Keeping score

Report outlines what New York City schools are doing to increase diversity — and advocates respond

PHOTO: Mary Ellen McIntire
City Council members Carlos Menchaca (left) and Brad Lander hosted a parents forum in 2014 to discuss diversity in schools.

The New York City Department of Education expanded an initiative to help schools promote diversity in admissions, opened gifted programs in areas where there weren’t any, and helped more students prepare for tests to get into elite high schools.

Those are just a few of the efforts the department outlines in its second annual diversity report, released Tuesday.

For the first time, the report includes a demographic breakdown of the city’s pre-K students. And the admissions methods used at each school have been broken out into a separate, easier-to-read list.

The report was released along with a promise that the DOE is working on “a larger plan this school year” to improve diversity — something the mayor has also said publicly, though no details have been shared.

City Councilman Brad Lander, who championed the 2015 School Diversity Act, the local law that mandates the report, called that pledge “a big deal.”

“That’s the change we were hoping this law would help move forward, and we’re encouraged to see we’re moving in the right direction,” he said.

New York City’s schools are among the most segregated in the country — an issue that has attracted growing attention and advocacy.

On the same day the diversity report was released, Public Advocate Letitia James called for the city Department of Education to appoint a chief diversity officer to “implement and oversee efforts to reduce segregation in New York City’s public schools.”

Here are some of the city’s initiatives, as listed in the report:

— The DOE enabled all schools to apply for its “Diversity in Admissions” program, which allows schools to set aside some seats specifically for students who are poor, learning English or who have other risk factors, such as being involved in the child welfare system. After an initial pilot, the program has been expanded to a total of 19 schools.

— The department started new gifted and talented programs in Districts 7 and 12 in the Bronx, and Districts 16 and 23 in Central Brooklyn. None of those had offered a gifted program in at least five years. The new programs start in third grade, and allow teachers to consider multiple measures rather than rely on a test for admission.

— The Specialized High School Admissions Test, which is required to get into the city’s elite high schools, will be offered during class time at seven schools, as part of a pilot project. The city hopes this change, along with expanded test prep, will increase the number of black and Hispanic students who take — and pass — the exam.

While the new initiatives represent improvement, they are still relatively modest, said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank focused on inequity.

“I give these efforts a B-minus,” he said. “We’re making a good start, but now we need to really push further to make an important difference in students’ lives.”

The Diversity in Admissions plans affect only a tiny set of New York City’s roughly 1,800 schools, and gifted programs are often criticized for their segregating effects. Meanwhile, at least one of the city’s efforts to increase diversity at its specialized high schools actually does more to help white and Asian students.

Still, there has been “really significant progress,” said David Tipson, executive director of New York Appleseed, which has pushed for school diversity initiatives.

Tipson was particularly encouraged by the report’s mention of district-wide diversity initiatives.

Districts 1 and 13 are using state grants to explore socioeconomic integration models such as “controlled choice,” though some community members say the initiative has been tied up in bureaucratic red tape at the DOE. Still, last year’s report didn’t even acknowledge the district-wide plans, and instead focused on single-school efforts that are also a part of the grant.

That shift is “very significant,” Tipson said. “I have a lot of confidence that really means something.”

The city has also taken steps to encourage integration in pre-K classrooms, which a recent report found to be more segregated than kindergarten.

The city now allows low-income students, whose pre-K is funded by the Administration for Children’s Services, to be served in the same classrooms as other city pre-K students. It also increased outreach to make sure homeless families enroll their children and know about gifted programs.

“Students learn better in diverse classrooms – including their peers and educators,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement. “We’re committed to using a range of localized and systemic strategies to get at this important issue.”

Compare and Contrast

Denver pays substitute teachers about $100 a day (when there’s no strike). Here’s how that stacks up.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Substitute teacher Steven Mares, right, works with a student at Denver Green School in 2016. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Among the many reactions we’ve seen to Denver’s likely teacher strike, one standout has been surprise at how much the district pays substitute teachers.

During a strike, Denver Public Schools plans to pay substitutes twice the regular rate, or $212 a day. Some of our readers expressed surprise that people who step in to cover the classes of teachers who are absent would normally be paid just $106 a day.

That’s actually the low end of the substitute teacher pay scale in Denver. Retired teachers earn $123 a day, and any substitute who has worked 60 full days earns the title “super guest teacher” and is paid significantly more in subsequent days.

Still, since Denver teachers are preparing to strike over low pay, we thought it would be interesting to answer the question of whether Denver’s substitute teacher rate is unusually low. A sampling of other big-city rates shows that many districts do pay substitutes more, though usually not by all that much.

In some large districts, the regular rate can be close to Denver’s special strike rate. New York City guarantees substitutes $185.15 a day, while Los Angeles substitutes earn $191 a day — and that rate rises to $258 if the teacher stays in the same placement for more than 20 straight days. Boston substitutes earn $141 a day — a figure that doubles if they stay in one position for an extended period of time.

Other districts offer pay that’s more in line with Denver’s regular rate. Washington, D.C., pays substitute teachers $120 a day, noting on its website, “We are excited to offer some of the most competitive pay in the region.” Indianapolis began paying substitutes between $90 and $115 two years ago amid a broader overhaul to how schools are supplied with subs.

And some districts pay far less; the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, says the low end of the range is $75 a day. One person who saw the news from Denver on Twitter wrote, “SOMEONE GETS PAID THAT MUCH TO SUB?????? My 75$ a day is aching.” She said she worked as a substitute teacher in rural Ohio.

Rates are often set in contracts between districts and their teachers unions. Many districts pay retired teachers more than others, and also have different rates for people who fill new roles daily and people who step into one role for an extended period of time. Substitutes must meet standards set by their states and districts and do not typically receive benefits.

