survey says

Report: Students and educators say school climate has worsened under de Blasio after sweeping discipline reforms

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

When education officials announced last October that suspensions plummeted 46 percent over the last five years, they touted the news as evidence that major changes to the city’s discipline policy were taking hold.

But that data has sparked debate among educators and advocates of school discipline reform. Does the drop in suspensions mean that schools are creating richer learning environments where students — especially those of color and with disabilities — are less likely to be removed for minor misbehavior? Or are educators responding to pressure to look the other way instead of issuing suspensions, making schools less orderly in the process?

New evidence presented Tuesday by the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute may help answer those questions. The report shows that after Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2015 school discipline reforms went into effect, which made it harder for schools to suspend students, perceptions of school climate took a big hit.

That conclusion is based on annual school survey data collected by the city during a five-year timeframe: The tail end of the Bloomberg administration, and the first two years of the de Blasio administration. Both of those periods saw similar size reductions in the number of suspensions handed out, but student and teacher reports of school climate — including fights, respect among peers, and drug and alcohol activity — worsened under de Blasio.

“Overall, the pattern is consistent and unmistakable: School climate remained relatively steady under Bloomberg’s discipline reforms but has deteriorated rapidly under de Blasio’s,” according to Max Eden, the report’s author.

Of roughly 1,000 middle and high schools included in the survey data, nearly 44 percent had a larger share of students report more frequent fighting as de Blasio’s discipline reforms rolled out, compared with 25 percent in Bloomberg’s final years.

About 52 percent of the schools surveyed during the de Blasio era reported a decline in the percentage of students who said their peers respect each other, compared with 25 percent at the end of Bloomberg’s tenure.

A higher proportion of teachers at nearly 40 percent of elementary, middle and high schools responded negatively when asked if order is maintained in their schools — about six percent higher than during the last two years of the Bloomberg administration.

And middle and high schools that serve higher proportions of low-income students and those of color were more likely to see their school climate worsen.

Those findings come with some important caveats: Because the city significantly changed its annual survey, only five “school order” questions were similar enough to use across administrations, limiting the picture of how changes in discipline policy are playing out. And multiple school discipline experts said there wasn’t enough evidence to imply that reductions in suspensions were to blame for worsening perceptions of school climate, a point the report acknowledges.

“There could be a million other explanations” said David Kirkland, executive director of New York University’s Metropolitan Center, who added that “the report suggests we need to look at this data more seriously.”

Kirkland, who studies school discipline, stressed that it is important for policymakers to weigh the benefits of reducing suspensions — not simply its costs — including the likelihood that higher-need students may graduate at higher rates or show other academic gains if they aren’t removed from the classroom.

Still, he acknowledged that teacher and student perceptions are important, and may reveal that educators have not been adequately prepared to replace suspensions with “restorative” approaches that favor dialogue and reflection over student removal. The teacher’s union has made a version of that argument — and some educators have said the transition away from suspensions can be challenging.

“I concede the point that maybe we need to roll out the policies in a different way that doesn’t produce backlash,” Kirkland added. “What this evidence suggests is that we need to do more than just reduce suspensions.”

City officials did not dispute the report’s findings — though they noted that the vast majority of students reported feeling safe in their classrooms. “Research shows that overly punitive disciplinary practices are not effective,” mayoral spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein wrote in a statement. “Our investments in mental health and school climate programs ensure students are provided with a safe and supportive learning environment and that they are being held accountable for their actions.”

Achievement School District

Tennessee’s turnaround district gets new leadership team for a new chapter

PHOTO: TN.gov
Malika Anderson became superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District in 2016 under the leadership of Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee is bringing in some new blood to lead its turnaround district after cutting its workforce almost in half and repositioning the model as an intervention of last resort for the state’s chronically struggling schools.

While Malika Anderson remains as superintendent of the Achievement School District, she’ll have two lieutenants who are new to the ASD’s mostly charter-based turnaround district, as well as two others who have been part of the work in the years since its 2011 launch.

The hires stand in contrast to the original ASD leadership team, which was heavy with education reformers who came from outside of Tennessee or Memphis. And that’s intentional, Anderson said Friday as she announced the new lineup with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“It is critical in this phase of the ASD that we are learning from the past … and have leaders who are deeply experienced in Tennessee,” Anderson said.

New to her inner circle as of Aug. 1 are:

Verna Ruffin
Chief academic officer

PHOTO: Submitted
Verna Ruffin

Duties: She’ll assume oversight of the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by former executive director Tim Ware, who did not reapply. She’ll also promote collaboration across Achievement Schools and the ASD’s charter schools.

Last job: Superintendent of Jackson-Madison County School District since 2013

Her story: More than 30 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of secondary curriculum, assistant superintendent and superintendent in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. At Jackson-Madison County, Ruffin oversaw a diverse student body and implemented a K-3 literacy initiative to promote more rigorous standards.

Farae Wolfe
Executive director of operations

Duties: Human resources, technology and operations

Current job: Program director for the Community Youth Career Development Center in Cleveland, Miss.

Her story: Wolfe has been city manager and human resources director for Cleveland, Miss., where she led a health and wellness initiative that decreased employee absenteeism due to minor illness by 20 percent. Her work experience in education includes overseeing parent and community relations for a Mississippi school district, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Leaders continuing to work with the state turnaround team are:

Lisa Settle
Chief performance officer

PHOTO: Achievement Schools
Lisa Settle

Duties: She’ll oversee federal and state compliance for charter operators and direct-run schools.

