back in the race

Arne Duncan: NY overcame "stumbling block" with evals deal

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised the agreement between the State Education Department and NYSUT.

Just hours after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a deal about the structure of a new teacher evaluation system, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he was no longer concerned about the state’s eligibility for federal Race to the Top funds.

New York won $700 million in Race to the Top funds in large part by agreeing to adopt a new teacher evaluation system. But after passing an evaluation law in the spring of 2010, implementation was slow, and relations between the state and its teachers union, NYSUT, had deteriorated over the implementation.

Last month, charging that the state was “backtracking on reform commitments,” Duncan warned that New York was at risk of losing its Race to the Top funds.

Today, Duncan said he was no longer worried. He struck a tone of unreserved optimism this afternoon while speaking to reporters on a Midtown sidewalk as he dashed between a meeting with the New York Times editorial board and a taping of the Daily Show.

“This was a major roadblock, a major stumbling block, and I think they are over that in a great way,” he said. There’s a whole body of work going forward that New York has to do, but this was a major issue, a major concern of ours and I think they’ve addressed it in an extraordinary way.”

Duncan praised the state’s collaboration with NYSUT.

“What you saw here was folks working together,” he said. “I think many people predicted this couldn’t work out, couldn’t happen, but this is union-imagined, working together to get the right points.”

Duncan rejected the idea that the state had taken too long to flesh out its evaluation system since applying for Race to the Top funds two years ago.

“We’re never looking for overnight successes,” he said. “What we are looking for is progress. What we are looking for is a willingness to challenge the status quo. If this was easy it would have happened many many years ago.”

Most of Duncan’s comments centered on the state-level evaluations deal, which created a framework for districts to agree to by the end of 2012. But he also noted Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to move forward with controversial “turnaround” plans at 33 struggling schools, even though the evaluations deal would appear to give New York City the flexibility to move away from the plan.

When teacher evaluation negotiations reached a standstill earlier this year, turnaround seemed to be the only model that would allow the city to continue to receive promised federal School Improvement Grants.  But Bloomberg said today that the city would move forward with the turnaround plans anyway, even though that means the city would close those schools originally set to stay open under other, less stringent reform models.

Duncan said it is up to the city to decide which school reform method is best for each of the schools eligible for SIG funds.

“The turnaround method has already shown strong results in other states,” he said. “We have coming out soon some data on the first year those schools that are being turned around, and we are seeing some amazing success stories around the country: dropout rates going down, graduation rates going up, test scores increasing in the double digits.”

Struggling Detroit schools

The list of promises is long: Arts, music, robotics, gifted programs and more. Will Detroit schools be able to deliver?

PHOTO: Detroit Public Television
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti answers questions at a community meeting in Detroit.

Arts. Music. Robotics. Programs for gifted kids. New computers. New textbooks. Dual enrollment programs that let high school students take college classes. International Baccalaureate. Advanced Placement.

They’re all on the list of things that Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a group of community members assembled in a Brightmoor neighborhood church that he would introduce or expand as soon as next school year.

Vitti didn’t get into the specifics of how the main Detroit district would find the money or partnerships needed to deliver on all of those promises, but they’re part of the plan for the future, he said.

The comments came in a question and answer session last month with students, parents and community members following Vitti’s appearance on Detroit Public Television’s American Black Journal/One Detroit Roadshow. The discussion was recorded at City Covenant Church. DPTV is one of Chalkbeat’s partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.

Vitti has been appearing at community events since taking over the Detroit schools last spring. He is scheduled next week to join officials from two of the city’s major charter school authorizers, Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University, at a State of the Schools address on October 25.


Watch the full Q&A with Vitti below.

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.