race to the race to the top

We read the Race to the Top application so you don't have to

Raise your hand if you know what the state’s 450-page Race to the Top application actually says. Besides, of course, “We raised the cap on charter schools and came up with a new way to evaluate teachers.”

Here’s a quick-and-dirty guide to what the application actually proposes, including some details about the proposal that I hadn’t heard before I read it. The application is divided into four main goals. You can find more background on Race to the Top here, and a copy of the state’s second round application is here.

Making better tests and curriculum:

National reading and math curriculum standards are coming, and New York education officials plan to opt in to them. The state wants to spend $26 million to write curriculum based on the new standards, which will show up in classrooms beginning in February 2012. Another $40 million would be used to create new tests, including a way to judge kindergartners through third-graders’ progress in learning to read. Students would start to take initial versions of those tests in January 2012. The final versions of exams based on the new standards would be due in 2015.

Building new databases to track student progress:

By “data systems,” the state means a program that can track students’ academic progress from the very beginning of their education to the end. The state wants to spend $50 million in Race to the Top funds to help build a program that will be used state-wide. Another $10 million would go toward linking information from grade schools to information from New York’s colleges and universities. The application describes a future data system that sounds a lot like ARIS, the city’s $81 million data system launched in 2008.

State education officials also envision a program that included an “early warning system”: by keeping track of things like attendance problems, disciplinary actions, grades and test scores and the language progress of students learning English, the system will be able to alert schools to students who are at risk of dropping out.

Training teachers and judging them:

Much of this section of the application centers around the new law that incorporates student achievement data into teacher evaluations.  Some uses of the evaluations are pretty obvious: schools will use them to figure out which teachers need more training and which should be removed. Others are less intuitive. For example, the application proposes a new program where teachers who have been highly rated under the evaluations for three years running can get a $30,000  bonus for transferring to teach in a high needs school.

The application also mentions that 20 New York City schools are currently experimenting with the best ways to evaluate teachers and figure out what tools are needed to do it fairly. This pilot is separate from the Measuring Effective Teaching research project that the city is running with the teachers union and the Gates Foundation.

Improving low-performing schools and letting charter schools thrive:

The application’s plan to improve failing schools centers around creating what state officials are calling “partnership zones,” which are very similar to the city’s system of support networks for schools. Each school that is targeted for turnaround would get a total of $3.6 million over three years to support its efforts.

State officials also emphasize in the application that they believe charter schools — particularly the large, well-established charter networks like KIPP and Uncommon Schools — would play a large role in re-making schools. To encourage the growth of charters, the state is proposing a fund that will help “high performing” charter operators reduce the interest on debt they owe from building their own facilities.

The application also gives some clues for where to look to figure out how the state’s new Request for Proposal system of opening new charter schools might work: the RFP process will be modeled after similar programs in New Orleans, Chicago and Denver.

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.