study says...

City promotion policy has short-term benefits, study says

Number of students retained or needing academic intervention services, 2004-2008
Number of students retained or needing academic intervention services, 2004-2008

A highly anticipated independent research study on the effects of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s promotion and retention policies says that fifth graders benefit from the promotion practices — at least through their seventh grade year.

The policy requires that students in several grades reach a certain level on state math and reading tests before going on to the next grade. Citing years of research, critics have charged that the new rules wouldn’t help students and could possibly hurt them or cause them to drop out of school later.

But researchers at the RAND Corporation, which conducted the study, said that hasn’t happened.

The lowest-performing students who took tests under the new promotion policy did better later than earlier students who weren’t held to the new standards. The study compared the first three classes of fifth-graders held to the promotion standards to the previous class of students who were not affected by the new policy.

The report said students benefit because their schools identify them as at-risk earlier and give them extra help.

Students surveyed for the report also said being held back didn’t make them less confident about school.

Schools chancellor Joel Klein hailed the study, saying that it validated the city’s promotion and retention standards and refuted critics of the policy.

“We now have solid evidence that our students are far better off because we ended the disgraceful practice of social promotion,” he said in a statement. “Our promotion policy has helped to raise standards in schools without causing the negative social or emotional effects that some critics feared.”

The report does not look at longer-term questions such as whether a harsher retention policy could cause students to drop out later. Researchers said the city’s policy is too new to answer those questions.

The authors did note, though, that their findings “holds promise” for long-term benefits. “In order for there to be long-term benefits, you have to have short-term benefits,” Jennifer Sloan McCombs, one of the editors of the study, said in an interview. “We found that there were short-term benefits.”

The authors recommended further research following students subject to the policy over longer periods of time.

The study also confirmed that fewer students were actually held back once the new policies were in place. At first, the proportion of students retained stayed about the same, at 2 percent. By 2007, that number fell by half.

Norm Fruchter, a senior policy adviser at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, said that the small change in numbers of students held back raised questions of the standards’ relevancy, suggesting that the policy change served mostly political purposes.

“It seems like social promotion was attacked as a scapegoat, but if the whole policy didn’t change much, then either social promotion wasn’t going on before, or this didn’t do anything,” he said.

About 1,200 fifth graders, or 2 percent of the class, were retained in 2004-05, the year before the new promotion standards were put in place for that grade. The following two years, between 2 and 3 percent of each class was held back. In the third year of the policy, just 621 students, or 1 percent of the class, were retained.

Others point out that rising state test scores could be a reason for the declining number of students being held back.

Editors of the report said that they adjusted their findings to account for the general upward trend of student test scores statewide as they determined how much better students performed under the new standards. But they acknowledged that the dramatic upswing in scores presented a challenge in isolating the effects of the promotion and retention policy.

In addition to looking at student data, researchers also studied the programs offered to held-back students over the summer, visiting programs and interviewing students and staff. They concluded that the programs played a small but significant role in raising student test scores.

They also sent surveys to school staff and students, asking them about being retained.

The Department of Education commissioned the RAND Corporation to study the performance of the fifth graders over time. The study also looked at data from two classes of third graders, which it reported separately. Researchers said they also found benefits to third graders, though the data they analyzed was not nearly as thorough for that grade.

The standards require students to score at least a Level 2 on state exams in order to be promoted to the next grade. The city introduced the policy for third-graders in 2003-04 and has since expanded the policy to fifth, seventh and eighth-graders.

In August, Bloomberg proposed expanding the policy to all tested grades, but critics have said that the citywide school board should wait until the results of the RAND research were released to vote. At last week’s meeting of the board, Klein said that the board would have the opportunity to review the results before they vote on the extension of the standards.

Both the 14-page summary of the report and the full 300-plus-page monograph are available here. There’s a lot of data here, so please dig in and tell us what you notice.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”