accountability absence

Under de Blasio, no measures of success or failure for schools serving the neediest kids

(Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)

Thousands of families were left wondering how well their children’s schools are performing this week after the city released new school report cards — but left out schools serving the city’s neediest students.

Together, the schools enroll as many students as the city of Buffalo. Yet they have not received public report cards since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office nearly two years ago, even though the same schools received yearly progress reports under the previous administration.

Schools that have now been left out of two rounds of annual reports include “transfer” schools, which enroll drop-outs and students who fell far behind at traditional high schools, and schools in District 75, which serve students with severe disabilities at over 300 sites across the city. Together, the two groups of schools enroll roughly 35,000 students.

“There’s no information for you to make your own assessments outside of visiting the schools in person,” said Lori Podvesker, a policy manager at INCLUDEnyc, a support agency for young people with disabilities, and whose son attends a District 75 school in Manhattan. “That’s so fundamentally wrong.”

Most city schools were issued two public reports Tuesday: a “snapshot” for parents and a “guide” for educators. The reports include key school data, including test scores, graduation rates, and the results of parent and teacher surveys.

The reports are designed to hold schools publicly accountable for their results and to help families decide where to enroll their children. They are also meant to give schools “a set of urgent priorities on which to focus improvement efforts,” as an education department press release put it.

An education department spokeswoman said the city is still deciding how to fairly measure the performance of transfer and District 75 schools, since they serve such challenging populations. In the meantime, the most recent report cards available for those schools date from 2013 — before de Blasio took office.

“You’re sort of letting those schools off the hook in terms of any accountability measures,” said Kim Nauer, education research director at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. The need to come up with fair metrics for those schools should not keep them waiting indefinitely for reports, she added.

“Parents need them,” she said, “and the schools need to know that people are looking at their results.”

The city began issuing schools annual “progress reports” in 2007 under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The reports, which assigned schools A-to-F letter grades, were used to reward top-ranked schools and to identify some low-performers for closure.

District 75 schools initially did not get reports, but within a few years the city designed modified reports for those schools that used different metrics. For instance, transfer schools were rated partly by how many students graduate within six years of entering high school — not four years, like traditional high schools. Both groups of schools were judged in comparison to how well other schools were doing that served the same types of students.

On the campaign trail, de Blasio promised to remove the letter grades from school reports and replace them with more nuanced metrics. Soon after he took office, his new schools chief, Carmen Fariña, said during a conference for city educators that the new administration would also find a fairer way to assess transfer schools, according to Erin Santana, a transfer school employee who attended the 2014 conference.

As promised, de Blasio’s revamped school reports did not feature letter grades when they were introduced last fall. But transfer schools did not receive reports with updated measures — instead, they got no reports at all.

“Fariña definitely stood on the stage and told us to our faces that they were going to change the way they evaluate transfer schools to reflect the population that we serve,” said Santana, who runs a job-readiness program at Aspirations High School, a Brooklyn transfer school. “To my knowledge, that hasn’t happened.”

It is no easy task to find reasonable and valid ways to evaluate these schools, which work with very specific groups of city students. District 75 schools serve students with autism, cognitive delays, and other serious disabilities, many of whom do not take the state’s typical standardized tests. Transfer schools enroll older students who have struggled at traditional high schools or stopped attending school altogether, often because they became caught up in the criminal justice system.

Using normal metrics to rate those schools would likely provide an unfairly negative view of their performance. Since transfer schools have some control over their admissions, it could also discourage them from accepting students who are the least likely to graduate — and who most need their services.

Still, experts say it is possible to come up with fair rating systems for the schools. For instance, District 75 schools could be judged on the progress their students make in reaching their individual learning goals and to what extent they provide students their mandated special-education services.

Meanwhile, the lack of any reports for these schools creates challenges for families who want to monitor how their children’s schools are performing, or who are looking to move a child to a different school. That is especially true for transfer schools, since they each have different admissions criteria. And to make matters more complicated, the city has not published an updated directory for those schools as it has for traditional high schools.

“When a student has to find a transfer school, it’s already a difficult process,” said Ashley Grant, a staff attorney at Advocates for Children. “So to not have all that information in one place is extremely challenging.”

Education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said that parent and teacher surveys are still available for these schools, and that students can also ask their guidance counselors for help. She added that the schools have “unique challenges,” and that the department is working with educators to find a way to a fair and accurate way to evaluate them.

Update: Kaye sent the additional response below after the story was published.

She pointed out that former Mayor Bloomberg did not introduce progress reports for any schools until five years after taking office, and said those for transfer and District 75 schools were “oversimplified” and did not include measures that matter to parents, such as a school’s social-emotional support for students and its efforts to help them prepare for college or work.

“‎The first full school year of the de Blasio administration was 2014-15 and the data for that school year was available as of September, 2015,” she added in a statement. “We just finished the reports for the largest school types and we are working on developing the first fair and useful reports for the other school types to best inform students, parents, educators and community members.”

the aftermath

What educators, parents, and students are grappling with in the wake of America’s latest school shooting

Kristi Gilroy (right) hugs a young woman at a police check point near the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 people were killed by a gunman in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It’s hard to know where to start on days like this.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead on Wednesday has elicited both terror and anger — and raised debates that are far from settled about how to keep American students safe.

Here are a few storylines we noticed as the country again grapples with a tragic school shooting:

1. You’re not wrong to think it: There have been a lot of mass shootings, and many recent ones have been especially deadly.

Data on school shootings specifically, though, is notoriously murky. As the Atlantic recently noted, varying definitions can contribute to either “sensationalizing or oversimplifying a modern trend of mass violence in America that is seemingly becoming more entrenched.”

