First Person

Just How Gullible Is David Brooks?

Now that I have your attention … Today’s New York Times column by David Brooks touts a new study by Roland Fryer and Will Dobbie of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) Promise Academy charter schools, two celebrated schools in Harlem.  Fryer and Dobbie’s finding that the typical eighth-grader was in the 74th percentile among New York City students in mathematics leads Brooks to state that HCZ Promise Academy eliminated the black-white achievement gap.  He’s so dumbstruck by this that he says it twice.  Brooks takes this evidence as support for the “no excuses” model of charter schools, and, claiming that “the approach works,” challenges all cities to adopt this “remedy for the achievement gap.”

Coming on the heels of yesterday’s release of the 2009 New York State English Language Arts (ELA) results, in which the HCZ schools outperformed the citywide white average in grade 3, but were well behind the white average in grades 4, 5 and 8, skoolboy decided to drink a bit more deeply from the datastream.  The figure below shows the gap between the average performance in HCZ Promise Academy and white students in New York City in ELA and math, expressed as a fraction of the standard deviation of overall performance in a given grade and year.  The left side of the figure shows math performance, and the right side shows ELA performance.


It’s true that eighth-graders in 2008 scored .20 standard deviations above the citywide average for white students.  But it may also be apparent that this is a very unusual pattern relative to the other data represented in this figure, all of which show continuing and sizeable advantages for white students in New York City over HCZ students.  The fact that HCZ seventh-graders in 2008 were only .3 standard deviations behind white students citywide in math is a real accomplishment, and represents a shrinkage of the gap of .42 standard deviations for these students in the preceding year.  However, Fryer and Dobbie, and Brooks in turn, are putting an awful lot of faith in a single data point — the remarkable increase in math scores between seventh and eighth grade for the students at HCZ who entered sixth grade in 2006.  If what HCZ is doing can routinely produce a .67 standard deviation shift in math test scores in the eighth grade, that would be great.  But we’re certainly not seeing an effect of that magnitude in the seventh grade.  And, of course, none of this speaks to the continuing large gaps in English performance.   

But here’s the kicker.  In the HCZ Annual Report for the 2007-08 school year submitted to the State Education Department, data are presented on not just the state ELA and math assessments, but also the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.  Those eighth-graders who kicked ass on the state math test?  They didn’t do so well on the low-stakes Iowa Tests.  Curiously, only 2 of the 77 eighth-graders were absent on the ITBS reading test day in June, 2008, but 20 of these 77 were absent for the ITBS math test.  For the 57 students who did take the ITBS math test, HCZ reported an average Normal Curve Equivalent (NCE) score of 41, which failed to meet the school’s objective of an average NCE of 50 for a cohort of students who have completed at least two consecutive years at HCZ Promise Academy.  In fact, this same cohort had a slightly higher average NCE of 42 in June, 2007.

Normal Curve Equivalents (NCE’s) range from 1 to 99, and are scaled to have a mean of 50 and a standard deviation of 21.06.  An NCE of 41 corresponds to roughly the 33rd percentile of the reference distribution, which for the ITBS would likely be a national sample of on-grade test-takers.  Scoring at the 33rd percentile is no great success story.

How are we to make sense of this?  One possibility is that the HCZ students didn’t take the Iowa tests seriously, and that their performance on that test doesn’t reflect their true mastery of eighth-grade mathematics.  The HCZ Annual Report doesn’t offer this as a possibility, perhaps because it would be embarrassing to admit that students didn’t take some aspect of their schoolwork and school accountability plan seriously.  But the three explanations that are offered are not compelling:  the Iowa test skills were not consistently aligned with the New York State Standards and the Harcourt Curriculum used in the school;  the linkage of classroom instruction to the skills tested on the Iowa test wasn’t consistent across the school year, and Iowa test prep began in February, 2008;  and school staff didn’t use 2007 Iowa test results to identify areas of weaknesses for individual students and design appropriate intervention.

If proficiency in English and math are to mean anything, these skills have to be able to generalize to contexts other than a particular high-stakes state test.  No college or employer is ever going to look at the New York State ELA and math exams in making judgments about who has the skills to be successful in their school or workplace.  I’m going to hold off labeling the HCZ schools as the “Harlem Miracle” until there’s some additional evidence supporting the claim that these schools have placed their students on a level academic playing field with white students in New York City.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.