unlikely friends

Conservative think tank finds ‘meaningful’ academic progress at New York City’s Renewal schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s big bet on pumping millions of dollars into low-performing schools instead of closing them down is creating “meaningful” academic benefits.

That’s according to a forthcoming report from an unlikely source: the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute, a frequent critic of the mayor’s education policies. The report is the first independent analysis to show that the Renewal program is producing academic benefits, as measured by math and reading scores on state tests.

School Renewal — a program that infused 94 of the city’s lowest-performing schools with additional social services, nonprofit partnerships and academic support — tended to produce larger academic gains than the rest of the city’s schools, including those that had similarly low test scores before the program began.

In all, the report estimates, Renewal boosted student achievement by a “meaningful magnitude” — the equivalent of about 49 days of extra instruction in reading and 33 days in math, as measured by gains in state test scores. (The report focuses only on elementary and middle schools. It does not look at academic progress in Renewal high schools, which comprise a little more than a third of the program.)

“The evidence I find is that that the schools are better than they would have been without the label,” said Marcus Winters, the study’s author.

That finding is good news for an administration that has struggled to point to rigorous statistical evidence that its plan for low-performing schools is creating clear progress. It also comes at a key moment, as the program is nearing the end of the third year of what de Blasio initially described as a three-year program (though it is slated to continue next year).

Still, the Manhattan Institute’s relatively positive findings are complicated by a recent analysis conducted by Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas. Using a different statistical model and an additional year of data, Pallas found that Renewal schools generally did not make bigger gains in reading or math when paired with other struggling schools that didn’t receive extra support.

“There’s some hint of progress in raising test scores that wasn’t present in my analysis,” Pallas said, noting the Manhattan Institute analysis focused on one year of data. “It’s not, I think, a strong case.”

In its response to the report, the city seemed reluctant to seize on its specific findings as evidence of the program’s success, pointing instead to general increases in achievement at Renewal schools. “Renewal Schools are making real progress,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman said in a statement. “Across the program, graduation rates are up, chronic absenteeism is down, state test scores are improving, and teachers are developing stronger instructional practices.”

To assess the program, Winters used a model that measured yearly changes in test scores in 2015 and 2016 at Renewal schools compared with those outside the program. The Renewal program had the strongest effect in 2016, the year after it was fully implemented, boosting math and reading scores by a statistically significant margin overall (though the positive benefits were not consistent across all grade levels).

The positive effect becomes less pronounced when Renewal schools are compared to others that also had low scores, or when the timeline is extended to include 2015 data from when the program was still rolling out.

Jonah Rockoff, an education researcher at Columbia University who reviewed the Manhattan Institute report and Pallas’s data, cautioned against claiming the new report offers definitive evidence of the Renewal program’s effect on test scores.

“The [Manhattan Institute] report is more upbeat on Renewal schools raising test scores,” he said. “My sense is that any positive effects are quite small.”

Winters also claims that the Renewal program — which has cost roughly $386 million so far — is both more costly and less effective than former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s approach of giving schools letter grades and closing ineffective ones.

Under Bloomberg’s letter grade system, for instance, schools that received an ‘F’ improved the following year by the equivalent of 36 days of learning in reading and 72 days in math, the report says, more than schools improved under Renewal. But the study does not include a rigorous cost-benefit analysis of Bloomberg’s versus de Blasio’s efforts to improve struggling schools — and city officials said the report’s comparisons are unfair.

“The A-F grading system does not take into account the systemic challenges that many Renewal schools faced when they entered the program,” Aciman said. “The study overestimates the impact that a single letter grade can have on improving a school, and underestimates the impact of the research-based supports that are being implemented at Renewal schools to improve classroom instruction, school climate and student performance.”

Correction: Due to errors in the original Manhattan Institute report, this story has been corrected to reflect the accurate number of extra days of instruction created by the Renewal program and Bloomberg’s accountability system.

head to head

Protesters face off with member of New York City’s Absent Teacher Reserve outside the mayor’s gym

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Karen Curley, left, talks with Andrea Jackson of StudentsFirstNY

Karen Curley ran into something surprising as she headed into her Park Slope gym on Wednesday: protesters pushing back against the city’s strategy to give her a job.

Curley, 61, a Department of Education social worker who used to work in District 17, has been rotating through different positions for at least two years. She is a member of the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of teachers without permanent assignments that is once again at the center of debate over how the city should manage teachers and spend money.

The protesters had gathered outside the Prospect Park YMCA to confront its most famous member, Mayor Bill de Blasio, about the city’s plans to place roughly 400 teachers from the ATR into school vacancies come October. They say the city is going back on an earlier vow not to force the teachers into schools.

