the new deal

New York state says it wants to expand its definition of success — and focus on equity — in judging schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
J.H.S. 162 Lola Rodriguez De Tio, the lone school to face state receivership thus far

New York unveiled a blueprint Monday for education policy under a new federal law, which officials said will help launch the state beyond a narrow focus on test scores when it comes to evaluating schools.

The Every Student Succeeds Act is designed to provide more flexibility for states to decide what makes a school successful and to support schools that don’t meet that bar. New York education officials have said they hope to capitalize on the extra wiggle room – and framed that choice as a statement of values.

“This is a vision plan for New York state,” said Chancellor Betty Rosa at a Board of Regents meeting Monday, where the draft plan was announced. Still, she cautioned, it’s a work in progress. “The road to success is always under construction.”

There are practical constraints that make aspects of this plan similar to its predecessor, No Child Left Behind — most importantly that student achievement is still a prominent feature. But there are also key differences that state officials argue mark a real shift, including a stronger emphasis on student growth and college, career and civic readiness.

New York officials also say the draft plan advances equity by asking schools to report on their resources. That gets at a broader philosophical shift, a statement that accountability involves inputs — or access to resources, qualified teachers, and advanced coursework — rather than just student outcomes.

Rating schools: A dashboard approach, not letter grades

Rather than using one summative rating to indicate school success — like creating an A-F rating system — the draft plan opts for a dashboard approach that will include a number of different metrics.

It’s unclear exactly what the dashboard will look like, but a local example exists in New York City’s online dashboard, where leaders have moved sharply away from an A-F approach and toward providing multiple measures in the form of numbers, charts and graphs.

To add transparency, the state plan would report information about accountability measures on a 1-4 scale. Schools will also be put into one of four broad buckets from most to least successful: Recognition Schools, Schools in Good Standing, Targeted Support and Improvement Schools, or Comprehensive Support and Improvement Schools.

The dashboard approach is part of the Regents’ equity agenda, since it requires reporting information beyond accountability metrics, such as per-pupil spending. The hope is that making that type of information prominent will help diagnose why schools are struggling and encourage the state and schools to address those problems.

“You want high-quality accountability, and part of that accountability is also knowing what you need to do to fix things,” Linda Darling-Hammond, an education expert who advised the state on its plan, said earlier this year. “Because otherwise you’re not being accountable to parents and to children.”

But some believe providing a dashboard, without a more concrete rating system, could be confusing to parents.

“Parents should be able to see a clear rating for the school and for each indicator, along with a dashboard of deeper data,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of EdTrust-NY. “But SED’s draft plan appears to reject the transparency of school and indicator ratings altogether in favor of potentially dozens of individual ratings that, on their own, could cause confusion rather than provide clarity.”

State tests: Experimenting with new models and addressing opt-out

New York wants to apply for a federal program that allows a handful of states to pilot innovative assessments, according to state materials.

That signals New York is interested in revamping standardized tests, but cost will likely remain a major hurdle. State officials expressed concerns about expenses last year, when they learned that the federal pilot program came with no additional funding. This year, the state asked for $8 million from the legislature to pilot project-based assessments this year, but did not get the funding.

The federal law also requires that 95 percent of students participate in state tests, a major sticking point in New York state, where more than 20 percent of families opted out of state tests last year.

The state draft plan says it will require districts and schools with a history of low participation rates to create plans to address the problem, while “recognizing the rights of parents and students.” That will start with a self-assessment for schools that have pattern of frequent opt-outs, but may escalate to more state involvement.

Test scores: Greater emphasis on growth, science, social studies

Unlike No Child Left Behind, which focused on whether all students could reach a certain bar, like a third-grade reading level, this plan is designed to place a stronger emphasis on whether students make progress compared to where they started.
A narrow focus on proficiency leads schools to pay more attention to students close to attaining proficiency and ignore those far behind or far ahead, critics have argued. It can also be unfair for schools that serve high-needs students, since those populations of students often start well below grade-level.

In elementary and middle school, this plan would use one rating for achievement and one for growth. Schools could be targeted for improvement if they fall in the bottom 10 percent of schools on those two metrics combined. (That would avoid identifying schools that have either a lot of high-performing students but a poor growth score, or those that do an excellent job helping students improve over time.) For high schools, graduation rates replace the growth metric.

Also in this plan, the state plans to include social studies, with an emphasis on civics and democracy, at the high school level, along with science scores for elementary, middle and high schools.

Other metrics: Moving beyond test scores

Under ESSA, states get to experiment with a way to judge schools beyond academic achievement and test scores.

New York state, like many others, plans to use chronic absenteeism, defined as missing more than 10 percent or more of enrolled school days, at the elementary and middle school level. Research shows that absenteeism is associated with poor academic outcomes and addressing it can help change a student’s trajectory.

For high schools, the state wants to create a metric for college, career and civic readiness. That new metric would provide more information than a simple graduation rate. It could help distinguish, for instance, between students who graduate, and those who earn a more advanced diploma, or complete career training.

These metrics would come into play if a school is identified as in the bottom 10 percent based on its combined growth and achievement scores. Among those schools, these extra measures would help determine if a school should be targeted for improvement. If a school scores a Level 1 on any category, the school and district must investigate.

Schools would also be judged based on whether they make progress toward long-term goals.

Certain metrics that groups have urged the state to include, like suspension data, were not included in the draft plan as accountability measures. In fact, there is a whole tier of indicators, including school safety and teacher turnover data, that would not be used initially for accountability under this draft plan, either because the state does not currently collect the data or officials thought they could result in misleading conclusions about school success. But state officials said “Tier 2” indicators could be used to rate schools in the future.

Boosting diversity: A new stab at an old problem

At the last meeting, officials suggested they may leverage ESSA to tackle the state’s problem with school segregation.

State materials on Monday indicated the draft plan allows the use Title I School Improvement Funds to increase diversity and address socioeconomic and racial isolation in schools. But it remains unclear what exactly that might look like.

When asked about how schools could use those funds to support diversity, State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said the state will not get a sum of money specifically for integration efforts, but that it may be part of a broader approach to school improvement.

Intervention: Moving from consequences to support

State officials emphasized that they want to move from a culture of consequences toward one of support. They hope to provide technical assistance and evidence-based interventions to schools. If those schools continue to underperform, they would be folded into the state’s receivership program, officials said. That program, however, has been significantly scaled back since it was launched in 2015, and so far, has yielded only one school slated for receivership.

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.