But by NBC News’ count, 20 people have been killed and more than 30 have been injured in school shootings this year. That’s a lot — and more news organizations are now trying to keep a careful tally.

2. The consequences of traumatic events like the shooting at Stoneman Douglas are likely to be felt for some time.

A number of studies have found that violent and traumatic events in and outside of school do real damage to student learning, as we’ve reported — particularly among students who are already struggling. Here are some resources for teachers who need to talk to their students about trauma.

3. The tragedy is already renewing debates over whether or how to arm teachers.

Education Week gathered some of those calls from politicians Thursday. “Gun-safety advocates say that teachers can’t safely and quickly move from the mindset of teaching to being asked to fire a gun at an active shooter,” the story also notes.

This doesn’t even get at the debate about whether anyone should have access to the kind of gun the shooter used. Students from the district, for their part, told Broward schools chief Robert Runcie Thursday “that the time is due for a conversation on sensible gun control,” the Miami Herald reported.

Whether other technology and infrastructure can help keep students safe is a topic of ongoing discussion in communities across the country. Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill to help schools buy communications systems that would allow them to talk directly to police and other emergency responders. Officials from districts that already use this equipment described them as a way to increase safety without “turning our schools into prisons,” even as they also assured lawmakers that the radios were just as useful for serious playground injuries and broken-down buses as for the much rarer active shooter situations.

In Tennessee, one school district near Nashville announced plans to close schools next Monday to review all safety plans with school staff and local law enforcement.

4. In some places, the shooting is unlikely to change the school safety debate at all.

In New York City, for example, conversations about school safety in recent years have revolved around discipline policies and metal detectors (though police have seized an increasing number of weapons from city schools). There’s little appetite there to arm teachers.

5. But all across America, the shooting and others like it have added a frightening tone to what it means to teach and learn in schools today.

“I know you are waking up this morning to a nightmare,” a former educator wrote in a “love letters to teachers” on Teaching Tolerance. “I know you are frustrated, tired and weary of the news. I know you are wearing your coat of bravery today.”

“I’m so, so angry and I’m having a hard time today looking at my students and not thinking about what happens when it’s my school’s turn,” wrote one commenter on the Badass Teachers Association Facebook group.

getting to graduation

New York City graduation rate hits record high of 74.3 percent in 2017

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the 2017 graduation rate at South Bronx Preparatory school.

New York City’s graduation rate rose to 74.3 percent in 2017, a slight increase over the previous year and a new high for the city.

The 1.2 percentage point increase over the previous year continues an upward climb for the city, where the overall graduation rate has grown by nearly 28 points since 2005. The state graduation rate also hit a new high — 82.1 percent — just under the U.S. rate of 84.1 percent.

The city’s dropout rate fell to 7.8 percent, a small decline from the previous year and the lowest rate on record, according to the city.

“New York City is showing that when we invest in our students, they rise to the challenge and do better and better,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement Wednesday.

More graduates were also deemed ready for college-level work. Last year, 64 percent of graduates earned test scores that met the City University of New York’s “college-ready” benchmark — up more than 13 percentage points from the previous year. 

However, the gains came after CUNY eased its readiness requirements; without that change, city officials said the increase would be significantly smaller. But even with the less rigorous requirements, more than a third of city students who earned high-school diplomas would be required to take remedial classes at CUNY.

Phil Weinberg, the education department’s deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, noted that CUNY’s college-readiness requirements are more demanding than New York’s graduation standards — which are among the toughest in the country.

We will work toward making sure none of our students need remediation when they get to college,” he told reporters. “But that’s a long game for us and we continue to move in that direction.”

The rising graduation rates follow a series of changes the state has made in recent years to help more students earn diplomas.

The graduation-requirement changes include allowing students with disabilities to earn a diploma by passing fewer exit exams and letting more students appeal a failed score. In addition, students can now substitute a work-readiness credential for one of the five Regents exams they must pass in order to graduate — adding to a number of other alternative tests the state has made available in the past few years.

About 9,900 students used one of those alternative-test or credential options in 2017, while 315 students with disabilities took advantage of the new option for them, according to state officials. They could not say how many students successfully appealed a low test score; but in 2016, about 1,300 New York City students did so.

The news was mixed for schools in de Blasio’s high-profile “Renewal” improvement program for low-performing schools. Among the 28 high schools that have received new social services and academic support through the program, the graduation rate increased to nearly 66 percent — almost a 6 percentage point bump over 2016. Their dropout rate also fell by about 2 points, to 16.4 percent, though that remains more than twice as high as the citywide rate.

However, more than half of the high schools in that $568 million program — 19 out of 28 — missed the graduation goals the city set for them, according to a New York Times analysis based on preliminary figures.

Graduation rates for students who are still learning English ticked up slightly to 32.5 percent, following a sharp decline the previous year that the state education commissioner called “disturbing.” City officials argue that students who improved enough to shed the designation of “English language learner” in the years before they graduated should also be counted; among that larger group, the graduation rate was 53 percent in 2017.

Meanwhile, the graduation-rate gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers narrowed a smidgen, but it remains wide. Last year, the graduation rate was about 83 percent for white students, 70 percent for black students, and 68 percent for Hispanic students. That represented a closing of the gap between white and black students by 0.4 percentage points, and 0.1 points between whites and Hispanic.

Asian students had the highest rate — 87.5 percent — a nearly 2 point increase from the previous year that widened their lead over other racial groups.

Christina Veiga contributed reporting.