crib sheet

We read Steven Brill’s “Class Warfare” so you don’t have to

Eva Moskowitz did not generate the idea for Harlem Success herself; Randi Weingarten has been criticizing her successor, UFT President Michael Mulgrew, to her friends; and former Chancellor Joel Klein thinks that at least two of his former deputies have gone soft on reform in their new school districts. These are among the claims in “Class Warfare,” Steven Brill’s new book on the education reform movement.

Much of “Class Warfare” will be familiar to GothamSchools readers. The book’s main characters include, on one side, former Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and, on the other, teachers unions president Randi Weingarten; many of its main plot points center on New York City, and some of the key classroom scenes take place in Harlem.

But the following insights — some of them more solidly sourced than others — were news to us. Here’s a run-down of Brill’s most intriguing New York-related reporting:

The war behind the war: Bloomberg v. Klein

  • On labor issues, Bloomberg sometimes undercut Joel Klein. Klein’s team thought they could get the UFT to sign off on a change in the teacher termination process. But Bloomberg, who was nearing reelection, told them not to push their luck. “The mayor blinked,” the DOE’s one-time labor chief, Dan Weisberg, told Brill. “The mayor just gave up.” Weisberg said he “clashed almost daily” with City Hall over back-channel contract negotiations in 2005.
  • Similarly, Brill reports that in 2006, Bloomberg told Klein and Weisberg to “stand down” on pushing a time limit for teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve. As Klein left office last year, he was still calling for that policy.
  • Bloomberg was weighing a third term even a year into his second, and his education policies reflected that. The 2007 teachers contract included little in the way of substantive policy, an oddity at a time when Klein was setting an aggressive tone at Tweed. In fact, the only major change, a schoolwide bonus program, was spiked this year. “The plan,” Klein told Brill, “was to make some progress in the 2005 contract — which we did, though not enough — and then go in for the kill in 2007. Mike deciding to run for a third term completely killed that.”

What Klein really thought of his proteges and more that you didn’t know about him

  • Klein didn’t think he would be chancellor. Brill reports that a mutual friend suggested that Bloomberg consider Klein, but after their first meeting, Klein “didn’t think he had connected with Bloomberg.” Bloomberg now says he picked Klein because “Jesus Christ wasn’t available.”
  • The animosity displayed between Klein and Randi Weingarten, the teachers union president for most of his tenure, was real. “Joel Klein would come to detest [Randi] Weingarten as much as she detested [Klein ally, PS 49 Principal Anthony] Lombardi and him,” Brill writes.
  • Klein isn’t uniformly proud of his protégés. Former Klein deputies now head school systems in Baltimore, New Haven, Chicago (where Jean-Claude Brizard came from Rochester, N.Y.), and New Jersey. But in some of those places, Klein said his former deputies had not been bold enough. “All of them had big minds, but not all had strong minds,” he told Brill. Brill and Klein do not name names. Among the former Klein deputies now leading education efforts in other cities, at least two have received criticism from proponents of aggressive reform. In Baltimore, Andres Alonso has been positioned as a more collaborative alternative to Klein; in New Haven, Garth Harries, the number-two school official, led an agreement with the teachers union that critics charge included too many concessions.
  • Klein’s pension from his eight years as chancellor is guaranteed at the same rate as city teachers’ — 8.25 percent per year. The benefit structure is costly for the city, as we reported last year. “Who else but Bernie Madoff guarantees 8.25 percent a year permanently?” Klein asked.

What Randi Weingarten thinks of Michael Mulgrew, why Eva Moskowitz started Harlem Success, and more charter school politics:

  • Klein created the idea of charter school co-locations with the precise intention of generating a political fight. He told Brill that he slipped $250 million for charter school co-locations into 2005’s larger-than-ever budget and “nobody noticed.” He also said that his decision to give the UFT charter school space inside a city school building was strategic. “Once Randi’s school was co-located, she could never be against co-location in principle,” Klein told Brill. “She’d have to oppose the specifics of the co-location plan but not the idea.” Since then, the UFT has twice sued the city over the specifics of its co-location plans. The union also received City Council funding this year to plan its charter schools’ exit from their co-located site.
  • Weingarten hasn’t approved of the battle that her successor at the UFT, Michael Mulgrew, has waged against charter schools. Brill writes that Weingarten told friends that she was embarrassed by Mulgrew’s efforts to prevent the lifting of the charter cap in 2010 because she thought the union had already lost. The cap was lifted when Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, usually a friend of the union, suddenly threw his support behind the move.
  • The cap probably could have been lifted sooner if the city had made a few concessions. Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch told Brill that she wanted Klein to give up his commitment to co-location as part of the negotiations around lifting the charter school cap in 2010. “If Joel would give up on co-location and look at doing something on saturation, it would sure ease all the tension,” Tisch told Brill.
  • Harlem Success Academy wasn’t Eva Moskowitz’s idea. Brill reports that several hedge-fund managers approached Moskowitz’s husband, Eric Grannis, for advice about starting a network of charter schools; Grannis had previously helped launch the Girls Prep charter school. After Moskowitz critiqued the hedge-fund managers’ plan, they offered her the job — but they told Brill they hadn’t planned to do so before that.

