Looking ahead

Five big questions facing New York City schools as a new year begins

More than one million students will stream through school doors on Wednesday, the start of a high-stakes year for New York City.

This is school year number two for the mayor, who will be trying to pull off a number of complicated education initiatives at once.

Sixty-five thousand four-year-olds will be in full-day pre-kindergarten, a record for the city. Nearly 130 schools are scheduled to get new mental or physical health services, putting a new school-improvement strategy to the test and posing another logistical challenge for city officials. And a new system for helping 1,600 schools manage nitty-gritty issues like budgets and training is making its debut.

Other challenges are educational. The city has promised to improve its low-performing schools by flooding them with resources, but students are still entering those schools far behind. Meanwhile, Mayor Bill de Blasio will have to fend off state officials critical of his management of the school system.

As teachers and students head into day one, here are five big-picture questions facing the city’s school system.

Will the “Renewal” school-turnaround program make inroads?

The city spent much of last year helping its low-performing schools develop plans for how they would improve. This year, the strategies will be put to the test at the 94 “Renewal” schools, whose progress is being closely monitored by state officials and by critics of the mayor’s approach.

De Blasio is betting on the idea that struggling schools don’t need to have their staffs overhauled or be replaced with charter schools. Instead, the city is spending millions on teacher training, principal coaches, extra support for English learners, and partnerships with social service organizations.

De Blasio’s Wednesday afternoon visit to the Renaissance School for the Arts in East Harlem will highlight how those partnerships can add time to the school day. The expanded learning initiative, which will cost the city $12.6 million this year, will staff Renaissance’s after-school program with AmeriCorps fellows.

At another planned stop on Wednesday, Chancellor Carmen Fariña will join union leaders for a tour of Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies High School in the Bronx, which is part of another city initiative to convert schools into “community schools” offering an array of services for local residents and families.

The visit to Morris Academy is symbolic for another reason. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration created the school after shuttering Morris High School, and Bloomberg used to return to the building to tout the success of his aggressive school-closure policies. Fariña’s visit is likely to focus on very different themes.

Will newly powerful superintendents and borough centers effectively replace the old “network” system?

One of the biggest changes schools have experienced over the last year is nearly invisible to most parents and students — a wholesale reorganization of the city’s “school support” teams. But for most principals, the changes will be fundamental, and it won’t take long for them to get a sense of what it will be like to work under the new arrangement.

The reorganization comes as the system’s 45 superintendents take on greater authority over the schools within their geographic domains. That power shift has unnerved some principals who have grown accustomed to being solely in charge of how their schools are run. But Fariña saw the move as necessary to create more uniformity across the city’s schools and ensure schools in need of extra support are not left unsupervised.

Replacing the 55 smaller support teams called “networks” are seven new borough support centers, which opened this summer. Now, principals will be relying on the centers to help them with everything from ordering classroom supplies to supporting students with disabilities.

What will come of the push for more family engagement?

Chancellor Fariña has said that the first step to improved student performance is improved attendance, particularly for the one in five city students who are chronically absent. Getting parents more involved is crucial for accomplishing that, Fariña has said in interviews leading up to the start of the school year.

The city’s community-schools effort is designed to get parents into school buildings, whether for English language classes, Zumba, or free laundry services. This will also be the second year that teachers will have dedicated time during the workday to contact parents. Whether those efforts will reduce chronic absenteeism will be closely watched by researchers and advocates who agree with Fariña’s methods.

Meanwhile, the education department will be confronting new and old challenges for showing that it is responsive to parent concerns.

The city has announced plans to merge a handful of schools with declining enrollments with other schools — moves that could spark emotional reactions from teachers and families of schools being officially eliminated. The city’s education policy panel will have to formally approve the mergers, as well as analyze another round of contentious charter school co-location proposals under a new law that encourages the city to find space in its buildings for new charter schools.

How will the de Blasio administration campaign for mayoral control?

The mayor’s fiercest political rivals, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Republican state lawmakers, have the ability to curtail or revoke the mayor’s control over the city school system. This spring, they gave de Blasio just a one-year extension of mayoral control.

Before June, when mayoral control expires again, de Blasio will have to mount a campaign to convince them that he should be given a longer lease on mayoral control.

This year, Republican Senate leader John Flanagan said he wanted to see evidence of de Blasio’s school-turnaround program taking shape, more information about the city’s spending, and for de Blasio and members of his administration to participate in hearings.

Will year two of pre-K run as smoothly as year one?

The first year of the city’s pre-kindergarten expansion encountered few hiccups — a significant feat, since the city more than doubled the number of available seats in full-day programs. But the expansion’s second year is in some ways more ambitious.

Last year, the city leaned heavily on experienced organizations and converting half-day seats into full-day seats. This year, as the city expands from 53,000 seats to over 60,000 seats, the pre-K operation will be stretched further, though it hasn’t appeared to run into new problems yet.

If the logistics go smoothly, attention will likely shift to the quality of the programs. The city has a vast and varied challenge in the years ahead in making sure that students in new, old, expanded, and community-organization-run programs are getting a similar learning experience to those in public school programs.

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, he Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.