where credit is (and isn't) due

Behind city’s latest credit-recovery controversy is a complicated history

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
The High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s rise to power was supposed to ease the pressure on principals to post statistical gains. De Blasio quickly eliminated rankings and letter grades from the city’s school evaluations and declared he would not close low-performing schools.

But that has not stopped some high schools from pushing students toward graduation in illicit ways, according to a recent spate of city investigations and reporting by the New York Post. The details include schools that have changed grades of students who failed a course and some that have given credits without any teaching.

The Post has responded by calling for de Blasio to fire Chancellor Carmen Fariña, though similar academic wrongdoing long preceded the current regime. The city’s response has been a pledge to proactively sniff out academic fraud, an approach not taken up by the Bloomberg administration.

[Read more about the city’s new task force here.]

Behind the tug-of-war is a complicated set of problems for New York City schools. Low-performing high schools, now under threat of being taken over by outside groups, are still under pressure to increase their four-year graduation rates. With many students still entering ninth grade well below grade level, schools have long relied on “credit recovery” programs, many of which operate within city guidelines, to keep students on track.

Here’s a guide to credit recovery and how it came to dominate the news cycle once again.

What is credit recovery, anyway?

When a student fails a course in high school, he or she doesn’t necessarily have to wait until the next semester to retake it. At many schools, students can earn credits through condensed makeup courses that target specific topics.

The practice is broadly known as “credit recovery,” but it can look different from one school to the next.

"Some schools are trying to make things make sense for students. Some are trying to cheat students."Leslie Santee Siskin

Some see the work as a way to help troubled students who have the skills to stay on track. Tech-savvy principals have embraced the courses as a way to award credits who through classes conducted partly online. Students at transfer high schools, which serve older students who have left traditional schools, say they provide much-needed flexibility.

But critics say the programs too often serve students who are simply unmotivated, undermining the value of an academic credit.

In 2012, a social studies teacher from a Queens high school recalled how his principal ordered him to enroll any student who failed his class in a credit recovery program. The students were corralled into a library and told to complete a packet of 75 multiple-choice questions and two essays.

“Some students completed the packet, others did not,” the teacher wrote. “All got credit.”

How many students earn credit that way?

It’s hard to tell. Only since the 2012-13 school year has the Department of Education actually tracked credit recovery courses using specific codes. A department spokesman said Tuesday that he could not say how many credits were earned through credit recovery citywide, or at individual schools, for any year since.

The newest data we do have shows that only a small number of students earned credits through credit recovery. In 2010-11 and 2011-12, 1.7 percent of total high school credits were earned that way.

Many of the schools that relied more heavily on credit recovery were transfer schools or were phasing out, with large shares of high-needs students. At Pacific High School, nearly one in three credits earned in 2012, its final year, came through make-up courses.

Why is this getting so much attention now?

Recent investigations and high-profile news reports have focused new attention on how some schools are inflating graduation rates by changing grades or enrolling students in credit-recovery programs that fall far short of the state’s requirements.

"I think it's cynical and has nothing to do with subject mastery and retention."David Bloomfield

A report by the education department’s investigative arm last month found programs where students received no instruction at John Dewey High School. Meanwhile, the New York Post has chronicled how students looked up answers to questions online (at Flushing) and earned science credits for studying math (at Lafayette). In past years, Chalkbeat has reported on instances when teachers were pressured to give credits to students who failed their courses (A. Philip Randolph) and creative ways that students made up physical education credits (Pace).

On Sunday, the Post published a front-page account of an 18-year-old who barely attended government class at William Cullen Bryant High School, and still passed.

Few educators would say those stories portray valuable educational experiences. The credit-recovery programs in particular look like a loopholes designed to help students cheat the system and to help adults avoid the consequences of a school’s low graduation rates.

“I think it’s cynical and has nothing to do with subject mastery and retention, and everything to do with kicking the numbers up,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of educational leadership at the CUNY Grad Center and Brooklyn College.

The city has investigated specific complaints about such programs in the past. But until now, officials had not set up a systematic way to look at how credit recovery was being used.

Is there anything good about the programs?

Plenty, some educators say. Credit recovery, when properly planned and supervised, is sanctioned by the city and helps many students reach graduation who might have otherwise fallen behind or dropped out.

In 2012, special education teacher Sam McElroy wrote on Chalkbeat that he had heard about credit-recovery scandals, but was won over after a year leading a blended learning initiative at Flushing High School.

“The scheduling flexibility it allows, the quality of the content that can be delivered, the ability to individualize courses,” he wrote, are “undeniable benefits.”

Leslie Santee Siskin, a research professor at NYU Steinhardt who studies high schools, explained that the outlier programs get most of the attention — and the outliers are pretty bad.

“There are probably lots of other students who can work on their own with a computer program and show that they’ve filled the gaps,” she said.

“Some schools are trying to make things make sense for students,” she added. “Some are trying to cheat students. It’s important to tease out which is which.”

The Post wants Chancellor Carmen Fariña to resign. How did we get here?

As we wrote in 2011, credit recovery is “an old practice with a new name.”

It rose to prominence under the Bloomberg administration, as high schools faced more pressure to graduate students within four years — a priority that trickled down from No Child Left Behind, the federal law whose provisions designed to hold schools accountable for their success considered only four-year graduation rates in its early years. Credit recovery made increasing sense for struggling students who would otherwise spend semesters re-taking courses.

"I wonder if they would have been better off spending the extra year in high school, really learning something, and then going on to college. "City high school teacher

Teachers have been conflicted about the programs for years. In 2009, Chalkbeat wrote about one teacher’s “second thoughts” about using credit recovery to get a group of her struggling students across the finish line of graduation.

“I wonder if they would have been better off spending the extra year in high school, really learning something, and then going on to college,” the teacher wrote.

As new research showed that a steady accumulation of credits was a key predictor of a student’s eventual graduation, the city began to track how many credits a school’s students earned each year. In 2007, those numbers began to factor into school assessments, which were in turn used to decide what schools the city would close.

With the Bloomberg administration’s school-accountability strategies in full swing, informal credit recovery programs came under scrutiny. Prior to 2009, state regulations didn’t actually allow for students to earn course credit without a certain amount of “seat time.” That changed by the 2011-12 school year in an effort to bring oversight to the programs, though the policy was being examined again by 2012, when a state official said he had grown concerned that the policy was being used in ways outside its original intent.

The city itself restricted credit recovery in 2012, limiting how many courses a student could make up. Meanwhile, stories about programs that skirted the rules popped up again and again.

Michael Dowd, a social studies teacher at Midwood High School, said schools under Fariña feel less frenzied to show gains, reducing the worries that can fuel grade inflation and inappropriate credit-recovery schemes. The city has removed two of the big sources of pressure, he said: “The closure threat — coming from the city, anyway — and the progress reports, which reward you for credit accumulation.”

Still, for schools trying to strike the right balance while avoiding state sanctions, Bloomfield said it is often a “no-win situation.”

“You either adhere to high standards and kids will fail and they won’t graduate and it will be held against you,” he said, “or you let kids coast and you’re splattered over the front page of the New York Post.”

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.