Five data points that illustrate challenges New York City schools face

The needle is slowly moving to address challenges facing New York City’s neediest students, but incremental progress means that the biggest problems remain daunting, a data-packed report on the city school system shows.

Fewer students are getting stuck in middle school, but nearly one in five who enter high school are still overaged. New teachers are staying in the job longer, but a third are still gone four years after they started. And there are fewer school buildings that are overcrowded, but more students go to schools in the most crowded buildings and class sizes are still ticking up.

Those takeaways are among hundreds of data points included in the Independent Budget Office’s “Public Schools Indicators,” a 45-page report that the watchdog agency published on Monday. The IBO has been compiling the data annually since 2011, two years after state lawmakers granted it access to the Department of Education’s data to study and report on.

Unlike past years, this year’s version doesn’t have any new categories of data. But it does provide an update on hot-button issues like teacher retention, school overcrowding, and pre-K demographics.

Catching up the children left behind
Though the share of off-track students has been slowly shrinking over the past three years, overage students still represent a high percentage of the city’s youth. One in three students entering high school are overaged, meaning they’re older than their grade-level peers.

But these percentages have been trending down for students in grades 8 through 10, a trend that has coincided with the Bloomberg administration’s decision to soften its ban on social promotion. For years, students could not proceed to the next grade without passing their state exams, but an exception was granted to students who failed multiple times beginning in 2012.

The numbers are poised to continued decreasing. A state law established last year bars students from being retained based on their test scores alone. The change was not implemented in time to affect the 2013-2014 cohort of students, the most recent group examined in the IBO’s report.

Some of the most difficult students to serve are off-track middle-school students, which account for about 18 percent of eighth-grade students. Overage middle-school students have lower attendance rates and are more likely to drop out of school, according to a report last year by Advocates for Children of New York. The report also found that options for these students are limited, with about 450 slots available in programs that specifically serve off-track middle-school students.

Honing in on student home life

A growing number of students are enduring uncertain living arrangements while attending New York’s schools.

Nearly 50,000 students lived in “doubled up” housing, or units where multiple families occupy the same living space, during the 2013-14 school year — a major increase from 30,000 four years earlier. Students living in temporary shelters increased by more than 1,000 over three years, hitting nearly 28,000.

In all, there were more than 82,000 students whose families reported living in temporary housing during the 2013-14 school year.

Younger students more often shoulder this burden. Students in first grade were most likely to live in temporary housing.

New York’s swelling numbers of homeless students has coincided with a movement to better define poverty. In a second report released by the IBO on Monday night, the organization suggests an alternative to using free or reduced-price lunch as a proxy for poverty. Currently, that figure factors into many decisions about how schools are funded, supported, and evaluated.

Many parents fail to fill out the cumbersome paperwork required to apply for free or reduced-price lunch, resulting in inaccurate counts, the report says.

The new metric proposed by the IBO tracks median income in a student’s community, rather than using individual household income. In addition to removing any paperwork barriers, this new measure creates a more nuanced picture of poverty. Currently, too many students in New York qualify for free or reduced-price lunch to make meaningful distinctions between schools, the report argues.

A more stable teaching workforce 

Of 2,600 people hired to start teaching in the city school system in 2009, more than a third were no longer working as teachers in the city four years later.

That might seem like a lot, but teacher turnover used to happen even faster. In 2004, the city lost the same share of new teachers after just two years on the job.

Some of the improved retention can be chalked up to an economic recession that reduced employment alternatives and forced the city education department to cut its hiring rate by more than half.

But as the economy recovers, the IBO report offers an early indication that teacher turnover rates may not return to the high levels of churn seen in the early 2000s. The share of teachers who have left their jobs in their first several years has held relatively steady or continued to decrease since 2010.

Despite a more stable workforce, retaining experienced and high-caliber teachers remains a challenge for large urban school districts like New York City, which have to compete with nearby school systems that pay teachers higher salaries and serve a less challenging student population. The city’s new contract with teachers has taken some steps to address the issue, offering better salaries to qualified teachers who take on leadership positions and allowing for the dissemination of bonuses to teachers working in schools deemed “hard-to-staff” because they serve low-income students.

Fewer overcrowded buildings, but students are more cramped for space

Space is a scarce resource in a place like New York City, but it’s getting especially cramped for a growing number of students.

The number of students who attend school in an overcrowded building hit a seven-year high in 2013-14, even as the total number of buildings determined to be “overcrowded” shrank from 565 to 523. That means that students are continuing to flock to the most cramped buildings in the city even as space opens up in dozens of other buildings.

Access to enough classrooms and use of the gymnasium, auditorium or other common building facilities is an issue at the heart of many challenges facing city education officials. New charter schools are clamoring for space in the underutilized buildings, while at the same time the city is struggling to find enough seats in parts of the city that young families are flocking to. The overcrowding increase came despite a three-year school construction boom in which the city opened more than 70 new school buildings.

Meanwhile, average class sizes in elementary and middle schools continued to grow in 2013-14, from 25.5 to 25.7. They increased in nearly every grade, with the exception of kindergarten, sixth grade and seventh grade.

The path to pre-K continues
How are the students in prekindergarten different from those in kindergarten? Pre-K students are more likely to be wealthy, less likely to be Hispanic, and more likely to be black, if comparing pre-K students and kindergarten students in the 2013-2014 school year is any indication.

The city also has a long way to go before all students are enrolled in pre-K classes. In 2013-2014, 20,000 more students enrolled in kindergarten than in pre-K.

The results are a mixed bag for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has made universal pre-K one of his signature education policy initiatives since he took office. The statistics in this report reflect the class before de Blasio’s universal pre-K expansion. De Blasio has promoted universal pre-K as a way to combat inequality and school segregation, two goals that could be difficult to accomplish if low-income parents do not take advantage of the program.