In Colorado, unlike in some states, substitutes do not need to be licensed teachers or pursuing licensure. A college degree is not even required, although many districts do not usually hire substitutes who have not graduated from college.

People who work as substitute teachers are unlikely to relocate for higher pay, so the pay comparison that might best illuminate Denver’s chances of recruiting large numbers of substitute teachers during a strike is with nearby districts.

There, Denver’s regular rate appears to be on par with the market. The nearby Jefferson County and Douglas County districts each pay $100 a day, while Cherry Creek, an affluent district adjoining Denver, pays $90.

But far more than pay will influence how many teachers Denver is able to bring on to replace the thousands of educators who are expected to strike.

Denver already has low unemployment, so there aren’t many qualified people looking for daily work — at least not under normal circumstances, when the district has a hard time finding enough substitute teachers. The district is hoping that the tens of thousands of furloughed federal workers in Colorado who have gone without pay for weeks will step up to fill classrooms in the event of a strike, if the federal government is still shut down at that time.

People considering the short-term work would also have to be willing to cross the picket line. Already, some people who say they are Denver educators have condemned potential substitutes as scabs, willing to side with the district over its employees in the dispute over teacher pay.

That dynamic could potentially entice at least a few Coloradans into Denver’s classrooms. “If Denver public schools is looking for substitute teachers who are just educated generally and not specifically in education theory to help break the strike,” one person tweeted, “I could probably chip in a few hours.”

But the tension appears more likely to keep people who are approved to work in Denver classrooms away.

“As a sometimes substitute in Denver, I stand with the teachers,” one person tweeted. “I will not take jobs in DPS during the strike. The double pay rate is NOT worth the stain on my soul.”

“Money is tight. I’m qualified to be an emergency sub and I’d probably enjoy it,” tweeted another person who identifies herself as a nurse. “But I will put my time in on their line, not behind it.”

Moving

Tennessee’s next education chief starts in February. Here’s how she’s prepping.

Penny Schwinn soon will become Tennessee's education commissioner under Republican Gov. Bill Lee. She is leaving her job as chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe/ Getty Images)

Penny Schwinn is scheduled on Feb. 4 to take the reins of Tennessee’s education department, where she’ll oversee 600 full-time employees and work on new Gov. Bill Lee’s agenda for public education.

Schwinn is now winding down her obligations in Texas, where as chief deputy commissioner over academics she has been responsible for the work of about 350 employees and half of the programs of the Texas Education Agency.

“As you would want with any public official, I want to make sure we have a really strong transition so that my team is taken care of and the work moves forward in Texas without massive disruption,” she said.

She plans to pack and move to Tennessee next week and expects her family to join her in the spring.

“My husband and I have a 6-year-old and 3-year-old at home, so we’re helping them through this transition and making sure they feel supported in our move,” she said of their two daughters, who eventually will attend public schools in Nashville.

Schwinn, 36, was the final cabinet appointment announced by Lee before the Republican governor took office over the weekend. She is a career educator who started in a Baltimore classroom with Teach For America, founded a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, and has worked as a top state administrator in Delaware and Texas.

In an interview Wednesday with Chalkbeat, she described how she’s straddling two states and getting up to speed for her new job.

TNReady will be Job One, said Schwinn, who is poring over a recent audit of Tennessee’s problem-plagued testing program.

She plans to dig into details to prepare for testing that begins on April 15 under current vendor Questar. Simultaneously, she’ll scrutinize the state’s request for proposals outlining what Tennessee wants from its next testing company when the assessment program moves to a new contract next school year.

The request for proposals is expected to be released in the next few weeks.

“I’m going to be the person who is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the new vendor is incredibly strong for Tennessee students, so I want to see everything we’re requesting, ask questions, and make last-minute changes if that’s necessary,” she said.

Tennessee has struggled to deliver its own assessment cleanly since transitioning in 2016 to TNReady, which is aligned to new academic standards and was designed for most students to take online. Three straight years of problems either with online administration or scoring have dogged the state and seriously undermined its accountability work, putting everyone on edge with testing.

In hiring Schwinn, Lee touted her assessment work in two states, including cleaning up behind disruptions that marred testing in Texas soon after she arrived in 2016.

In Tennessee, Schwinn promises tight vendor management, whether it’s with Questar this school year or multiple companies that take over this fall.

“It’s incredibly important that we have accurate data about how our children are performing in Tennessee,” she said of TNReady. “This is my background both in Delaware and Texas in terms of assessment. It’s a good space for me to dig into the work and become an integral part of the team.”

In Texas, Schwinn came under fire for a $4.4 million no-bid award for a contract to collect special education data. A state audit released last September found that she failed to disclose having received professional development training from the person who eventually won a subcontract, which later was canceled at a cost of more than $2 million to the state, according to The Texas Tribune.

While Schwinn said she didn’t try to influence the contract, she told Chalkbeat that she and her department “learned a lot” through that experience, prompting an overhaul of the state’s procurement process.

“It’s important to have transparency when you’re a public official,” she said. “I believe strongly about that.”

As Tennessee’s education commissioner, it’s unlikely that she’ll serve on the evaluation committee that will choose its next testing company, but she plans to be “heavily involved” in the process as she works with programmatic, assessment, and technology experts.

“From a 30,000-foot view, commissioners typically aren’t on those selection panels. They’re able to ask questions and provide direction for the team,” she said.

Schwinn was in Nashville last week when Lee announced her hiring.

Until she is sworn in, interim Commissioner Lyle Ailshie is in charge, and he attended the governor’s first cabinet meeting on Tuesday.