Building Better Schools

Ritz, state board at odds over what went wrong on NCLB

State board member Dan Elsener (left) had several sharp exchanges with state Superintendent Glenda Ritz (right) at today's meeting. (Scott Elliott)

State Board of Education members sparred with state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and her staff today over why Indiana is in hot water with federal education officials.

In a tense meeting reminiscent of last fall’s battles between Ritz and the rest of the board over who controlled state education policy, board members peppered the superintendent and her team with questions and challenged the veracity of their answers.

Why, they asked, did the U.S. Department of Education give Indiana 60 days to answer a series of concerns or potentially face sanctions? And why didn’t board members know sooner that this could happen?

“It looks like 100 percent of it is implementation,” board member David Freitas said. “I believe the responsibility rests squarely on the superintendent as our leader of the Department of Education.”

But Ritz insisted her team had not dropped the ball and would meet the requirements of the letter from Deb Delisle, assistant U.S. secretary of education, which said Indiana could lose a waiver that freed it from some potentially costly and cumbersome rules of the federal 2002 No Child Left Behind law.

“We all know the urgency and serious nature of exiting this waiver,” Ritz said. “The department has done its due diligence and takes full responsibility for making Indiana compliant with the waiver requirements.”

Delisle’s letter said indiana had “significant issues” complying with its waiver agreement that needed to be corrected before the waiver could be renewed for another year after it expires on June 30. The 2012 agreement with the U.S. Department of Education included a promise that the state would have “college and career ready” standards and tests, an approved school accountability system and an acceptable plan for monitoring and supporting low scoring schools.

Indiana’s original plan to meet those requirements, crafted under Ritz’s predecessor Tony Bennett, pledged to put into place Common Core standards, Common Core-based tests, a new A to F school grading system and a new statewide teacher evaluation system.

But the state soon changed direction in ways Ritz said everyone knew would require changes to its waiver agreement. The Indiana legislature in 2013 paused and then later voided Common Core; the state withdrew from the testing consortium; Ritz radically changed the department’s school monitoring operation; and she altered the state model system that most districts used to evaluate teachers.

Indiana dropped the Common Core after complaints from critics that following the standards, which 45 state agreed to follow, ceded to much control over what students learn to those outside of the state. Newly created standards were approved last month and state officials are working on a plan to make changes to state tests to match those standards.

Given all that, Ritz argued, it should have been no surprise to board members that the waiver agreement would need to be revised.

But board members focused on Delisle’s complaints that the state was not adequately monitoring and supporting D and F schools as it had promised, demanding that Ritz and the state education department answer for the problems cited.

“Clearly there are issues within the department that need to be addressed,” board member Gordon Hendry said. “This isn’t a blame game but we need to resolve these issues and get the department back on track.”

Ritz and her lieutenants, however, said a simple explanation exonerated them: the monitoring complaints were outdated.

One of Ritz’s first initiatives as state superintendent was to replace the department’s five-person Office of School Improvement and Turnaround with 20 outreach coordinators to serve more than 300 low-rated schools around the state. But that team was just being assembled when federal officials visited last August.

The work of the outreach coordinators was not captured last year’s review but will meet the U.S. Department of Education’s monitoring requirements, Ritz said. State and federal officials have been in regular communication about monitoring schools since at least December, she said, even though her office did not receive formal notice until April 27 that conditions would need to be met before the waiver was renewed.

“Did the department know we had work to do?” Ritz said. “You betcha.”

State education officials said Ritz spoke by phone with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last week and set a schedule to talk every three days about different complaints in Delisle’s letter until all nine have been addressed.

The letter constitutes a lower level of notice from the federal government than other states have received, meaning the state’s NCLB waiver is in no immediate danger if they address the concerns. Four states have been notified they are at “high risk” of losing their waivers, but Indiana was not added to that group. Last month, Washington became the first state to lose its NCLB waiver.

The  NCLB waiver allows Indiana to be judged on criteria other than the law’s escalating goals for student test performance. Without the waiver, NCLB would restrict how some federal dollars are spent, setting aside money for outside tutoring at schools rated as failing.

Throughout the board meeting, Ritz and board member Dan Elsener had sharp exchanges over whether education department officials, and Ritz herself, were meeting their responsibilities. Several board members shared Elsener’s skepticism.

“I hope they came away with that being unfounded,” Ritz said after the meeting. “Because we’ve been serious about this since my tenure. We know we have implementation to do with the waiver. We have implementation to do with all federal monies. Monitoring and technical assistance is what we do.”

Elsener was unmoved.

He suggested Ritz may have lost focus on the waiver in the fall as she battled with the board, a showdown that culminated in late November when she abruptly adjourned a meeting over the objections of others.