On Race to the Top, including what the Obama administration really thought about New York’s application:

  • The Race to the Top competition was partially inspired by the Gates Foundation. In 2008, the Gates Foundation held a small-scale competition to encourage school districts and teachers unions to work together. When an Obama administration official first proposed the idea of having states compete for federal funds, they were reminded that the Gates competition had achieved its aim of fomenting collaboration.
  • Race the to Top could have been three times bigger. When Obama administration officials approached David Obey, a member of the House of Representatives who controlled the appropriations committee, he wasn’t happy that the competition would annoy the unions and that his state, Wisconsin, was unlikely to win. So he cut the initial proposal of $15 billion (out of $100 billion being distributed to schools) down to the $5 billion that made up the first Race to the Top competition.
  • Other states were supposed to beat New York, which came in second in Race to the Top’s second round. New York’s win — after a dismal showing in the first round — came largely because the state and its teachers unions agreed to toughen teacher evaluations (the same evaluations that are now being disputed in court). Federal officials were shocked to see that the people hired to evaluate Race to the Top applications gave so much credit to union collaboration in New York. They were also distressed that Colorado and Louisiana, which had reshaped their laws in response to the competition, had not made the cut — to the point that they considered changing the rules after the competition was over. Politics K-12, Education Week’s education politics blog, has the complete run-down on the rankings shakeup that Brill writes caused “near-panic” at the U.S. Department of Education.

Rubber rooms, Wendy Kopp and LIFO, and more miscellaneous extras:

  • The number of teachers removed from the classroom on misconduct charges is tiny and falling. In the year after the city closed the rubber rooms that housed teachers accused of misconduct, Brill reports that just 155 teachers were removed from the classroom, down from 250 to 300 teachers a year before that.
  • Teach for America tempered its opposition to “last in, first out” layoffs, which would have heavily affected its members, out of pragmatism. “It should be obvious how I feel but we have to work with these school systems and teachers every day,” TFA founder Wendy Kopp told Brill.
  • Capacity is a big problem. Brill describes how top Harlem Success staff members quit midyear, citing the toll of their long hours and high-pressure jobs on their relationships and bodies. Meanwhile, the superintendent of Pittsburgh’s schools told Brill that even if he replaced the weakest 3.5 percent of his teachers each year with better teachers, he would be able to “refortify” only a third of his workforce in a decade. And that’s in a system with just 2,200 teachers, compared to nearly 80,000 in New York City.

study says...

In new study of school-district effectiveness, New York City falls just below national average

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

Each year, state test scores offer a snapshot of how much New York City students have learned. But they say little about how the city’s schools stack up against other districts’, in part because the raw scores largely reflect student demographics — wealthier districts tend to have higher scores.

Now, a major new analysis of several years of test scores from across the country provides a better way to judge and compare districts: Instead of looking at a single moment, it shows how well school systems help students grow their skills over time.

Based on that measure, New York City falls just below the middle of the pack: In the five years from third to eighth grade, its students collectively make about 4.6 grade levels of progress — landing New York in the 35th percentile of districts nationally. By contrast, Chicago students advance the equivalent of six grades within those five years, giving the district one of the highest growth rates in the country.

Still, New York is slightly above average when compared to other large districts with many students from low-income families. And it trounces the state’s other urban districts — including Yonkers, Syracuse, and Rochester, which have some of the nation’s worst growth rates.

“Among big poor districts, it’s better than average,” said Sean Reardon, the Stanford University researcher who conducted the analysis. “In the grand scheme, it’s pretty middle-of-the-road.”

Reardon’s analysis — based on 300 million standardized tests taken by students across more than 11,000 school districts from 2009 to 2015 — is the largest of its kind. It looks both at student proficiency on third-grade math and English tests (that is, what share of students earned a score deemed “proficient”) and student growth between grades three and eight (how much their scores improved over time). Reardon’s research was supported by several foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which also provides funding to Chalkbeat.

The analysis controls for the differences in tests across states and over time by converting scores into a common scale that measures growth in grade levels, making it possible to compare nearly every district in the country to one another. (It excludes New York’s scores from 2015 and some grades in 2014 because of the high number of students who boycotted the state tests those years. However, each district’s five-year growth rates is actually an average of its year-over-year growth, so Reardon was still able to calculate a five-year rate for New York.)

Experts generally prefer growth rates over proficiency as a way to evaluate school quality, since growth measures the progress students make in school rather than where they started. Even if a district enrolls many poor students who are less likely than their affluent peers to hit the “proficiency” benchmark, its schools can still help them advance at a rate comparable to or even better than schools filled with wealthier students.

