unlikely friends

Conservative think tank finds ‘meaningful’ academic progress at New York City’s Renewal schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s big bet on pumping millions of dollars into low-performing schools instead of closing them down is creating “meaningful” academic benefits.

That’s according to a forthcoming report from an unlikely source: the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute, a frequent critic of the mayor’s education policies. The report is the first independent analysis to show that the Renewal program is producing academic benefits, as measured by math and reading scores on state tests.

School Renewal — a program that infused 94 of the city’s lowest-performing schools with additional social services, nonprofit partnerships and academic support — tended to produce larger academic gains than the rest of the city’s schools, including those that had similarly low test scores before the program began.

In all, the report estimates, Renewal boosted student achievement by a “meaningful magnitude” — the equivalent of about 49 days of extra instruction in reading and 33 days in math, as measured by gains in state test scores. (The report focuses only on elementary and middle schools. It does not look at academic progress in Renewal high schools, which comprise a little more than a third of the program.)

“The evidence I find is that that the schools are better than they would have been without the label,” said Marcus Winters, the study’s author.

That finding is good news for an administration that has struggled to point to rigorous statistical evidence that its plan for low-performing schools is creating clear progress. It also comes at a key moment, as the program is nearing the end of the third year of what de Blasio initially described as a three-year program (though it is slated to continue next year).

Still, the Manhattan Institute’s relatively positive findings are complicated by a recent analysis conducted by Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas. Using a different statistical model and an additional year of data, Pallas found that Renewal schools generally did not make bigger gains in reading or math when paired with other struggling schools that didn’t receive extra support.

“There’s some hint of progress in raising test scores that wasn’t present in my analysis,” Pallas said, noting the Manhattan Institute analysis focused on one year of data. “It’s not, I think, a strong case.”

In its response to the report, the city seemed reluctant to seize on its specific findings as evidence of the program’s success, pointing instead to general increases in achievement at Renewal schools. “Renewal Schools are making real progress,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman said in a statement. “Across the program, graduation rates are up, chronic absenteeism is down, state test scores are improving, and teachers are developing stronger instructional practices.”

To assess the program, Winters used a model that measured yearly changes in test scores in 2015 and 2016 at Renewal schools compared with those outside the program. The Renewal program had the strongest effect in 2016, the year after it was fully implemented, boosting math and reading scores by a statistically significant margin overall (though the positive benefits were not consistent across all grade levels).

The positive effect becomes less pronounced when Renewal schools are compared to others that also had low scores, or when the timeline is extended to include 2015 data from when the program was still rolling out.

Jonah Rockoff, an education researcher at Columbia University who reviewed the Manhattan Institute report and Pallas’s data, cautioned against claiming the new report offers definitive evidence of the Renewal program’s effect on test scores.

“The [Manhattan Institute] report is more upbeat on Renewal schools raising test scores,” he said. “My sense is that any positive effects are quite small.”

Winters also claims that the Renewal program — which has cost roughly $386 million so far — is both more costly and less effective than former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s approach of giving schools letter grades and closing ineffective ones.

Under Bloomberg’s letter grade system, for instance, schools that received an ‘F’ improved the following year by the equivalent of 36 days of learning in reading and 72 days in math, the report says, more than schools improved under Renewal. But the study does not include a rigorous cost-benefit analysis of Bloomberg’s versus de Blasio’s efforts to improve struggling schools — and city officials said the report’s comparisons are unfair.

“The A-F grading system does not take into account the systemic challenges that many Renewal schools faced when they entered the program,” Aciman said. “The study overestimates the impact that a single letter grade can have on improving a school, and underestimates the impact of the research-based supports that are being implemented at Renewal schools to improve classroom instruction, school climate and student performance.”

Correction: Due to errors in the original Manhattan Institute report, this story has been corrected to reflect the accurate number of extra days of instruction created by the Renewal program and Bloomberg’s accountability system.

Building Better Schools

How a new principal led her neighborhood school to the biggest ISTEP gains in Indianapolis Public Schools

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 39 had the largest jump in passing rates on the state math and English tests in the district.