“I feel like we left accountability unattended,” he said. “I feel like our standards would have been done earlier if the superintendent hadn’t walked out of a meeting. That put us two months behind. I want leadership, discipline and a sense of mission.”

Ritz left today’s meeting saying she was just as frustrated with some of what she heard from the board.

“We kept asking some of the same questions over and over again that I felt we’d already worked with,” she said. “I’m very confident in the work of the department and of having the waiver extended.”

Big gains

No. 1: This Denver turnaround school had the highest math growth in Colorado

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
University Prep Steele Street students at a celebration of their test scores Friday.

Denver’s University Prep faced a gargantuan task last year: Turn around a school where the previous year just 7 percent of third- through fifth-graders were on grade level in math and 6 percent were on grade level in English.

On Friday morning, dozens of those students — dressed in khaki pants and button-up sweaters — clustered on the lawn to listen to officials celebrate their charter school, University Prep Steele Street, for showing the most academic growth in Colorado on last spring’s state standardized math tests.

The high-poverty school also had the eighth-highest growth on state English tests. Another Denver charter, KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy high school, had the first-highest.

“I want to say clearly to all of you that no one is ever going to tell you what you can and can’t do — ever,” University Prep founder and executive director David Singer told his students. “You’re going to remind them what you did in a single year.”

By the end of last year, 43 percent of University Prep Steele Street third- through fifth-graders were at grade level in math and 37 percent were at grade level in English, according to state tests results released Thursday.

University Prep Steele Street students scored better, on average, than 91 percent of Colorado students who had similar tests scores the year before in math and better than 84 percent of students who had similar scores in English.

As Singer noted Friday, that type of skyrocketing improvement is rare among turnaround schools in Denver and nationwide.

“This might be one of the biggest wins we’ve ever seen in our city, our state and our country of what it truly means to transform a school,” he said.

Many of the kids were previously students at Pioneer Charter School, one of the city’s first-ever charters. Founded in 1997 in northeast Denver, Pioneer had struggled academically in recent years, posting some of the lowest test scores in all of Denver Public Schools.

In 2015, Pioneer’s board of directors decided to close the school, which served students in preschool through eighth grade. University Prep, an elementary charter school a couple miles away, applied to take it over. But unlike many school turnarounds, it wouldn’t be a gradual, one-grade-at-a-time, phase-in, phase-out transition. Instead, University Prep would be responsible for teaching students in kindergarten through fifth grade on day one.

“When Pioneer Charter School became an option and we looked at our results up to that point of time and what we believed to be our capacity … we saw an opportunity,” Singer said

A former math teacher at nearby Manual High School, which has itself been subject to several turnaround efforts, Singer started University Prep after becoming frustrated with the reality faced by many of his teenage students, who often showed up with gaps in their knowledge.

“When you walk into school at 14 or 15 and have a huge gap, the likelihood you get to be whatever you want to be is diminished,” he said.

The key to changing that, Singer realized, would be to start students on a path to success earlier. That’s why University Prep’s tagline is, “College starts in kindergarten.”

“It’s a significantly better pathway than the one of intense catch-up on the backend,” Singer said.

University Prep Arapahoe Street opened as a standalone charter school in 2010. Last year, its fourth- and fifth-graders outperformed district averages on both the English and math tests.

Several teachers and staff members from the original campus helped open Steele Street in 2016. The school started with 226 students, 89 percent of whom qualified for subsidized lunches. Ninety-seven percent were students of color and 71 percent were English language learners, more than twice the percentage in the district as a whole.

The biggest difference from the year before, Singer said, were the expectations. The work was more rigorous and there was more of it: three hours of literacy and more than 100 minutes of math each day as part of a schedule that stretched from 7:15 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Lauren Argue was one of the teachers that moved from the original campus to Steele Street. She and Singer said the other big difference was the honest feedback students received from their teachers. That included sharing with students the fact that they were several grade levels behind, and starting the year by re-teaching second-grade math to fourth-graders.

“We had conversations of, ‘Here is where you’re at,’ but also expressing our unwavering belief that, ‘By the end of the year, you will grow a tremendous amount,’” Argue said.

While those hard conversations may have been uncomfortable at first for students and their families, Argue said they embraced them once they saw the progress students were making — progress that teachers made sure to celebrate at every opportunity.

“Kids learned the joy of what it means to do hard academic work and get through to the other side,” Singer said. “That became a source of pride.”

Ten-year-old Abril Sierra attended Pioneer since preschool. This year, she’s a fifth-grader at University Prep. On Friday, she said that while at times she thought her brain might explode, it felt good to tackle harder work. She credited her teachers with helping her achieve.

“The things that changed were definitely the perspective of how the teachers see you and believe in you,” Sierra said. “…They make you feel at home. You can trust them.”

