survey says

Report: Students and educators say school climate has worsened under de Blasio after sweeping discipline reforms

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

When education officials announced last October that suspensions plummeted 46 percent over the last five years, they touted the news as evidence that major changes to the city’s discipline policy were taking hold.

But that data has sparked debate among educators and advocates of school discipline reform. Does the drop in suspensions mean that schools are creating richer learning environments where students — especially those of color and with disabilities — are less likely to be removed for minor misbehavior? Or are educators responding to pressure to look the other way instead of issuing suspensions, making schools less orderly in the process?

New evidence presented Tuesday by the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute may help answer those questions. The report shows that after Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2015 school discipline reforms went into effect, which made it harder for schools to suspend students, perceptions of school climate took a big hit.

That conclusion is based on annual school survey data collected by the city during a five-year timeframe: The tail end of the Bloomberg administration, and the first two years of the de Blasio administration. Both of those periods saw similar size reductions in the number of suspensions handed out, but student and teacher reports of school climate — including fights, respect among peers, and drug and alcohol activity — worsened under de Blasio.

“Overall, the pattern is consistent and unmistakable: School climate remained relatively steady under Bloomberg’s discipline reforms but has deteriorated rapidly under de Blasio’s,” according to Max Eden, the report’s author.

Of roughly 1,000 middle and high schools included in the survey data, nearly 44 percent had a larger share of students report more frequent fighting as de Blasio’s discipline reforms rolled out, compared with 25 percent in Bloomberg’s final years.

About 52 percent of the schools surveyed during the de Blasio era reported a decline in the percentage of students who said their peers respect each other, compared with 25 percent at the end of Bloomberg’s tenure.

A higher proportion of teachers at nearly 40 percent of elementary, middle and high schools responded negatively when asked if order is maintained in their schools — about six percent higher than during the last two years of the Bloomberg administration.

And middle and high schools that serve higher proportions of low-income students and those of color were more likely to see their school climate worsen.

Those findings come with some important caveats: Because the city significantly changed its annual survey, only five “school order” questions were similar enough to use across administrations, limiting the picture of how changes in discipline policy are playing out. And multiple school discipline experts said there wasn’t enough evidence to imply that reductions in suspensions were to blame for worsening perceptions of school climate, a point the report acknowledges.

“There could be a million other explanations” said David Kirkland, executive director of New York University’s Metropolitan Center, who added that “the report suggests we need to look at this data more seriously.”

Kirkland, who studies school discipline, stressed that it is important for policymakers to weigh the benefits of reducing suspensions — not simply its costs — including the likelihood that higher-need students may graduate at higher rates or show other academic gains if they aren’t removed from the classroom.

Still, he acknowledged that teacher and student perceptions are important, and may reveal that educators have not been adequately prepared to replace suspensions with “restorative” approaches that favor dialogue and reflection over student removal. The teacher’s union has made a version of that argument — and some educators have said the transition away from suspensions can be challenging.

“I concede the point that maybe we need to roll out the policies in a different way that doesn’t produce backlash,” Kirkland added. “What this evidence suggests is that we need to do more than just reduce suspensions.”

City officials did not dispute the report’s findings — though they noted that the vast majority of students reported feeling safe in their classrooms. “Research shows that overly punitive disciplinary practices are not effective,” mayoral spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein wrote in a statement. “Our investments in mental health and school climate programs ensure students are provided with a safe and supportive learning environment and that they are being held accountable for their actions.”

new schools

Denver approves more schools that will wait ‘on the shelf’ to open, despite pushback

PHOTO: Photo By Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Grant Beacon Middle School student Jeriah Garcia works out an algebra problem on his school-supplied tablet in 2012.

In a split vote, the Denver school board last week approved three more middle schools — but none will open right away.

Though they are modeled after successful existing schools, and though district officials feel an urgency to improve school quality districtwide, the three will wait with more than 20 others until a school building becomes available.

That could happen if the district closes a struggling school or builds a brand new one. But slowing enrollment growth means it will likely not build many schools in the coming years.

The number of approved schools on hold until they find a campus has grown over the years, even as the school board adopted a policy in 2015 that calls for replacing chronically low-performing schools with new ones deemed more likely to succeed.

This approach earned Denver a national reputation in education reform circles, but the growing backlog of schools with no clear path to opening has led to frustration among charter school operators and questions from some supporters about how committed Denver is to this model.

The makeup of Denver’s school board has changed, and not all of the new members believe closing struggling schools is good for students. In voting on the three new middle schools, three of the seven board members expressed concerns about the concept of keeping approved schools “on the shelf” because it presupposes existing schools will be shuttered.

