’t take the bait. “What I will say is that we are actually still engaged in conversations like this one, trying to get good ideas about how to move forward,” he said, adding that the education department is talking with educators, parents and schools interested in the issue.

New York City officials have been under pressure to address school segregation after a 2014 report called its schools some of the most racially divided in the country. More recently, debates over how best to change zone lines around schools on the Upper West Side and in Brooklyn have grown heated.

“We have a lot of hard work to do,” Wallack said. “But the mayor and chancellor are deeply committed to that work and to working with all of you to make that happen.”

Correction (Dec. 2, 2016): This story has been corrected to reflect that the town hall event was not the first time officials had described a timeline for releasing a plan.