Breakfast at School 39 was a little bit hectic on a recent Wednesday, as staff urged kids to eat their bananas, yogurts and cereal.

But principal Stacy Coleman was calm as she stood among the tables of kindergartners and first graders. “Big bites now,” she said, as the bell approached.

Coleman is in her second year as principal of School 39, also known as William McKinley, a traditional neighborhood school on the edge of Fountain Square. In Coleman’s first year of leadership, the school achieved an unusual feat: Passing rate on both the math and English ISTEP climbed to 28 percent in 2017, up 9.7 percentage points over the prior year — the biggest jump of any school in Indianapolis Public Schools.

That progress caught the eye of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who highlighted McKinley as a school the district could learn from.

“We hired a great new leader,” said Ferebee. “She’s really focused on the culture of the school and using data to inform instruction.”

A Michigan native, Coleman has been an educator for seven years. She joined IPS three years ago as assistant principal at School 31, also known as James A. Garfield, a neighborhood school two miles from the campus she now leads.

Chalkbeat sat down with Coleman to talk about School 39 and the school’s remarkable jump in passing rates. Below is an excerpt from our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

What’s your school community like here?

We are a working-class neighborhood. Our families are working class — very supportive parents. Teachers call, they answer. They are up here. They care about their child’s well-being.

The neighborhood around us is changing. Gentrification is occurring, and it’s moving fast. However, we have not seen a change in our population of students yet.

We canvas the neighborhood quite often, me and my parent involvement educator. A lot of people we’ve talked to don’t have kids, and if they do have kids, they are not school-age yet.

You guys had this big bump in your test scores — the biggest in the district. What did you think when you saw that?

I felt so filled with emotion because I saw all the hard work that my teachers were doing, and I saw what we were doing with the kids. It just was nice to see the gains from the hard work.

You’re seeing the flowers that you’ve planted.

What do you think led to this big jump in test scores?

We really focused on making this a positive and safe environment for our students — and our staff. Changing staff morale, changing student morale and motivation.

We focused on empowering our teachers and putting that ownership on them.

What did you do to empower your teachers?

Allowing for professional learning community meetings to be teacher directed. It’s not like a staff meeting. It’s teachers talking and collaborating with each other, being transparent in our teaching practices, opening the doors of our classroom for other teachers to come in.

We did instructional rounds. Teachers went into other classrooms and observed a problem of practice and debriefed about those and put specific strategies into their classrooms.

As a teacher, I found a lot of power in those professional learning community meetings because that was when you got to delve into the numbers. You delve into the data and really understand how your students are doing.

Was there anything you feel like you stole from the last school you were at where you were assistant principal?

We do a lot of positive behavior interventions and supports here at William McKinley. We did a lot of them at James A. Garfield. We amped them up, last year and again this year.

Like, this year, we have Coleman cash. Every day a student is nominated by their teacher, and they get to go to the front of the lunch line. They get to sit at a special table in the cafeteria with a tablecloth and a centerpiece. They also get to invite a friend. They get to talk when everybody else is silent. All those good things.

On Friday, for staff, we are going to be superheroes. Then we take a picture, and classes are going to vote on them.

The students get to see us enjoying ourselves, and it’s a little bit of a fun Friday.

We’re just making it a great place to work and a great place to learn for our students.

Educator diversity

Aurora Public Schools’ principals more racially diverse this year, but district still lagging behind

File photo of kindergarten students at Laredo Elementary in Aurora.

In the most diverse city in Colorado, school district officials have struggled to hire and retain principals of color.

The issue isn’t unique to Aurora Public Schools. But one change made three years ago to how Aurora hires principals is now slowly increasing diversity among school leaders, officials say.

The revamped hiring process wasn’t aimed at increasing diversity, but rather at increasing quality and minimizing biased or preferential hiring decisions, officials say.

“Systems that are more likely to have bias are less likely to have diversity,” said John Youngquist, Aurora’s chief academic officer. “Systems that are engaging these kinds of processes that allow people to demonstrate behaviors they’ve practiced over time, are ones that allow those high quality candidates to get to the top. I know is this is a practice that increases the level of diversity.”

This fall, 10 percent of Aurora principals are black, and 14 percent are Hispanic, up from 9 percent that were black and 7 percent that were Hispanic last year.

