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Walcott's middle school plan puts new spin on old approaches

In his first major policy speech, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott called for major changes to the ctiy's worst middle schools.

To shake middle schools from mediocrity, the city is turning to school reform strategies it considers tried and true.

In the next two years, the Department of Education will close low-performing middle schools, open brand-new ones, add more charter schools, and push more teachers and principals through in-house leadership programs, Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced today in a 30-minute policy speech, the first of his six-month tenure.

For 10 schools, the city will ask for $30 million in federal funds to try a new reform strategy set out by the federal government, “turnaround,” in which at least half of staff members are replaced, Walcott said.

The efforts — which the city plans to pay for with a mixture of state and federal funds — are meant to boost middle school scores that are low and, in the case of reading, actually falling.

“People have tried and struggled with the complicated nature of middle schools for decades,” he said. “But the plan I’ve laid out is bolder and more focused than anything we’ve tried here in New York City before.”

Experts and advocates who helped engineer the last major effort to overhaul middle schools, a City Council task force that produced recommendations but short-lived changes at the DOE in 2007, disputed Walcott’s characterization. They said Walcott’s announcement reflects a change in style but not substance.

“Much of what he said is not new,” said Carol Boyd, a parent leader with the Coalition for Educational Justice, which has long urged more attention for middle schools. “There is a definite party line, except Joel [Klein] wasn’t able to deliver it with the same believability that Chancellor Walcott does,” she said. Boyd sat on the task force.

“There’s nothing new [or] interesting about this plan,” said Pedro Noguera, the New York University professor who chaired the council’s task force and has spoken out against school closures. “It sounds like more of what they’ve been doing, shutting down failing schools.”

In fact, a centerpiece of Walcott’s plan is the creation of 50 new middle schools over the next two years, roughly half of which will be charter schools. And Walcott said he would ask the City Council to redirect funds it has allocated since 2008 to 51 low-performing middle schools to help other schools that have “shown promise but need continued support to succeed.”

But he said schools that don’t make strides would be shuttered. “We will hold our middle school to the same tough standards we hold our high schools,” Walcott said. “If a school is failing its students, we will take action and phase it out.”

Walcott could have a tough time selling his plan to Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who convened the task force to improve middle schools in 2007. Her office reacted to the news with surprise and skepticism.

“We were disappointed that more of the reforms outlined by the Council’s Middle School Task Force were not incorporated into the Chancellor’s speech,” said Justin Goodman, a spokesman for Quinn, particularly its recommendations to extend learning time and training for current middle school principals and teachers.

Ernest Logan, president of the principal’s union, said Walcott’s initiatives could “breathe life” back into the campaign that Quinn started, which he said was “nearly abandoned.

To operate the new schools, Walcott said the city will need to push more aspiring principals toward middle schools, which typically struggle to find qualified leadership more so than elementary and high schools, as well as create a “new class” of Teaching Fellows to work in middle schools.

Among other school improvement policies, Walcott noted two targeting poor literacy scores: plans to expand the Innovation Zone program to a group of middle schools using Race to the Top funding, and plans to purchase more non-fiction books aligned with the Common Core standards using $15 million from the State.

Walcott said he took inspiration from the reform efforts underway at several high-performing district and charter middle schools, which he has spent the past month visiting.

One school Walcott visited last week was Democracy Prep Harlem, a charter school co-located in the P.S. 92 building, where Principal Emanuel George said the chancellor toured classrooms and asked questions about what how the middle school trains its teaching staff and structures its school day.

“He walked into our World Percussion class, and poked into a reading classroom for 5 to 10 minutes. He said his focus was on meeting the leaders that drive schools,” George said.

George said Walcott left him with the impression that there would be more conversations, and opportunities to share best practices with other principals, to come. There is no formal principal advisory group on middle school improvement set up, according to Josh Thomases, the DOE’s deputy chief academic officer, who participated in some of Walcott’s conversations with principals last week.

But he said Walcott will be looking to principals for further guidance. “I imagine [the meetings] will continue with some regularity,” he said. “We may rotate principals. There are a lot of middle schools doing things right.”

Boyd said large-scale middle school improvements are necessary, but she did not think the widespread opening and closing of schools would be sufficient.

“Sometimes the culture of the previous school is so insidious in the neighborhood that even when you phase it out you still have the same host of problems because you are dealing with the same cohort of children and you haven’t addressed the underlying need,” she said.

good news bad news

New York City is sending fewer latecomer students to Renewal schools, but questions remain

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
John Adams High School in Queens, a Renewal school.

New York City is sending significantly fewer latecomer students — typically among the most difficult to serve — to schools in its flagship turnaround program.

Over the past three years, the number of students sent to schools in the city’s Renewal program outside the normal admissions process has declined 19 percent, according to new data from the education department, outpacing a 10 percent decrease in schools citywide over the same period.

The reduction suggests that schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has stuck to her promise to stem the tide of latecomer students — often newly arriving immigrants, students with special needs, and those who struggle with homelessness — to some of the city’s most struggling schools.

But it’s unclear if that policy change is making a significant difference on the ground.

For one thing, since Renewal schools have been losing students, the proportion of latecomer students has essentially gone unchanged. Even though the city has sent a smaller number of latecomer students to these schools, roughly one in five students at Renewal schools were over-the-counter last year, just slightly less than three years ago.

“It’s a good start,” said Norm Fruchter, a researcher at New York University who authored a report that found the city disproportionately sends those students to low-performing high schools. But “one out of every five is a tough challenge for schools that are already challenged,” Fruchter added. “I would have hoped for a reduction in the percentage.”

