one day more

It’s crunch time in Albany. What will happen to mayoral control?

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

With one full day left in the legislative session, New York’s education issues boil down to this: What will happen to mayoral control?

Each of the past two years, Mayor Bill de Blasio has received a one-year extension, both times setting up another round of political haggling. Now, with control of New York City schools expiring at the end of June, lawmakers must decide if they will grant another extension, how long it will last, and whether it will come with strings attached.

“There’s only three days left,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a press conference on Monday. “Our children’s futures hang in the balance.”

Mayoral control of New York City schools has many backers and there is little support for the alternative. De Blasio asked for a multi-year extension, Governor Andrew Cuomo suggested a three-year extension, the Assembly has already passed a two-year extension. Even opponents of the mayor do not suggest returning to a system of 32 different community school boards, which most agree led to dysfunction.

“If they don’t [renew mayoral control], the entire system will slide back into the old, decentralized structure we had before,” wrote Chancellor Carmen Fariña in Chalkbeat. “That would mean chaos, gridlock and corruption.”

Yet, as recently as Friday, Governor Andrew Cuomo said mayoral control “does not have the support to pass.” That’s largely because Senate Republicans, who have long had a frosty relationship with de Blasio, stand in the way.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has made it clear he wants to tie mayoral control to expanding school choice, including upping the number of charter schools that can open in New York City.

“Denying charters the ability to grow and preventing parents’ ability to choose would shut the door on 20 years of proven gains in academic achievement,” Flanagan said in a statement. “We can not allow that to happen, and will not grant a long-term extension of mayoral control without first ensuring that all students have opportunities.”

The Senate has passed three different options for extending mayoral control, linking control of New York City schools to charter school growth. The longest extension, a five-year deal, would enact a controversial education tax credit, which is strongly opposed by Assembly Democrats. (Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie called the trio of bills a “non-starter.”)

Both parties’ hard stance has left some wondering if lawmakers will not reach a deal by Wednesday, when the session ends.

“I’m personally somewhat pessimistic just given the rhetoric,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

There is precedent for letting mayoral control expire. It happened to former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2009, which resulted in a brief resurrection of the New York City Board of Education in July of that year. The ordeal ended in early August, when lawmakers approved a six-year extension of mayoral control.

So far, de Blasio has avoided letting mayoral control lapse entirely. But each time he has gained a year extension, the “big ugly” deal has brought concessions for charter schools.

In 2015, along with mayoral control, state officials increased the number of additional charter schools that could open in New York City from 25 to 50 and removed the specific number of charters assigned to each of the state’s authorizers. Last year, the deal made it easier for charter schools to switch authorizers.

Both measures helped schools authorized by the New York City Department of Education switch to SUNY or the state’s Board of Regents. Many prefer those authorizers because the city’s education department cannot authorize any new schools — a problem for charter school networks interested in growing.

This year, there has been talk of lifting New York City’s charter school cap. Currently there is a limit on the number of charter schools that can open statewide, and a smaller limit for New York City. Cuomo proposed ending the city’s cap in January, but the proposal did not make it into the final budget deal.

As of June 2017, state law allows for 23 more charter schools to open in New York City, according to the New York City Charter School Center. That means the city is getting close to the cap, but also that the issue could be pushed to next year.

State officials could also tie mayoral control to a requirement for additional oversight of the city’s schools. Last year, lawmakers threatened to appoint an “education inspector,” which did not come to pass. The final deal contained a requirement to release more detailed budget information. (Already this year, Flanagan blasted the mayor for providing school budget information that he believes “does not satisfy the law.”)

Trading mayoral control for more oversight has historical precedent, too. In 2009, when lawmakers ended their stalemate by giving Bloomberg a six-year renewal of mayoral control, they tied the extension to greater oversight from the city’s Independent Budget Office.

Though history suggests extending mayoral control invites concessions, many advocates are hoping the policy is renewed without gamesmanship.

“Extending mayoral control in New York City must be completed before lawmakers leave Albany,” Timothy Kremer, the head of New York State School Boards Association, said in a statement. “The education of children and the leadership of the school system should not be fodder for end-of-session horse-trading.”

tech trouble

New York City continues to lose track of thousands of school computers, audit finds

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
On Wednesday, City Comptroller Scott Stringer criticized the city's ability to keep track of education technology.

Thousands of computers and tablets that belong in city schools are either missing or unaccounted for — and the city has failed to create a centralized tracking system despite repeated warnings, according to a new audit from Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Just over 1,800 pieces of technology were missing from eight schools and one administrative office sampled by auditors, and another 3,500 in those nine locations were not sufficiently tracked, roughly 35 percent of the computers and tablets purchased for them.

If that sounds like déjà vu, it should: The findings are similar to a 2014 audit that showed significant amounts of missing technology — lost to theft or poor tracking — among a different sample of schools.

“I’m demanding that the [Department of Education] track these computers and tablets centrally,” Stringer said Wednesday. “I shouldn’t have to come back every two years to explain why this matters.”

Of the computers that were missing in the 2014 audit, the city could now only account for 13 percent of them, Stringer’s office said.

The audit raises questions about whether the education department can cost-effectively manage technology as it plans to expand access to it. Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised every student will have access to computer science education by 2025.

Education department spokesman Will Mantell called the report’s methodology “fundamentally flawed and unreliable,” arguing in part that the comptroller’s office didn’t always use the right inventory list or interview the correct staff. He noted the city is working to improve its inventory management.