By the numbers

NYC announces it will subsidize hiring from Absent Teacher Reserve — and sheds light on who is in the pool

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Ever since the city announced a new policy for placing teachers without permanent positions into schools, Chalkbeat and others have been asking questions about just who is in the pool, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve.

Now we have some answers.

The education department released figures on Friday that show a quarter of teachers currently in the the pool were also there five years ago, and a third ended up in the ATR because of disciplinary or legal issues. The average salary for teachers this past year was $94,000, according to the data.

The city also said it would extend budget incentives for schools that hire educators from the ATR, a change to its initial announcement. Principals have raised concerns about the cost of hiring from the ATR, since its members tend to be more senior, and therefore more expensive, than new teachers.

The ATR is comprised of teachers who don’t have regular positions, either because their jobs were eliminated or because of disciplinary issues. It cost almost $152 million in the last school year — far more than previously estimated — and currently stands at 822 teachers.

In July, the city announced a plan to cut the pool in half by placing teachers into vacancies still open after the new school year begins — even potentially over principals’ objection.

Critics have argued that the city’s new placement policy could place ineffective teachers in the neediest classrooms. StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis called the move “shockingly irresponsible” in a statement.

“There are reasons why no principal has chosen to hire them and this policy is bad for kids, plain and simple,” she said.

But Randy Asher, the former principal of Brooklyn Technical High School who is now responsible for helping to shrink the pool, called the new policy “a common sense approach to treating ATR teachers like all other teachers,” since they now have the opportunity to be evaluated by a school principal.

Here’s what the latest numbers tell us about who is in the pool.

How did educators end up in the Absent Teacher Reserve?

Most of the educators in the ATR were placed there because their schools had closed (38 percent) or due to budget cuts (30 percent.)

Another 32 percent entered the pool because of a legal or disciplinary case.

How effective are they?

A majority — 74 percent — received an evaluation rating of “highly effective,” “effective” or “satisfactory” in 2015-16, the most current year available. Current ratings for teachers citywide were not immediately available, but in 2014-15, 93 percent of teachers overall were rated effective or highly effective, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Twelve percent of teachers in the pool received an “ineffective” or “unsatisfactory” rating in 2015-16, and about 7 percent received a “developing” rating, one step up from ineffective.

Some teachers in the ATR say evaluations can be unfair since teachers are often placed in classrooms outside of the subjects they are equipped to teach and because they are bounced between classrooms.

Asked whether teachers with poor ratings would be placed in classrooms, Asher said “all” teachers in the ATR have traditionally been placed in school assignments.

“They’re in schools, no matter what. It’s a question of what is their role in the school, and how are they supported and evaluated,” he said. “Obviously we will look at each individual teacher and each individual assignment on a case-by-case basis.”

How experienced are they?

Teachers in the ATR have an average of 18 years of experience with the education department, and earn an average salary of $94,000. By comparison, the base salary for a New York City teacher as of May 2017 was $54,000.

How long have they been in the pool?

Almost half the educators who are currently in the pool were also there two years ago. A quarter were in the ATR five years ago. That doesn’t mean that teachers have remained in the ATR for that entire time. They could have been hired for a time, and returned to the pool.

Still, the figures could be fuel for those who argue educators in the ATR either aren’t seriously looking for permanent jobs — or that the educators in the pool are simply undesirable hires.

How will schools pay for them?

Teachers in the ATR have argued that their higher salaries are one reason principals avoid hiring them — a concern that principals voiced in a recent Chalkbeat report.

“This is part of the injustice of the ATR placement,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Manhattan. “Schools might not want them and they will cost schools more in the future, taking away from other budget priorities.”

Under the policy announced Friday, the education department will subsidize the cost of ATRs who are permanently hired, paying 50 percent of their salaries next school year and 25 percent the following school year.

Where have they worked previously?

This question is important because the answer gives a sense of where educators in the ATR are likely to be placed this fall. The education department’s original policy called for an educator to be placed within the same district they left, but the change announced in July allowed for placement anywhere within the same borough.

Almost half of ATR members, as of June 2016-17, came from high schools. That isn’t surprising: Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein targeted large high schools for closure, breaking them up into smaller schools as part of a turnaround strategy.

Of the school districts serving K- 8 students, District 19 in Brooklyn’s East New York and District 24 in Queens had among the most educators in the ATR. Each had 26.

What subjects do they teach?

The largest share of teachers in the ATR — 27 percent — are licensed to teach in early childhood or elementary school grades. Another 11 percent are licensed social studies teachers, 9 percent are math teachers and 8 percent are English teachers.

Questions have been raised in the past about whether the teachers in the pool had skills that were too narrow or out of date. A 2010 Chalkbeat story found that a quarter of teachers then in the pool were licensed to teach relatively obscure classes like swimming, jewelry-making and accounting.