Carrie Olson, a former Denver teacher, campaigned last year for a seat on the board on a platform of opposing school closures. Her candidacy was backed by the Denver teachers union, which also supported board member Jennifer Bacon, another former teacher.

Olson and Bacon voiced the strongest reservations about approving the three schools, temporarily called Beacon Network Middle Schools 3, 4, and 5. The schools would be run by the same administrators who oversee Kepner Beacon and Grant Beacon middle schools.

Kepner Beacon and Grant Beacon are “innovation schools,” which means they have more financial and programmatic freedom than traditional district-run schools but not as much independence as charter schools. The two schools focus on personalized learning, partly by giving students access to technology that allows them to learn at their own pace. Each is rated “green,” the second-highest rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale.

Olson and Bacon said they don’t doubt additional Beacon schools would serve students well. Rather, Bacon said, she’s concerned about having too many of the same type of school and about the length of time schools should be allowed to wait before opening. Being approved by the school board doesn’t guarantee that a school will open.

In the end, the three Beacon schools were approved to open in the fall of 2019 or thereafter. Olson voted no on all three. Bacon voted no on two of them and yes on the third.

Board president Anne Rowe, vice president Barbara O’Brien, and members Lisa Flores and Happy Haynes voted yes on all three. Angela Cobián, who was elected last fall along with Olson and Bacon, voted yes on two schools and abstained from voting on the third.

Cobián said her votes were meant to reflect that she supports the Beacon schools but shares her fellow board members’ concerns. She said she’s committed to making sure the district supports existing schools so they don’t get to the point of closure or replacement.

There are at least 24 schools already waiting for a campus in Denver. Nineteen of them were proposed by four homegrown, high-performing charter school networks. The district’s largest charter school network, DSST, has eight middle and high schools waiting to open.

District officials said they plan to spend time over the summer thinking through these concerns.

Jennifer Holladay, who leads the department that oversees charter and innovation schools, said staff will develop recommendations for how long schools should be allowed to sit on the shelf and whether the district should continue to accept “batch applications” for more than one school at a time, which has been common practice among the homegrown networks.

Payment dispute

Disputes with Tennessee testmakers aren’t new. Here’s an update on the state’s lawsuit with Measurement Inc.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

The testing company fired by Tennessee’s education department two years ago may have to wait until 2019 to settle the case, according to documents recently obtained by Chalkbeat.

As the future of the state’s current testing company, Questar, remains uncertain after a series of testing snafus this year, Tennessee continues to build a case against the first company it hired to usher in online testing three years ago.

The $25.3 million lawsuit, filed by Measurement Inc. of North Carolina, says the state owes about a quarter of the company’s five-year, $108 million contract, which Tennessee officials canceled after technical problems roiled the test’s 2016 rollout. So far, the state has paid the company $545,000.

The 2016 test was meant to showcase TNReady, the state’s new, rigorous, online testing program. But the online exam crashed, and the state abandoned it, asking Measurement Inc. to pivot to paper tests. After numerous delays in delivering the paper tests, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen fired the company.

Measurement Inc. filed a lawsuit last June, and the state Department of Education responded in January with a counterclaim saying the company did not fulfill its duties. Now, the state and the company have through spring 2019 to build their cases and call witnesses. (You can view Measurement Inc.’s claims, and the state’s counterclaim below).

The company argues that the state’s decision to cancel online testing and switch to paper was a series of “unrealistic, arbitrary, and changing demands,” and therefore, the state shares blame for the canceled test.

But the state department countered in its January response that Measurement Inc. breached its contract and didn’t communicate truthfully about the status of the online exam.

After Measurement Inc., Tennessee entered into a two-year contract with Minnesota-based Questar to revive the TNReady online exam. In 2017, the state opted to only use paper exams, and testing went smoothly for the most part, outside of delays in returning test results.

But things didn’t go well this spring, when Tennessee tried to return to online testing under Questar. The reasons for the complications are numerous — but different from issues that ruined the online test’s 2016 debut.

Although Tennessee completed its online testing this spring,  it was beset with technological glitches, a reported cyber attack on the testing system, and poor internet connectivity. Many districts are not planning to use the scores in student grading, and teachers can opt out of using the scores in their evaluations.

The state is negotiating with Questar about its $30 million-a-year contract and also is asking Questar’s parent company, Educational Testing Services, to take on the design work of TNReady. McQueen did not offer specifics about either, but any changes must be approved by the legislature’s fiscal review committee.

Questar’s two-year contract ends Nov. 30, and the state either will stick with the company or find its third testing vendor in four years.

You can view Measurement Inc.’s claims, and the state’s counterclaim, in full below:

Measurement Inc.’s June 2017 claim:

The Department of Education’s January response:

Measurement Inc.’s February response: