Great Divide

Upper West Side parents gather to tackle middle-school integration

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
P.S. 199 (left) is a top-ranked school surrounded by pricey residential buildings. P.S. 191, which serves many students from the Amsterdam Houses (far right), has struggled with low test scores.

The contentious rezoning of elementary schools on the Upper West Side drew citywide attention to the challenges of integrating schools in a district that includes both affluent high-rise buildings and public housing. Now community members in the area are turning their attention to another integration battlefield: middle schools.

The Community Education Council in District 3, which includes the Upper West Side and parts of Harlem, hosted a symposium Thursday night focused on middle school diversity. It featured a panel of integration advocates and experts, including Jill Bloomberg, principal of Park Slope Collegiate, a secondary school; David Goldsmith, president of District 13’s Community Education Council; and Jeff Young, former superintendent of the Cambridge, Mass. school system.

In elementary school, students are assigned to schools based on where they live, but in District 3 and several others districts across the city, students can apply to different middle schools across the district. Yet, despite that freedom, the middle schools in District 3 remain deeply divided along racial and socioeconomic lines.

It’s no secret that school choice is not always an antidote to segregation. The city’s system of universal high school choice has not desegregated schools, nor that happened in other middle school choice districts, or when the city “dezoned” a district on the Lower East Side.

In some cases, that is likely due to the barriers schools use to shape their student bodies — like requiring students to submit test scores or projects, or come to open houses — all of which advantage those with the savvy to work the system.

Still, the influence of those obstacles on school segregation has been a relatively small part of the conversation. When asked at a press conference Thursday about how high school choice can lead to extreme academic sorting, Mayor Bill de Blasio jumped to an explanation that involved housing segregation — even though prospective high school students can apply to any school in the city.

“The history of our city, the geography, all sorts of other things that have determined how we are shaped today,” de Blasio said. “We cannot change the basic reality of housing in New York City.”

But the panelists Thursday spoke about ways to address middle school segregation — from personal appeals to district-wide plans. Here are three significant moments from the event:

Jill Bloomberg, principal of Park Slope Collegiate, on how she spoke with parents of new students when integrating schools

So in 2011, 10 somewhat trepidatious, white middle-class families came into our school. And we had said from the beginning, “You are welcome in our school.” And … there was zero discussion of what we are going to do for you. We said, “Here’s what we do for the kids who are here. We think it’s amazing. You are welcome to join us.”

So there were lots of questions about safety, which are really very coded questions about race and racism. We assured them that their kids would be fine.

They wanted to meet the teachers. They wanted to see the classes. There were lots of discussions of, “How’s my child going to learn next to this child who doesn’t look like him and I’m assuming isn’t as bright?” I’m just going to put it out there. So we just said, “Look, the kids here are just as bright as your kids and we’re going to teach them exactly the same way.”

David Goldsmith, president of CEC 13, on what he’s learned from trying to integrate District 13 about the importance of looking at the system as a whole

You cannot plan for success for some kids, or one school, and not plan for success for all the schools. So we decided very quickly that single-school models for set-asides was not fair, and it’s not what we were interested in. We would create these little Shangri-Las of these beautiful little high-performing schools that were diverse and all that. Meanwhile, all the rest of the schools got squat. And that wasn’t our plan, so we went districtwide.

Jeff Young on why parents have to be receptive to integration before you can enlist them

I just think the framing of the question of “How do you convince somebody to do something?” is problematic. How do you convince a kid to eat broccoli? You can tell them that it’s good for you. It tastes good, trust me. Or whatever kinds of things we say to kids to make them eat broccoli. But they have to kind of want to try the broccoli … If I had some little laminated 3 x 5 card that I could give you that say, “Say these three things and you’ll convince people,” I’d be happy to hand you such a card. But I just don’t think it exists.

School choices

School choice supporters downplay new voucher research, saying schools are more than a test score

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

At this week’s gathering of school choice supporters, there was an awkward fact in their midst: A wave of new studies had shown that students receiving a voucher did worse, sometimes much worse, on standardized tests.

That was the inconvenient verdict of studies examining programs in Louisiana, Ohio, Washington, D.C., and in Indianapolis, where the advocates had convened for the annual conference of the American Federation for Children. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the group’s former leader, gave the keynote address.

But many of the school choice proponents, who had long made the case that their favored reform works, had an explanation at the ready.

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, only alluded to the recent studies. “In spite of a few research projects of a narrowly identified group of students, the simple fact is when you create a marketplace of choices and informed parents … the children do better,” he told the audience.

Other leading supporters emphasized the impact the programs have beyond test scores, as well as the shortcomings of recent studies.

“Some of the data that is really interesting [looks at] not just achievement, but attainment,” Robert Enlow, head of EdChoice, a group that backs vouchers and tax credit programs, told Chalkbeat. “A kid may not be doing as well on a test score as we would like, but they’re graduating at higher rates [and] they’re going into college at higher rates.”

Indeed, older studies show that students in Milwaukee’s voucher program were more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college. Students in D.C.’s initiative also completed high school at a higher rate.

Enlow also pointed to evidence that private school choice can spur improvements in public schools through competition and increase parent satisfaction rates. Sounding a bit like some of his opponents who lead teachers unions, Enlow argued that test scores are a poor measure of educational quality.

“We want a vibrant society of people who know what they’re doing who are productive members of society,” he said. “A single test doesn’t prove jack about that.”

While EdChoice has said that school choice leads to academic gains, the group has also argued, prior to the recent studies, that parents care about more than just test scores when choosing schools. EdChoice opposes requiring students in voucher programs to take state tests at all. Without such data, making comparisons to public schools is more difficult.

Still, Enlow said, “there are some studies showing that private schools need to get better on test scores.”

Supporters also noted that the studies in D.C. and Louisiana were based on just one and two years of data, respectively. Enlow says that is too little information to draw helpful conclusions, a point echoed by Kevin Chavous, a board member at the American Federation for Children and a former D.C. city council member.

“This is after one year in the program,” said Chavous referring to the recent D.C. report, which analyzed three groups of students after a single year of receiving a voucher. “Studies also show … the longer the kids are in these programs, the better they’ll do.”

An overview of past research on school vouchers, including studies in other countries, found that students were neither helped nor harmed after three years, but saw significant test score jumps in the fourth year.

DeVos hasn’t addressed the topic in depth. After her own Department of Education released the report on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, DeVos stated, “The study released today found that D.C. OSP parents overwhelmingly support this program, and that, at the same time, these schools need to improve upon how they serve some of D.C.’s most vulnerable students.”

Chavous argues that giving families choice means allowing them to pick schools based on what is important to them, which may not be test scores. It’s also hypocritical for those who are skeptical of testing to then use test results to criticize voucher programs, he said.

“You can’t have it both ways — you can’t say we have too much high-stakes testing when it comes to public schools and then when it comes to private choice programs, OK, they aren’t passing the test,” he said.

But he acknowledges inconsistency on his own side among those who use test results to claim that public schools are failing.

“We’re all hypocrites on the testing thing,” Chavous said.

This story has been updated to clarify EdChoice’s previous statements on the value of test scores.

trumped up

DeVos said rejecting choice plan would be a ‘terrible mistake.’ New York education advocates have a different take

At a speech in Indianapolis Monday night, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos promised an “ambitious” expansion of school choice — and said it would be a “terrible mistake” if states refuse to participate.

Yet, at a discussion of school choice in New York City Tuesday morning, panelists invited by the Women’s City Club of New York, seemed unfazed by the secretary’s comments.

“None of us here at the table are persuaded that what’s happening in Washington is going to have a tremendous impact here in New York,” said Shawn Morehead, the moderator, a program director at The New York Community Trust.

In part, that is because the version of school choice advocated by DeVos is more radical than the existing choice system in New York state, panelists said. New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman, argued that New York state charter schools represent a highly regulated version of school choice, whereas DeVos favors a deregulated, market-orientated approach.

“We took that fork in the road a long time ago,” Merriman said. “I don’t see that changing in any way, shape or form because of who the secretary of education is.”

New York City also has a high school choice system, where students can apply to any school in the city. But recent reporting has found that the admissions rules are hazy and the system has maintained racial, academic and socioeconomic segregation in city schools.

Panelists advocated for more regulation to help correct this problem. (Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said last week she is “reconsidering” some enrollment in high schools but did not provide any more details.)

DeVos offered few specifics on her school choice proposal during her Indianapolis speech, but President Donald Trump’s budget proposal includes a $1 billion increase for Title I, earmarked to allow funding to follow students to the public schools of their choice.

Later on Tuesday, a flurry of statements from New York’s education advocates denounced Trump’s budget for its deep cuts in many areas, including career and technical education and teacher preparation.

“The president’s outrageous education budget is yet another example of his administration putting the most vulnerable Americans at risk,” said Breakthrough New York Executive Director Rhea Wong. “At a time when our country should be making education great again, this plan kneecaps success and oppresses opportunity.”