“Growth is way better than achievement,” said Douglas Ready, an education and public policy professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. “We know low-income students start school behind — the question is what do school districts do with the kids they get?”

New York’s growth rate falls just below the national median of 4.8 grade levels. Among big districts, its students made gains similar to those in Dallas and Detroit, and greater than students in Los Angeles, Miami, and Indianapolis.

By contrast, Rochester ranks rock-bottom nationally. In that high-poverty district, where the median income among families with children in the public schools is $26,000, students advanced about three grade levels in five years. Yonkers’ $48,000 median income is much higher, yet its schools barely do better, with students moving just 3.5 grade levels. (Among New York City public-school parents, the median income is $42,000.)

Reardon emphasized that test scores provide an important but incomplete picture of student learning, and growth rates are an imperfect measure of school effectiveness since factors outside of the classroom also influence how much students learn over time.

Still, he argued that officials who rate schools and parents who choose them would do much better to look at a school’s growth rate over its average test scores. In fact, he said, a focus on growth rates could theoretically drive down socioeconomic segregation since higher-income parents might be willing to enroll their children in schools with many poor students and low overall test scores if the schools nonetheless had outstanding growth rates.

Ready, however, pointed out that even when schools and districts are highly effective at helping students make progress, they are still unlikely to close the yawning achievement gaps that separate most poor and wealthier students from the time they start school. Reardon came to the same conclusion.

“The large gaps in students’ academic skills between low- and higher-[socioeconomic status] districts are so large,” Reardon’s analysis says, “that even the highest growth rate in the country would be insufficient to close even half of the gap by eighth grade.”

In response to the analysis, New York City education department officials pointed to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test taken by a representative sample of students in each state and certain districts, including New York. Only one other district among the country’s 10 largest cities performed better in reading and math than New York, which had the highest share of low-income students reach the proficient level on the reading test.

“Our schools are the strongest they’ve ever been, with record-high graduation and college enrollment rates, and improving state test scores,” said the district’s spokesman, Will Mantell.

change up

Just as Lower East Side integration plan takes off, superintendent who helped craft it steps down

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Carry Chan, left, will become acting superintendent in District 1 when Daniella Phillips, right, leaves this month to join the central education department.

The longtime superintendent of the Manhattan community district where parents pushed for a plan to desegregate the local schools is stepping down just as the plan gets underway.

After a decade at the helm of District 1, which includes the Lower East Side and East Village, Superintendent Daniella Phillips is leaving to join the central education department, Chalkbeat has learned. During the yearslong campaign for an integration plan, Phillips acted as a liaison between parents and the education department, which finally approved a new admissions system for the district’s elementary schools this fall.

She will be replaced by Carry Chan, who has also played a role in the district’s diversity efforts as the interim head of a new Family Resource Center, an information hub to help district parents sort through their school options. Chan takes over as acting superintendent on Dec. 18.

The leadership change comes at a crucial time for the district, which also includes a portion of Chinatown. Parents are currently applying to elementary schools, marking the first admissions cycle under the new enrollment system. Under the system, schools give certain students admissions priority based on their economic status and other factors, with the goal of every elementary school enrolling share of disadvantaged students similar to the district average.

It will be up to the new superintendent to help schools recruit and welcome a greater mix of families, and to help steer parents towards a wider range of schools. Advocates hope the district can become a model for the city.

“There is a torch that needs to be carried in order to really, fully execute,” said Naomi Peña, president of the district’s parent council. “The next superintendent has to be a champion for the mission and the cause.”

During heated public meetings, Phillips tried to keep the peace while serving as a go-between for frustrated integration advocates and reluctant education department officials. The tensions sometimes boiled over, with advocates directing their anger at Phillips — though they were eventually won-over and endorsed the final integration plan.

In her new role, she will oversee school consolidations as part of the education department’s Office of School Design and Charter Partnerships. In District 1, Phillips helped steer three such mergers, which often involve combining small, low-performing schools with ones that are higher achieving.

“It has been such a joy and privilege to be District 1 superintendent for over 10 years, and I’m excited for this next chapter in the district and my career,” Phillips said in an emailed statement.

Chan is a former principal who launched the School for Global Leaders, a middle school that focuses on community service projects and offers Mandarin classes. Last year, she joined the education department’s Manhattan support center, where she helped schools form partnerships in order to learn from one another.

Since October, Chan has served as the interim director of District 1’s Family Resource Center, which is seen as an integral part of making the new diversity plan work. Families must apply for seats in the district’s elementary schools, which do not have attendance zones like other districts. The family center aims to arm families with more information about their options, in the hopes that they will consider schools they may not have previously.

“I think we’re all really passionate about this plan and we really want this to work,” Chan said. “Communication is the key, and being transparent with how we’re progressing with this work.”