the education agenda

Looking beyond pre-K, de Blasio unveils wide-ranging education agenda with big goals

Every year, about 120 Colorado children are hospitalized because of falls from playground equipment. All photos from Tom Peeples.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s agenda-setting speech Wednesday could have been titled: What comes after pre-K? In a word, his answer was college.

After the mayor’s widely heralded expansion of full-day pre-kindergarten, which accompanied the launch of a turnaround program for struggling schools and a reorganization of the education department, many critics and parents were waiting for a clear vision for improving the rest of the school system.

In his speech at a high-performing Bronx high school, de Blasio sought to offer one, saying that his disparate school initiatives would operate in tandem to propel students toward college.

After pre-K, new programs will ensure students can read fluently by third grade and take algebra by ninth grade. In high school, every student will have access to advanced courses and help with college applications. And at all levels, students will learn the basics of computer science, which should make them more competitive as college applicants and job seekers.

The end goal of the these efforts — which are expected to cost $186 million annually when fully in place — is that a decade from now 80 percent of students will graduate high school each year and two-thirds will leave prepared for college-level work, the mayor said. Today, 68 percent of students graduate within four years, and less than half are considered ready for college classes.

[Read more about the specific initiatives, and their timelines, here.]

The speech seemed to strike the right chords. Observers said it balanced ambitious targets with student-focused initiatives that filled in policy gaps and are likely to appeal to parents and outside partners, such as technology companies and philanthropists.

“We can finally see a working vision for school reform taking shape under Mayor de Blasio’s leadership,” said Zakiyah Ansari, a public-school parent and advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education, in one of dozens of statements from advocates, businesspeople, and politicians that City Hall sent to reporters.

Still, the policy speech came with a heap of caveats and questions.

Most of the new programs won’t launch until next fall — after state lawmakers will have had to decide whether or not to extend his control over the city school system — and he will be out of office by the time his 2026 graduation deadline arrives.

Will the city be able to pull off the new programs, which will require extensive teacher hiring and training along with philanthropic funding? And even if the efforts go as planned, will they guarantee that students read proficiently and graduate high school in record numbers?

“Those are lovely goals,” said New York University research professor Leslie Santee Siskin, “but it would take a lot of work and reconfiguring of practice to make them reachable.”

The essence of de Blasio’s new agenda, he said, was summed up in the giant banner that hung over him in the Bronx Latin auditorium Wednesday: “Equity and excellence.” The idea is to improve the quality of all city schools, while making sure every student has access to the same learning opportunities.

That means that all second-grade students will eventually be able to get help from an on-site reading specialist, all eighth-grade students will be able to take algebra at their schools, and all high-school students will be able to take a range of Advanced Placement courses, according to the mayor’s plan. In addition, all 1.1 million city school students will get a chance to study coding, robotics, and other aspects of computer science.

Kim Nauer, education research director at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, said the mayor made a convincing argument that every school should offer stronger reading, math, and computer programs.

Those “struck me as something that the middle class and upper-middle class have always assumed for their children,” she said. “And so here he’s saying, all kids should have access to this quality of curriculum.”

Still, each program faces formidable challenges.

The city is proposing that within six years the reading specialists, combined with teacher training, will be able to more than double the number of incoming third graders who are proficient readers — from 30 percent today up to 66 percent. At the same time, more than 15,000 more eighth-graders who lack access to algebra classes and nearly 40,000 high-school students without AP options will need to receive them.

Meanwhile, the system-wide computer science classes will require some 5,000 trained teachers, officials estimate. And it will cost $81 million over a decade, with half that amount coming from private sources. So far, only about 30 percent of the private money has been committed, officials said.

Even if the city pulls off the extraordinary amount of hiring, training, and curriculum development that those programs will demand, it’s far from certain that they will lead to a 12-point increase in the graduation rate within a decade.

Aaron Pallas, a sociology and education professor at Teachers College, recalled a national education panel in the 1990s setting the goal of a 90 percent U.S. graduation rate by 2000. By 2013, the rate had hit 81 percent. While Pallas commended de Blasio for setting an ambitious target, he said detailed plans are needed.

“It’s easy to set those kinds of aspirations,” he said. “It’s harder to figure out the specific strategies.”

getting to graduation

A capstone project before graduation? New York debates new ways to earn a diploma

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Booker T. Washington High School seniors toss their graduation caps into the air last spring at the conclusion of their graduation ceremony at the Orpheum Theatre.

As New York continues to rethink what students must do to graduate high school, state policymakers floated their latest idea Monday: Let some students complete a “capstone project” on their path to a diploma.

State education officials have long grappled with graduation requirements. Traditionally, students have had to pass five “Regents” exams in order to graduate. But in recent years, the state has created additional options after policymakers argued that strict test-score requirements can hold some students back.

The debate in New York comes as several states have decided to drop or deemphasize their own exit exams. In New York, policymakers are caught between two cross-currents, said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

“One is assuring students a fair chance at earning a diploma,” he said. “The other current is to try and ensure a diploma means something.”