“These are unwanted teachers. There’s a reason why they’re just sitting there,” said Nicole Thomas, a Brooklyn parent and volunteer with StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group that organized the protest and often opposes the mayor. “We don’t want these teachers in our schools.”

In fact, the ATR pool includes both teachers whose positions were eliminated because of budget cuts or enrollment changes, and also teachers who have disciplinary records. The city has not disclosed how many teachers in the pool fall into each camp, or which ones will be assigned to positions this fall.

Curley said she was heartbroken when she realized the protest was directed against the Absent Teacher Reserve. “We don’t want to be absent,” she said. “We’re educators.”

She said cost was likely an impediment to their hiring. “The truth is, at this point, I have 20 years in [the school system], which isn’t a lot for someone my age,” she said. But after 20 years, “we’re not likely to be hired elsewhere because we’re high enough on the pay scale that new people can be hired for a lot less money.”

Earlier Wednesday, Chalkbeat cited new figures from the Independent Budget Office placing the cost of the Absent Teacher Reserve at $151.6 million last school year, an average of roughly $116,000 per teacher in salary and benefits. Some principals have balked at the idea of having staffers forced on them in October — and vowed to avoid having vacancies.

Shortly after 10 a.m., the mayor emerged from the gym and hurried into a waiting car without addressing the protesters, who chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, forced placement has got to go.”

Thomas was disappointed he didn’t stop. “He didn’t even acknowledge us,” she said. “And we voted for him.”

Building Better Schools

Hundreds of teachers will be displaced by Indianapolis high school closing plan

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teacher Tina Ahlgren spoke to the Indianapolis Public Schools Board in June about the importance of making the high school closing process easier for teachers.

If the Indianapolis Public Schools Board approves a plan to close three high schools, students won’t be the only ones facing transition: Hundreds of teachers will need to find new positions.

Just what will happen to those educators remains uncertain. District leaders say most teaching positions will be moved, not cut. But educators have raised concerns that the process for reassigning teachers is murky and that the prospect of school closings will push teachers to flee.

A proposal from Superintendent Lewis Ferebee released last month calls for closing Broad Ripple High School and John Marshall Middle School, and converting Arlington and Northwest High Schools to middle schools. Those four schools combined had 329 certified teachers in 2015-2016, the latest year available in the state performance report.

The district would also roll out a new career academy model, where students choose their high schools based on focus areas in fields such as business, construction and medical science.

All that transition means a lot of changes are in store for the hundreds of educators who work at the schools slated to close — and those at the high schools that will launch career academies and take the influx of new students.

For now, the district is not providing much information on what is in store for teachers. The details are expected to come after the IPS board votes on which schools to close in September. Eleven days after the board votes, central office staff are scheduled visit the high schools to discuss the timeline, next steps and personnel decisions.

But Ferebee said it will be even longer before the district has a full picture of how many teachers are needed at the career academies in each school because it depends on where students choose to enroll.

“Much of what we do with certified staff will be driven by enrollment interest of students,” he said.

By closing schools, the district expects to save $4.35 million in “classroom resources,” or expenses from the general fund, according to the report recommending closing high schools. The general fund is typically used to pay for costs including salaries for teachers and other school workers, equipment like computers and supplies needed to run the schools.

The administration does not expect it would save much from shrinking the teaching force, because they anticipate that the number of teachers will stay relatively stable, said deputy superintendent Wanda Legrand. “Our student enrollment will stay about the same.”

IPS union president Rhondalyn Cornett, who leads the Indianapolis Education Association, said that she also expects the number of teachers to remain steady — as long as students don’t start leaving the district for charter and township schools.

The career academies may also lead to more jobs for teachers with new skills and credentials, but it’s not entirely clear how that will play out. Some teachers may already be qualified to teach in the new programs and others may be able to get the extra credentials relatively easily.

Even if the district maintains the same number of students and teachers in its high schools, however, the transition is hard for teachers at the schools that are expected to close, Cornett said.

“They are afraid. They don’t understand how this process works,” she said. “They don’t know what the future holds.”

Cornett said that the district should make the closing process easier for educators by being clear about how they can get jobs at other schools and giving teachers who lost their jobs because of  school closings priority for open positions.

Tina Ahlgren, the 2014 IPS Teacher of the Year, spoke to the board in June about the urgent need to make the process transparent for teachers. Ahlgren has been through this before. She lost jobs at two prior schools after one school was taken over by the state and a magnet program at another school was abruptly moved.

“During each of these transitions, I watched dozens of loyal, effective, IPS educators leave the district due to the chaos that ensued and the broken promises from this district,” she said. “I speak here today to remind you of those challenges in the hopes that we will learn from our past and not repeat those mistakes this time around.”