revisiting race to the top

Did the Times hold Paterson too accountable on Race to the Top?

One element of the New York Times’ long-awaited appraisal of Governor David Paterson’s governing style stuck out to us today.

In its lead, the story blames the governor for New York’s failure to pass reform legislation to sharpen the state’s application for federal Race to the Top funds:

[L]ast month, with the state facing a deadline to apply for $700 million in federal education aid, the governor waited until the last minute to try to bring lawmakers together to agree on a plan. His efforts failed, leaving the application in doubt.

This “blame-Paterson” narrative rests on the idea that a stronger governor could have successfully corralled all of the competing interests in the battle over state education reform, brought them to a compromise and forced the legislature to pass a bill.

But it’s also an overly simplistic explanation for the state’s failure to act, sources told GothamSchools today.

A more nuanced telling of the downfall of the state’s Race to the Top legislation involves decisions made by Paterson, to be sure. But it would also bring in a number of other, interlocking factors, all of which may become relevant again this spring or summer if the legislature re-visits the charter cap issue in advance of the grant competition’s second round deadline in June.

Here are several alternate theories for why the legislature failed to act:

1) All New York State politicians, including but not limited to Paterson, may have waited too long to even begin negotiating over key points in the state’s application.

Throughout the end of last summer and into the fall, the prevailing notion in New York was that the state was well-positioned to win Race to the Top funds without any changes in state law. State education officials, including Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, repeatedly expressed confidence that New York was already in a competitive position. Paterson even claimed in August that federal officials had assured him that the state was in a strong position. A constant stream of confident statements convinced many politicians and officials that swift action wasn’t required.

“I would say that there was, at all levels of state government, in the legislature, but also in the executive, too late an appreciation for the stakes and a focus on what it would take in order for New York State to be competitive,” said James Merriman, chief executive of the New York City Charter School Center.

“We received from all quarters a message for months that New York didn’t need to do anything, no action was necessary, and that New York was a cinch and a lock to win,” a charter advocate said. “And that really didn’t change until Thanksgiving.”

Contrast that evolution with its parallel in California, a state with its own fair share of tension between the governor and legislature. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger first put forth legislation designed to boost his state’s Race to the Top competitiveness last August.

Like New York, the California state legislature also had dueling bills, one supported by the governor and another supported by the teachers union. Unlike in New York, that disagreement surfaced in the legislature before the start of the new year, and Schwarzenegger was able to broker a compromise with state Democrats that passed the legislature and was signed into law at the beginning of January.

2) New York’s Race to the Top legislation may have floundered because of wider dysfunction in Albany. Paterson certainly has a role in that story — it’s no secret that Paterson and state legislators don’t get along — but the Senate’s chaotic dynamics also played a large part in the legislation’s demise.

Democrats have a slim two-vote majority in the Senate, but their hopes of passing the Silver/Sampson version of the charter cap lift bill were dashed when two Democratic Senators, Craig Johnson and Ruben Diaz, Sr., sided with the Republicans to support Paterson’s version. Rather than allow Republicans in the Senate to steer Paterson’s version to passage, Senate Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson simply refused to bring a bill to the floor.

3) Another theory posits that Paterson took the wrong legislative strategy towards winning the legislature over to a cap lift. In other states, such as Michigan, reform bills included a wide menu of changes that, even after being thinned out through legislative bargaining, still made significant changes to state law.

That was the strategy advocated in New York in October by Assemblyman Sam Hoyt and Senator Jeffrey Klein, who introduced a broad reform bill with the intent of aiming high to ensure that a strong bill survived legislative negotiations.

By contrast, Paterson gambled all of his chips on the charter cap lift and introduced reform legislation that addressed only that, and not other contentious issues such as increasing funding for charters and granting them public facilities space. When negotiations on the cap lift faltered, there was little to fall back on.

4) Blaming the state’s charter cap inaction solely on Paterson’s political failings also ignores the real, substantive disagreements over whether or how charter schools should expand in New York. It’s not clear that anyone, even a stronger governor, could have bridged the divide that continues to exist between charter supporters and many legislators skeptical of the way the schools have grown, particularly in New York City.

“There were a lot of legislators who had questions” about the wisdom of letting charter schools in the state grow unfettered by new regulations, said state teachers union spokesman Carl Korn. “And our work in this area suggests that there are reasons for those questions.”

Some charter school critics are in favor of lifting the cap, but only if there is greater oversight to ensure that charters serve greater number of high-needs students. But their proposals for doing so, embodied in Silver and Sampson’s bill, prompt angry responses from charter school advocates, who argue that additional restrictions will effectively kill the charter school movement.

Another camp of charter opponents argue that the expansion of charter schools would come at too great a cost to make the $700 million in grant money even worth it.

