Turnaround Tactics

Test scores highlight the challenge ahead for city’s ‘Renewal’ turnaround program

PHOTO: Yvonne Albinowski/Ramapo for Children

This year’s state test results showed the city school system creeping forward, but they also told another story: the city’s new school-improvement program has a grueling climb ahead of it.

Schools were chosen for the “Renewal” turnaround program largely because of their low test scores, and while many made minor gains and some pulled significant shares of students out of the lowest score bracket this year, their results remained strikingly far below the city average, according to testing data released Wednesday.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to revamp rather than replace those schools, whose troubles predate his administration. The latest test results underscore just how ambitious a three-year turnaround plan is, especially since year one was mainly devoted to helping the Renewal schools craft improvement plans. As de Blasio tries to pull off this feat, skeptical state lawmakers will be scrutinizing the program’s progress and the state education department will be poised to seize control of struggling schools that don’t rapidly improve.

“The Renewal schools obviously are schools that didn’t get enough investment in the past and had a lot of problems,” de Blasio said Wednesday. “We expect that it’s going to take a lot of work and investment to get them where they need to be, but we’re confident they will move.”

The average English pass rate for the 63 Renewal schools where students took the grades 3-8 state exams this year was 7.5 percent, compared to the city’s 30 percent average. In math, the Renewal pass rate was about 7 percent, compared to 35 percent for the city. Only about a quarter of schools had English pass rates in the double digits (the highest rate was 18 percent), while just one-fifth saw double digit pass rates in math (with a high of 21 percent).

Though extremely low, those average Renewal pass rates reflect increases over 2014: In English, a 1.4-point boost, and 1.1 points in math. Forty-one schools made slight English proficiency gains, and 36 saw bumps in math. At the same time, 20 schools saw their English pass rates slip slightly, as did 27 schools in math.

Renewal schools have much lower test scores than the city average, but they also enroll more students who tend to score poorly. The 94 schools in the program serve larger shares of non-native English speakers, students with disabilities, and students in temporary housing, as well as more black and Hispanic students, than the city average, according to an analysis by the city’s Independent Budget Office. (They are also more likely to have low-rated teachers and funding shortfalls, which de Blasio has tried to address by boosting their budgets.)

Considering how far behind many students are when they enter these schools, another measure of their progress is how many students they can push out of the bottom score zone (Level 1 out of four). In both subjects, roughly half of the schools managed to shrink their share of bottom scores. P.S. 154 in the Bronx managed to downsize its group of Level 1 students in English by 17 percentage points, while that borough’s Academy for Personal Leadership and Excellence reduced its Level 1 math cohort by 14 percentage points.

In meetings with Renewal school leaders, education department officials have said such progress is an important accomplishment. Chancellor Carmen Fariña suggested that during the city’s test-score release announcement yesterday when she explained that pushing students slightly forward in reading can have a ripple effect.

“If you can’t read, you can’t do social studies, you can’t do science, you can’t do anything else,” she said. “So being able to move those Level 1’s to Level 2’s is crucial.”

That step-by-step approach to improvement is reflected in the goals the city gave each Renewal school in May and June. An elementary school was told to raise its students’ average math test proficiency score on the Level 1 to 4 scale to a 2.14 by 2016 — a .03 bump from the school’s 2014 average, according to the principal. A middle school was told to increase its students’ average English score by .15 points on that four-point scale by 2017, according to a goal-setting document obtained by Chalkbeat.

“We were pleased that they were as low as they were,” said an administrator from that middle school, referring to the goals, which he said seemed reasonable since the school has many students still learning English.

Whether the state officials keeping close tabs on the Renewal program will be content with modest gains, or whether they will expect those schools to make greater strides toward the city averages, remains to be seen.

In op-ed last week expressing concern over de Blasio’s handling of the city school system, State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan said he had “unanswered questions” about the Renewal program. He added that while the city’s schools should set up every student to succeed, “I have serious doubts about whether that mission is being fulfilled.” (Flanagan, a Republican, has sparred before with de Blasio, a Democrat who tried to help his party take control of the senate.)

Meanwhile, under a recent state law, 50 of the Renewal schools have between one and two years to make significant improvements. If they fail to post adequate gains, then the state will hand over control of the schools to an outside manager.

Speaking at an education conference Thursday that Fariña also attended, state Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said the city and its partners faced a choice with its bottom-ranked schools.

“I think they’ve got to make a decision,” she said. “How long do you stick with a failing school?”

Sarah Darville and Stephanie Snyder contributed reporting.

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised more than $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

Another union-funded group, called Brighter Futures for Denver, has spent all of its money on consultant services for one Denver candidate: Jennifer Bacon, who’s running in a three-person race in northeast Denver’s District 4. The Denver teachers union, which contributed $114,000 to the committee, has endorsed Bacon. The statewide teachers union also contributed money.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, the incumbent running in District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $625,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a slate of candidates that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information about Americans for Prosperity’s Douglas County plans. 

what is a good school?

New York policymakers are taking a closer look at how they evaluate charter schools

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

New York is rethinking how it judges whether charter schools are successful and deserve to remain open — a discussion that comes as some top education policymakers have asked tough questions about the privately managed schools.

The state education department currently decides which of the more than 70 charter schools it oversees can stay open based largely on their test scores and graduation rates, though other factors like family involvement and financial management are also reviewed. A set of changes now being considered could add additional performance measures, such as the share of students who are chronically absent and student survey results.

Policymakers also discussed whether to change how they calculate charter-school student enrollment and retention.

The move — which got its first public discussion Monday during a Board of Regents meeting and is expected to become a formal proposal in December — would bring charter schools in line with a shift underway in how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the board has moved away from using test scores as the main metric for evaluating schools and will begin to track absences and eventually suspensions.

Since the state’s current system for evaluating charter schools was last revised in 2015, the board has added several new members and elected a new leader, Betty Rosa. Several members at a previous board meeting questioned the enrollment practices at a charter school in Brooklyn.

At Monday’s meeting, some suggested the schools attain high test scores partly by serving fewer high-needs students — and that the system for evaluating charters should take this into account.  

For instance, Regent Kathleen Cashin implied at Monday’s meeting that some charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students. Their motivation, she said, “is not pedagogic, I’ll tell you that.” She suggested that, in addition to tracking how well charter schools retain students, the state should survey parents who leave those schools to find out why.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rosa suggested Monday that it’s unfair to compare charter schools that serve few high-needs students to traditional schools.

Charter schools receive autonomy from many rules, but in return they agree to meet certain performance targets — or risk closure if they do not. The state judges charters based on a variety of metrics, everything from their enrollment figures to how they respond to parent concerns. However, test scores and graduation rates are “the most important factor when determining to renew or revoke a school’s charter,” according to state documents.

Even if the state adds new measures that move beyond test scores, those will still hold the most weight, according to state officials.

The state is also considering whether to change how it measures charter schools’ enrollment and retention targets. Currently, schools must set targets for students with disabilities, English learners, and those eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch. If they fail to meet those targets, they must show they are making yearly progress towards meeting that goal.

During the state’s presentation, officials also floated the idea of a “fiscal dashboard,” which would display charter schools’ financial information. They also said they may compare charter high school graduation rates and Regents exam scores with those of the districts where they’re located, instead of using only the state average or their targets as a comparison point.