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.

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.