rapid response

Brief: MDRC study left out a key slice of the student population

A group of elected officials are touting a policy brief that they say throws cold water on Mayor Bloomberg’s small schools movement just a day after a comprehensive study gave it a ringing endorsement.

The six-page brief, compiled by the Coalition for Educational Justice, focuses on how the new small schools serve students with special needs and concludes that they tend to under-enroll students whose disabilities are severe. It cited eight closed large high schools where the small schools opened up in their buildings that served significantly fewer self-contained students. A complete copy of the brief is below.

The six-page paper comes a day after MDRC published a study that found that all kinds of students at more than 100 small high schools graduated at higher rates statistically identical students who attended larger schools.

The brief’s focus didn’t necessarily debunk the MDRC findings, but attempted to raise additional issues about school closures.

“While it is commendable that the new small schools are producing higher graduations rates, it is not clear that these schools serve the same population,” the paper says. “The MDRC study does not include students in self-contained special education or collaborative team teaching; the omission of those high-needs students increases graduation rates in the new small schools.”

In response to CEJ’s brief, Howard Bloom, one of the authors of the MDRC study did not disagree. But he said that the purpose of the study was not to exclusively track students with disabilities.

“They are just factually different perspectives,” Bloom said of the two papers’ conclusions. “They’re talking about different issues.”

“What we’re saying is that these new schools made a positive change for a very large population of highly-disadvantaged students and we stand by that quite firmly,” Bloom added.

In a statement, a Department of Education spokesman pointed to the MDC study as evidence that the city’s school closure policy worked and that they had no intention of ending it.

“We refuse to go back on a strategy that has dramatically changed thousands of lives for the better, and given families better options in neighborhoods that had long been neglected,” said Matthew Mittenthal.

Meanwhile, at a press conference this afternoon to discuss CEJ’s findings, about a half dozen elected officials took the opportunity to sound off on Mayor Bloomberg’s decade in office as the head of the city’s schools. Few specifically pointed to details mentioned in CEJ’s brief and they instead focusing on a report from last week’s City Council hearing which showed that just 13 percent of the city’s black and Latino students are college ready. More than two dozen parents from some of the schools set to be phased out held red signs that said “13%.”

“The mayor has had control over the public school system now for more than 10 years, so if the school system is failing, it’s failing on his watch,” said state assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries.

Jeffries, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, did not specifically criticize Bloomberg’s small schools initiative or the MDRC study, which U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan endorsed yesterday. But at the same time he called Bloomberg too trigger-happy when it came to closing schools.

“That shouldn’t be the effort of first resort,” Jeffries said. “It should be the effort of last resort when everything else has been tried to improve the quality of the education of our children.”

School Closures Policy Final FINAL

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.