One theory, raised by observers on each side of the divide, involves the city’s practice of placing charter schools in district school buildings, often in space-sharing arrangements with traditional public schools that have prompted extremely loud public protest. Legislators, hearing from angry constituents about charter schools they say are encroaching on their neighborhood schools, are unlikely to sign off on any kind of cap lift until the city determines a less-contentious way of siting charters.

The city knows this is a problem and is currently trying to figure out the best way of resolving it. One of the first tasks assigned to Lenny Speiller, the Department of Education’s new lobbyist, is to come up with a strategy to build support in Albany for the city’s charter school siting policies.

To and Through

Newark’s post-grad paradox: More students are entering college, but few earn degrees

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka wants 25 percent of residents to have college degrees by 2025, up from 19 percent today.

When it comes to college, Newark faces a good news-bad news paradox.

More students than ever are graduating high school and enrolling in college, according to a new report. Yet fewer than one in four Newark students earns a college degree within six years of graduating high school — leaving many with limited job prospects in a city where an estimated one-third of jobs require a four-year college degree.

Now, city officials are promising to build on the report. They want to ramp up the rigor of high-school classes and create more early-college programs to increase the odds of students entering college and leaving with a degree.  

“How do we teach our children to perform — to graduate?” Mayor Ras Baraka asked at a press conference Wednesday to mark the official release of the report of Newark students’ college outcomes. “We got them in the door,” he said of students who attend college. “Now how do we make them stay?”

The city’s plans, to which Superintendent Roger León is lending his support, reflect a growing recognition that simply getting students into college is not sufficient — and can even backfire if they drop out before graduation, leaving them with college debt but no degree.

Until recently, the charge given to high schools in Newark and across the country was to foster “college-going cultures.” And these efforts showed promising results: On average, 51 percent of Newark Public School students who graduated high school between 2011 and 2016 immediately enrolled in college, up from 39 percent who did so between 2004 and 2010, according to the report by the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, or NCLC, and Rutgers University-Newark’s School of Public Affairs and Administration.

But entering college didn’t guarantee its completion. Of those students who started college straight after high school, only 39 percent earned a degree within six years, the report found.

As a result, educators and policymakers have begun to think harder about how to help students “to and through” college — to ensure they actually earn degrees. Toward that end, Baraka and the NCLC — which includes roughly 40 colleges, schools, nonprofits, and corporations — has set a goal of 25 percent of Newark residents earning college degrees or comparable credentials by 2025.

Today, just 19 percent of Newark adults have associate degrees or higher — compared to 45 percent of adults across New Jersey and 40 percent nationally.

Superintendent León, who began overseeing the city’s schools on July 1, said his main strategy for supporting these efforts will be to expose students to challenging work early on.

“If we don’t do something dramatically in classrooms to improve instruction and make it rigorous,” León said after Wednesday’s event, then students are “getting into college but they’re not completing it.”

Source: “Post-Secondary Outcomes of Newark High School Graduates (2011-2016)” report. Note: The four-year rate is an average of the classes of 2011 to 2013. The six-year rate is from the class of 2011. Graphic: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

For starters, León said he wants high schools to offer more college-level classes. In the 2016-17 school year, just 21 percent of Newark students were enrolled in one or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes — compared to 42 percent of students statewide.

He also vowed to raise the quality of instruction in the district’s traditional high schools. Only 14 percent of their graduates earn college degrees within six years, compared to 42 percent of graduates from the city’s selective magnet schools, the report found.

To do that, León said he will create specialized academies within the traditional schools modeled on the magnets, which have specialized themes such as science, technology, or the arts. The academies, which will partner with colleges, will most likely feature admissions criteria similar to those of magnet schools, which select students based on their academic and attendance records, León added.

And, for the first time, all ninth-grade students this academic year will take the Preliminary SAT, or PSAT, León said Wednesday. An additional 1,100 eighth-graders who passed at least one of their seventh-grade PARCC exams will also take the PSAT when it’s administered on Oct. 10.

Since 2016, the district has provided the PSAT to all 10th and 11th-grade students. But León said that giving the test to younger students will focus their attention on college and help identity those who are ready for advanced classes. The PSAT is designed to help students prepare for the SAT, which is used in college admissions, and to qualify for National Merit Scholarships.

The district, which was under state control for 22 years until February, is getting some assistance in its effort to improve students’ college outcomes.

For instance, KIPP, the national charter-school network with eight schools in Newark, is sharing its strategies for helping students choose the right college with guidance counselors at three district high schools.

And the higher-education institutions in the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, including Essex County College and Rutgers University-Newark, plan to create more “dual-enrollment” programs that allow high-school students to earn college credits, said NCLC Executive Director Reginald Lewis.

“We’re all going to do a better job,” Lewis said, “of making sure that once Newark residents get in our doors, that we help them persist.”