Every year, thousands of students enter city schools outside the normal admissions process, students who are generally harder to serve and can disrupt school schedules mid-year. But since New York City’s middle and high school admissions process is largely based on a choice process, less desirable and lower-performing schools tend to have more open seats for latecomers.

When the city designated an original 94 Renewal schools as low performing enough to merit an influx of extra resources, some school staffers wondered how they were supposed to stoke “fast and intense” improvements while the city continued to send them high-need students mid-year. That’s partly why Fariña announced two years ago those schools would receive fewer latecomers.

But sending fewer students to struggling schools can also create problems, and has sparked concern among some school leaders. Most Renewal schools have been shedding students for years, so limiting the number of latecomers may contribute to enrollment problems that can result in less funding or potentially even closure.

At Harlem’s Coalition School for Social Change, for instance, enrollment has dropped 44 percent over the past three years, a main reason principal Geralda Valcin is planning to ask the city to send more students over the counter — not fewer.

“Will it be harder with these kids coming on board? Absolutely,” Valcin said. “But with less kids I get less money” for teachers.

Education department officials emphasized that they work individually with schools, superintendents and families to find appropriate placements for latecomers, and said that enrollment declines at Renewal schools have started to level off.

“We’ve worked to support steady turnaround at Renewal schools by helping schools balance the need to grow enrollment with their ability to serve [over-the-counter] students,” Michael Aciman, a department spokesman, wrote in an email. He added that as Renewal schools see improvements, it might make sense to send them more latecomers.

Figuring out how to equitably place latecomer students has been a consistent challenge across administrations. Under Mayor Bloomberg, the city often clustered students who arrived mid-year at struggling schools and those the city was in the process of closing. Some of those problems have not completely gone away: As Chalkbeat reported earlier this year, the city sent some latecomer students to Renewal schools it planned to close, and Renewal schools still enroll more latecomers than the 15 percent city average.

The statistics education officials provided for this story does not include school-level breakdowns, making it difficult to tell if the city is still clustering lots of latecomers at certain Renewal schools, or whether struggling schools outside the Renewal program have received fewer latecomers.

City officials did not respond to a question about whether they see the current distribution of late-arriving students as a problem. But at least one Renewal school leader said it’s important for the city to pay attention to how those students are distributed system-wide — not just whether one segment of struggling schools are seeing fewer of them.

“I think all schools should be receiving students over the counter in equal and fair ways,” said one Renewal school leader. “Renewal schools should not be treated differently than others.”

Rhode rage

New study deepens nation’s school turnaround mystery, finding little success in Rhode Island

PHOTO: Anjelika Deo / Creative Commons

The country’s smallest state tried to accomplish a big task in 2012: improve its struggling schools without firing principals or making other dramatic changes.

Instead, Rhode Island gave schools the option to do things like add common planning time for teachers, institute culturally appropriate instruction for students, and expand outreach to families.

A new study on those efforts says they didn’t help — and in some cases may have even hurt — student achievement.

It’s the latest in a string of research painting a grim picture of school turnaround efforts under the No Child Left Behind waivers the Obama administration granted to states. Recent studies show that those turnaround plans did not improve student achievement in Louisiana or Michigan, though they did have a positive effect in Kentucky.

The analysis, published in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Policy, leaves states in a tough spot. Under the new federal education law, ESSA, they are still required to identify and intervene in the lowest performing 5 percent of schools. What to do, though, has perplexed education policymakers for years.

The Rhode Island study suggests one option that may not be effective, at least at raising test scores: simply letting struggling schools choose from a menu of broad changes.

The researchers, Shaun Dougherty and Jennie Weiner of the University of Connecticut, looked at two tiers of struggling schools in the state: “warning” and “focus” schools. Schools in both categories had to choose four changes to make. Focus schools, the lower-performing group, had to select from a prescribed list, while warning schools could also could come up with their own strategies.

“Almost none of the schools chose the most severe options because of none of them had to,” said Dougherty.

Based on two years of data, the results were largely discouraging. Turnaround schools did not boost reading or math scores more than comparable schools that didn’t have to make any changes. And the focus schools, which had to make even more changes, actually seemed to do worse than the turnaround schools that made fewer.

“More interventions might not always be better and may have unintended consequences that impact a school’s long term ability to improve,” write Dougherty and Weiner.

An important caveat for the studies in Rhode Island, Michigan, and Louisiana, which all used a similar method, is that it’s impossible to know how the accountability system affected schools that narrowly avoided being labeled low-performing and served as the comparison group for the turnaround schools. If those schools made extensive improvements for fear of facing turnaround in future years, that might mask gains in the turnaround schools.

Still, the latest research adds to the pile of studies showing the challenges of improving long-struggling schools.

Another Obama-era federal school turnaround program — School Improvement Grants — also showed disappointing results. Schools receiving those grants also had to implement a broad array of strategies, but had less power to choose which changes to make. The grants also came with additional federal money and in most cases required firing the principal.

There is some evidence that providing additional money and support, paired with a requirement that schools replace a significant share of staff, is a more promising approach. But this is challenging to implement in areas where teachers are scarce and can prompt fierce political and community pushback.

In fact, back in 2010, the Obama administration faced one of its first major rifts with national teachers unions after it backed the large-scale firing — consistent with federal turnaround rules — of teachers at a Central Falls, Rhode Island high school.

Few schools ended up implementing such a drastic approach, though. In Central Falls, the district ultimately agreed to rehire all of the fired teachers.