New York is one of only two states that require five or more exams to graduate. Several states have moved away from exit exams. Just last week, California’s governor officially abolished theirs.

New York currently allows students to replace one of the Regents exams with alternative assessments, including a career-focused exam or an arts test. The state has also made exceptions for students with disabilities, who only need to pass two Regents exams to graduate.

Last year, the state Board of Regents discussed allowing students to substitute a project-based assessment for a failed Regents exam. Allowing students to swap in a capstone project for a Regents exam would fit that trend.

However, when asked about the proposal, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said students would be able to complete it in addition to the exit exams — not in lieu of them.

“It would not replace Regents exams,” she told Chalkbeat. “Be real clear about that.”

But if Elia is cautious about replacing Regents exams, some board members want to radically rethink the state’s graduation requirements.

Regent Roger Tilles said Monday that the exit exams might be “holding students back as opposed to helping” them. In the past, he has said the state should “start from scratch” and come up with a totally new path to a diploma. (Another board member, Lester Young, proposed on Monday creating a commission to study alternative graduation options.)

Tilles’ remarks earned a round of applause from a group of parents who have been attending meetings to push for more diploma options. One parent advocate, Wendy Harnisher, said Elia should not rule out making the capstone project one option for students who are struggling to graduate.

“For her to say no,” Harnisher said, “I think that’s closing a door on an opportunity that could potentially help a lot of kids.”

The state education department has not made a final decision about the capstone project proposal, and will solicit public feedback before doing so, said spokeswoman Emily DeSantis, adding that the state is committed to giving students multiple ways to graduate.

“This is not about changing our graduation standards,” she said. “It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma.”

diploma dilemma

New York’s graduation rate could drop under new federal education law

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

New York state’s high school graduation rate may take a hit due to an under-the-radar provision in the new federal education law.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, requires states to count only “standard” diplomas earned by a “preponderance” of students or honors diplomas in their federal graduation rate. It’s possible that definition would exclude New York’s “local” diploma, a less rigorous option earned by only about 4 percent of graduating students. (Most students earn a “Regents” diploma, which requires higher exit-exam scores than the local version.)

The U.S. Education Department is currently reviewing New York’s ESSA plan. It’s unclear how the federal agency will enforce the graduation rule — and whether New York’s local diploma will pass muster — but experts say it does not appear to meet the requirements of the law. If so, New York may be forced to lower its graduation rate or report separate state and federal rates.

“The law is really clear about what can be counted,” said Anne Hyslop, an education consultant who formerly worked as a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education. “As long as the Regents is the standard diploma, the only diploma that can be counted is a higher, more rigorous diploma.”

U.S. education department officials declined to say whether New York’s local diploma will count towards the state’s graduation rate under ESSA. New York officials noted that their plan is still under review.

Indiana has already felt the effects of the new rule.

Indiana’s education department announced that in response to the federal law its “general” diploma which is earned by about 12 percent of Indiana graduates who struggle academically or have a disability will no longer be included in its federal graduation rate.

The federal rate is used to hold schools accountable for their performance. States must target any school with a graduation rate below 67 percent for improvement, though states can decide which interventions to use. (New York’s plan allows schools to use their six-year graduation rates to meet that benchmark.)

In response to the new rule, Indiana officials are considering using two different graduation rates: one for the federal accountability system and the other for the state’s. In practice, that would mean different sets of criteria for when state and federal school interventions kick in.

New York could theoretically use two separate counts as well. In that scenario, it would use the lower federal rate for ESSA accountability purposes, such as identifying low-performing schools. But it would still maintain a state rate that factors in local diplomas — a move that would enable students to keep earning the local diploma, which is recognized by colleges and the military.

“The local diploma can still be awarded,” Hyslop said. “That diploma still carries meaning.”

But reporting two separate graduation rates has drawbacks particularly for anyone who wants to understand how schools are performing, said Michael Cohen, president of the nonprofit Achieve, which helps states work on academic standards.

“It would be confusing to anyone who wants to know what the actual graduation rate in the state is,” Cohen said. “If I were a resident in a state that did that I would wonder what’s going on.”

The intent of ESSA’s “preponderance” rule is to push states to issue a single diploma option without lowering the bar for any students, including those with disabilities. Many advocates think if states create easier options it will lower expectations for some students.

“We do believe that students with disabilities largely can achieve the regular standards diploma options,” said Melissa Turner, senior manager for state policy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

But sticking to a single graduation cutoff inevitably means leaving some students without a diploma, which can thwart their job or college ambitions.

Rather than withhold a diploma from students who score below the cutoff, New York created the local diploma option. It functions as a safety net for students who are struggling academically, still learning English or have disabilities. There are several ways students with disabilities can earn the credential, but the most recent option allows students to graduate by passing only the math and English Regents exam.

“It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma,” said state education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis, adding that officials would include ESSA in their graduation discussions over the coming months.

Still, experts warned that New York’s alternative diploma options may run afoul of ESSA.

If New York was “really following the letter of the law they would just drop their graduation rates,” by a few percentage points, said Monica Almond, the senior associate for policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education.