Time crunch

In victory for teachers union, Newark superintendent scraps longer hours for low-performing schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León at Hawkins Street School, one of the schools that will lose its extended hours.

Newark’s new superintendent is eliminating a program that extended the hours of struggling schools, which the teachers union has long attacked as ineffective and unfair to educators.

Teachers at roughly 30 schools will no longer receive $3,000 annual stipends for the extra hours, a provision written into the current teachers contract, which extends to 2019. Instead, all 64 district schools will get extra funding for before and after-school programs, Superintendent Roger León said in an email to employees on Tuesday.

The changes will go into effect Monday, Sept. 10, resulting in new hours for the affected schools just days after the new school year began. The district is still working to adjust pickup times for students who are bused to school, according to León’s email. A few of the schools will phase out their extended hours later in the year, the email said.

“We will not continue to do the same things as before and be surprised when the results do not change,” León wrote, adding that cutting the extra hours would save the district $5 million.

In an interview with Chalkbeat Thursday, León said the move is intended to create more uniformity among schools and the services they provide. Now, all schools will get additional money to pay for programs outside of the regular school day, which schools can tailor to their individual needs, though students who are struggling academically will continue to receive “intensive” support, he said.

“Ultimately, the idea would be by October having completely different after-school and before-school programming that meets the needs of each respective school,” León said.

The extended time was first included in the teachers contract in 2012 as part of a larger improvement plan for the targeted schools, which was developed by Cami Anderson, Newark’s former state-appointed superintendent. The plan also designated some low-performing schools as “renew” schools, where teachers had to reapply for their positions and work longer hours.

Anderson also closed some schools and gave principals new hiring authority. Both actions left dozens of tenured teachers without positions, so Anderson created a fund to pay those teachers to perform support duties in schools. In 2014, that fund for “employees without placement” cost the district $35 million out of its nearly $1 billion budget, though by last year the fund had shrunk to $8 million for about 100 unassigned teachers, according to officials.

León said in Tuesday’s email that he was also eliminating the fund, which he said would save the district another $6 million. The teachers union president said he believed all the unassigned teachers now have placements, but the district did not respond to a request to confirm that.

León is also removing the “renew” and “turnaround” labels from low-performing schools, citing their “progress and student achievement,” according to the email.

“I applaud everyone’s efforts at renew or turnaround schools and acknowledge what has been accomplished,” he wrote.

Now that León has abolished his predecessors’ school-improvement program, he will be expected to create his own. Many schools remain mired in poor performance, even as the district overall has made strides in recent years.

When the teachers union agreed to the extended hours in its 2012 contract with the district, it was hailed nationally as a major breakthrough in efforts to revamp troubled schools. But even as the union agreed last year to keep the provision in its current contract, union officials have assailed the turnaround effort as a failure.

NTU President John Abeigon told Chalkbeat on Thursday that the program had been a “scam” and “nothing more than extended childcare.” He added that the stipend teachers received amounted to about $7 per hour for the extra time they worked.

In 2016, a district-commissioned survey of 787 teachers at schools with extended hours found that two-thirds of teachers at schools where the extra time was spent on student instruction said the time was valuable. But in a survey the union conducted in April, the 278 teachers who responded gave the extended hours low ratings for effectiveness in boosting student achievement.

Some teachers in the union survey praised the longer hours, saying their schools used them effectively to lengthen class periods, run after-school clubs, or allow teachers to plan lessons or review student data. But others said the extra time was squandered, leaving staff and students exhausted with little evidence of improved student outcomes to show for it. (Students’ pass rates on state tests stayed flat or declined at most “renew” schools in the first years of the program.)

The union also has complained that many teachers felt compelled to work the extra hours because those who refused to could be transferred to different schools. Under the terms of the original extended-day agreement, teachers were required to work an extra hour per day and attend trainings during the summer and some weekends.

In León’s email to employees, he said every extended-day school had set different work requirements and “none are consistent with the original design.” The longer days may also be contributing to high teacher turnover in those schools, he wrote, adding that principals of schools with regular hours told him they did not want to extend their hours.

Abeigon, the union president, applauded León’s decision to scrap the extra work hours.

“He came to the conclusion that we expected any true educator to reach: that the program was not working and was never going to work,” he said.

León said Thursday that he is now working on a new turnaround program. Once it’s ready, he promised to share the details with affected families before publicly announcing which schools are part of it — an effort to avoid the student protests that erupted when Anderson identified her “turnaround” schools.

He also said he was still considering whether he would ever close schools that fail to improve or to reverse their declining enrollments. Anderson’s decision to shutter nearly a dozen long-struggling schools continues to fuel resentment among her critics even years later.

“I think the whole idea of how much time does a school get to correct itself is a very important one and I’m going to need to be really reflective on it,” León said. “I’ve seen what closing schools does with people who do not feel that they were aware of it or a part of fixing it.”