Last job: Chief of schools for the direct-run Achievement Schools since June 2015

Her story: Settle was co-founder and principal of Cornerstone Prep-Lester Campus, the first charter school approved by the ASD in Memphis. She also has experience in writing and reviewing curriculum in her work with the state’s recent Standards Review Committee.

Bobby White
Executive director of external affairs

PHOTO: ASD
Bobby White

Duties: He’ll continue his work to bolster the ASD’s community relations, which was fractured by the state’s takeover of neighborhood schools in Memphis when he came aboard in April 2016.

Last job: ASD chief of external affairs

His story: A Memphis native, White previously served as chief of staff and senior adviser for Memphis and Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton, as well as a district director for former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

A new team for a new era

The restructuring of the ASD and its leadership team comes after state officials decided to merge the ASD with support staff for its Achievement Schools. All 59 employees were invited in May to reapply for 30 jobs, some of which are still being filled.

The downsizing was necessary as the state ran out of money from the federal Race to the Top grant that jump-started the turnaround district in 2011 and has sustained most of its work while growing to 33 schools at its peak.

While the changes signal a new era for the state-run district, both McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam have said they’re committed to keeping the ASD as Tennessee’s most intensive intervention when local and collaborative turnaround efforts fail, even as the initiative has had a mostly lackluster performance.

“Overall, this new structure will allow the ASD to move forward more efficiently,” McQueen said Friday, “and better positions the ASD to support the school improvement work we have outlined in our ESSA plan …”

In the next phase, school takeovers will not be as abrupt as the first ones that happened in Memphis in 2012, prompting angry protests from teachers and parents and outcry from local officials. Local districts will have three years to use their own turnaround methods before schools can be considered for takeover.

It’s uncertain where the ASD will expand next, but state officials have told Hamilton County leaders that it’s one of several options on the table for five low-performing schools in Chattanooga.

transfer talk

This seemingly small change could make it easier for guidance counselors to send students to transfer schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A guidance counselor at Bronx Academy of Letters

New York City is planning to make it easier to refer students to alternative high schools — part of a broader effort to remove obstacles for students seeking admission to them.

The change will affect the city’s 52 transfer schools, which are designed to catch up students who have dropped out, are over-age or behind in credits. Guidance counselors at traditional high schools will be able to electronically recommend up to three transfer school options for students they believe would be better served in different settings.

That change might seem minor, but it is at the center of a wider debate playing out behind the scenes between the city’s education department — which has indicated that transfer schools are being too picky about who they admit — and transfer schools themselves, some of which worry the new policy could lead to an influx of students who have been pushed out of their high schools.

“There’s a significant fear from transfer schools that these will essentially be over-the-counter placements,” said one Manhattan transfer school principal, referring to a process through which the city directly assigns students who arrive after the admissions process is over, often mid-year. “It doesn’t necessarily make for a better fit for a student.”

Unlike most high schools in New York City, transfer schools admit students outside the centrally managed choice process. Instead, they set their own entrance criteria, often requiring that students interview, and meet minimum credit or age requirements. The schools themselves largely determine which students they admit, and accept them at various points during the year.

Some transfer school principals say this intake process is essential to maintaining each school’s culture, which depends on enrolling students who genuinely want to give school another try after dropping out or falling behind elsewhere.

But city officials have quietly scaled back the type of sorting transfer schools can do, banning them from testing students before they’re admitted, for example, or looking at attendance or suspension records. The transfer school superintendent also now has the power to directly place students if they are rejected from three transfer schools.

Given those changes, some transfer school principals are wary of the latest policy, which will allow guidance counselors at traditional schools to electronically “refer” students for up to three specific transfer schools, and requires transfer schools to track their interactions with those students.

The city says the new system will make it easier to find the right match between schools and students. It will “make the transfer high school admissions process easier and more transparent for students and families, while also ensuring better tracking and accountability,” education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement.

He noted the city is still working on implementation and the change won’t will happen before spring 2018. (The education department currently doesn’t have a way to track how many students are being recommended to transfer schools versus how many are actually accepted.)

Mantell could not say whether guidance counselors would need a student’s consent before electronically referring the student to a transfer school, and could not point to any specific policies on when it is appropriate for guidance counselors to refer students — though he noted there would be additional training for them.

Ron Smolkin, principal of Independence High School, a transfer school, says he appreciates the change. He worries about students who have fallen behind being told they “don’t qualify” for a transfer school, he said. “That’s why we exist.”

But other principals say it will make it easier for traditional schools to dump students because they are difficult to serve, regardless of whether they are good candidates for a transfer.

“There’s a greater risk of pushouts,” the Manhattan transfer school principal said.

Transfer school principals also worry about the consequences of accepting students who might be less likely to graduate than their current students — a potential effect of the new policy. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires high schools to graduate 67 percent of their students; those that don’t will be targeted for improvement.

Some transfer schools have called that an unfair standard since, by design, they take students who have fallen behind. The state has said transfer schools will not automatically face consequences, such as closure, if they fail to meet that benchmark, but it remains to be seen whether that entirely solves the problem.

One transfer school principal said the city’s desire to better monitor the admissions process makes sense, but won’t prevent schools from gaming the system — and is being implemented without adequate input from principals.

“Our voices haven’t been heard in this process,” the principal said, “and there are a lot of reasons to distrust.”