Inside baseball

Change in city schools' data czar as number-crunching goes on

Martin Kurzweil, right, spoke on a panel discussion in June, weeks before leaving the Department of Education.

As the city prepares to release another edition of performance grades to more than 1,700 schools in the coming weeks, it will be doing so without the person who was behind the project last year.

Martin Kurzweil, a lawyer who most recently oversaw data-crunching for the Department of Education, exited this summer to take an academic fellowship at Columbia University Law School.

Kurzweil’s departure is part of a steady drip of directors and program leaders to have exited the department in recent months. This summer also saw the departures of Deputy Chancellor Laura Rodriguez; Rodriguez’s deputy in special education, Lauren Katzman; and public affairs director Lenny Speiller. In the spring and winter, the department lost its top lawyer and communications chief, as well as most of its press officers. Jessica Scaperotti, promoted in July to take over the newly consolidated External Affairs office, left in August.

“It’s a great loss,” said Clara Hemphill, senior editor of The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, who worked with Kurzweil often when presenting school data on InsideSchools, the website she runs. “He’s a really smart, good guy who understood that there’s more to schools than numbers.”Middle management turnover has long been an issue at the department. But with Mayor Bloomberg’s term ending soon, every departure could be considered a possible warning sign. Already, insiders say experienced and talented officials no longer view some city agencies as an attractive place to work.

Kurzweil, who joined the education department in February 2010, handled a number of initiatives that sought to assess and measure the performance of teachers, principals, and schools in the New York City School system. As the executive director of the city data and accountability office, his portfolio included the progress reports and school surveys, two measures that are regularly cited by top officials in school closures. Kurzweil also gathered data and interpreted state policies required of the No Child Left Behind law.

This summer, one of Kurzweil’s final projects for the department included verifying data to comply with another state mandate: New York State’s evaluation law, which will link student performance on standardized tests to teacher evaluations.

Before he joined the department, Kurzweil practiced law at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, but his background was steeped in academic research. As a 22-year-old research assistant, Kurzweil gathered data on the admissions processes from 19 colleges and crunched them based a broad range of demographic and socioeconomic factors. That work led to a book about the research.

But Kurzweil, a volunteer tutor for high-need middle school students in Boston while he attended Harvard University, has made it clear that although he originally thought data could be used as a solution to problems facing the public school system, his work at the department changed his mind.

“I think I have really grown to appreciate the value of other non-quantitative measures of school quality,” Kurzweil said at an InsideSchools event that unveiled its own version of school report cards this summer.

“I thought that school evaluation was a problem with a solution and one that you could reach by logic or math,” he added. “I very quickly realized how complicated it is.”

Kurzweil declined to be interviewed, but he said in a statement that he was most proud of his work on aligning the school progress reports to measurements of college and career readiness.

In returning to academia, Kurzweil said he will focus on education law and policy.

“Although I will miss working so closely with my smart and dedicated colleagues at Tweed, networks, and schools, I look forward to focusing on issues of equity, educational quality, and system design from a new perspective,” Kurzweil said in the statement.

Former deputy chancellor Eric Nadelstern, among the top aides to leave the department following Klein’s resignation, said he didn’t expect middle management departures to have a big effect of the city’s ability to carry out its major initiatives, which include the special education overhaul, common core standards rollout and forthcoming teacher evaluations.

“When the deputy chancellors start running for the hills, that’s when you have to start worrying,” Nadelstern said.

Simone D’Souza, who served as a deputy under Kurzweil for more than a year and who helped lead the work on developing the college readiness metrics, will take over his responsibilities. D’Souza previously worked at Ascend Venture Group, a private investment firm, and Goldman Sachs. In between, she earned master’s degrees from the University of Pennsylvania in business administration and education.

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.