The city “will continue to invest in cost-effective solutions that catalog and safeguard technology purchases in the best interests of students, schools and taxpayers,” Mantell added.

Good reads

How one Nashville school uses classic novels to get young students ahead in reading

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Second-grade students read The Magician's Nephew at Nashville Classical Charter School.

For John Little, the hardest part about reading The Magician’s Nephew as a second-grader wasn’t the book’s mid-century British vocabulary, or the fact that the C.S. Lewis classic is on a fifth-grade reading level.

It was the temptation to read ahead of his classmates at Nashville Classical Charter School.

“That would spoil it!” said the 8-year-old, referring to daily group book discussions that he enjoyed last spring at his K-5 school.

At Nashville Classical, reading the classics is foundational to the school’s philosophy on learning to read — and reading to learn.

“For us, it’s important for students to be reading across a variety of genres, a variety of cultures, for students to be reading across a variety of times,” said Charlie Friedman, the school’s founder and leader.

Magician’s Nephew is a really wonderful book,” he added, “because it’s full of all of these phrases that are sort of mid-century British phrases, and it forces students to step out of our time, culture and place and read something that really opens doors and windows to them.”

Nashville Classical was borne out of concern that 75 percent of its neighborhood public school students were behind in reading. Friedman and community activists partnered with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools in 2012 to open the charter school with literacy proficiency at its core. It now has about 375 students.

While the world is changing quickly, Nashville Classical leaders believe that reading the classics is one of the best ways to prepare for college and career. Such texts are challenging to students and build their knowledge about geography, history and culture, they say.

The idea is that learning to read goes beyond sounding out words; it’s also about learning about different people, places, and ideas.

But that mindset also has critics. Much of classic literature lacks racial and gender diversity to the point that it’s sometimes characterized as stories about “dead white men,” especially concerning for a school that serves mostly minority students from low-income families.

Friedman says teachers at Nashville Classical draw from a deep well of texts and resources and strive to make the material relevant to their students.

“We really think about it more as stories and ideas that have stood the test of time and those come from a variety of cultures,” he said. “We think it’s really important that our canon represents our students. At the same time, we think that text selection should be a mirror and a window.”

During the first half of the school year, John’s second-grade class used the Core Knowledge curriculum, which was briefly used district-wide in Nashville more than a decade ago before being scrapped because it didn’t align to state tests at the time. The curriculum was designed by American educator and literary critic E.D. Hirsch to address “knowledge gaps,” a challenge that can be particularly acute for low-income children who have less access at home to books and other enriching activities. The second half of the year focused on reading and discussing novels such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the Boxcar Children series and Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.

The novels for second-graders are selected to be enjoyable reads, but also to introduce students to cultural vocabulary that they might not encounter elsewhere, as well as geographical landmarks far from Tennessee, like Central Park in New York City.

Students are broken into groups based on how well they can do things like read aloud, write out their answers, or read to themselves. To an outside observer, it’s unclear how the students are grouped, or which groups are more advanced, but it’s based on scores from a literacy assessment designed for urban educators by the University of Chicago.

Kathleen Cucci reads "The Magician's Nephew," by C.S. Lewis, to second grade students at Nashville Classical Charter School.
PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Kathleen Cucci reads aloud to her students during group time.

In John’s group with teacher Kathleen Cucci, students took turns reading aloud to one another, and were urged to read with expression.

“We believe really deeply in the power of reading aloud,” Friedman said. “It’s an opportunity to model joy, and to model reading as a social activity, which is really important to us.”

In another group, teacher Emma Colonna read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing aloud to students who were struggling to comprehend the material after reading it silently to themselves. Then they talk together about what happened.

Still another group was free that day to pick out their own books from nearly 500 volumes in bins lining a classroom wall.

“The purpose is giving autonomy and choice over what they read, and letting them read their favorite authors or series about their favorite topics,” Friedman said. “Reading for pleasure is how you develop that lifelong love for reading.”

Reading, especially in the early grades, is a statewide focus in Tennessee. State tests show that more than half of third- and fourth-graders are behind on reading skills. And on the most recent test known as the Nation’s Report Card, only one-third of Tennessee fourth-graders earned a proficient reading score.

But the state is also making strategic investments through Ready to be Ready, an initiative launched last year through the State Department of Education that highlights many techniques already in use at Nashville Classical. Those include an emphasis on reading aloud and picking material that’s fun for students to read. The goal is to get 75 percent of third-graders reading on grade level by 2025.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
John Little reads a story at the 2016 kickoff of Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Recognized as an exceptional reader, John Little was part of last year’s kickoff event for Read to be Ready. He even read a story to the crowd, which included Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

On average, Nashville Classical students score better than 77 percent of students nationwide on the NWEA/MAP reading test required in many Tennessee districts. And according to to the STEP assessment designed by the University of Chicago, 91 percent of the school’s students read at or above grade level.

The school has some advantages over other Tennessee public schools. Parents have bought into the model and chosen to send their children to the charter school. While about 70 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged and about 80 percent are of color, many families who are white and middle income are also choosing Nashville Classical, making it one of the most diverse schools in rapidly gentrifying East Nashville.

Eventually, the school is slated to expand to the eighth grade. And as it grows, literacy, with a focus on canonical novels, will be at its core, says Friedman. Next school year, all Nashville Classical students will take a daily “Great Books” class modeled after the reading discussions in John’s class.

“We want to push a love of reading from the moment they enter kindergarten,” said Colonna. “It’s not something you ever teach explicitly. It’s something we try to have as our culture.”