It’s an improvement, but the numbers still represent a gap with the diversity in the district and in the city. Eighteen percent of Aurora Public Schools students are black and more than 50 percent are Hispanic. The city of Aurora has similar demographics, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimates.

State data tracking both principals and assistant principals by race showed the Aurora district had lower percentages of school leaders who were black or Hispanic in 2016 than in 2013. Numbers for the current school year are not yet available.

This year, the numbers of teachers who are not white are smaller and farther from representing the student or community demographics than they are for principals.

Research has shown that students of color benefit from having teachers of color. Having diverse and highly qualified principals helps leaders in turn attract and hire high quality and diverse teachers, Youngquist said.

Aurora superintendent Rico Munn said that increasing diversity is a priority but said he isn’t sure how many educators of color Aurora schools should aspire to have.

“For our workforce to mirror the community, I don’t know that there’s enough educators in the state,” Munn said.

Elizabeth Meyer, associate professor of education and associate dean for undergraduate and teacher education at CU Boulder, said all districts should be striving to see an upward trend in the numbers, not necessarily trying to reach a certain percentage as a goal.

She said that issues in diversifying teachers and principal pools are similar, but that teachers of color who are supported can be the ones who can then go on and become principals.

“We’re already limited because teaching demographics are overwhelmingly white women,” Meyer said. “We do need to find ways to make teaching a more desirable profession, especially for people of color.”

Meyer said that while there are nationwide and statewide issues to be addressed, districts need to incentivize teachers by paying higher wages, create environments that are inclusive for teachers already in the district and have visible leaders of color.

“It’s not enough to just want to recruit people in,” Meyer said. “Retention is the other part of the problem.”

When Youngquist’s office led the change in how the Aurora district hires principals, the focus was to increase the quality of school leaders and remove bias that could allow a person to be invited into the process “just with a tap on the shoulder,” he said.

The new process requires a team of district leaders and other principals to observe candidates as they are asked to model practices through scenarios and demonstrations of situations they’re likely to confront as principals.

Yolanda Greer, principal of Aurora’s Vista Peak Exploratory was one of the first to go through that new hiring process three years ago.

Yolanda Greer, principal of Vista Peak Exploratory in Aurora.

“I will tell you at the end of it I certainly felt like I had been through a triathalon of some sorts,” Greer said. “But I do recall saying at every point, ‘I’m so impressed. I’m so appreciative that APS is taking the thoughtfulness that went behind creating this process to make sure we have leaders that are prepared.’ It made me want to be here even more.”

Speaking at a community meeting last month, Munn said the neighboring districts of Denver and Cherry Creek can offer more money, so Aurora must focus on other appeals to hire and retain diverse educators.

“We have to think about what’s the right atmosphere or what’s the right way that we can recruit or retain people in a way that makes them want to be part of what we’re doing here in APS,” Munn said. “Our ultimate winning advantage there is that we have a strong connection to the community. We also demonstrate to potential staff members that we are a district that has momentum. We are a district where there is opportunity. We are a district that can truly impact the community that we serve.”

Greer said she felt that draw to Aurora long before she applied for the principal position.

“I think because there was a public perception that Aurora was an underdog,” Greer said. “It’s a great opportunity to not only impact the school but the district and community.”

Though Aurora district officials are happy with how the principal process is playing out, they started working with a Virginia-based consultant last year to look at all hiring practices in the district. Munn said part of that work will include looking at whether the district is doing enough to increase diversity.

Like most school districts, Aurora has sent officials to recruit new educators from Historically Black Colleges and Hispanic Serving Institutions.

One thing that Greer said is in a district’s control is allowing a culture where issues of inequity can be discussed. In Aurora, she said she feels comfortable raising issues of student equity if she sees them.

For her, seeing other people of color in leadership positions in the district, including the superintendent, also made her feel welcome.

“In Aurora when I walk into leadership meetings, there’s a lot of people that look like me, so there’s that connectivity,” Greer said. “There’s open conversations and people listen.”

Earlier this year, Greer was reminded of the impact that leaders of color can have when her elementary students were asked to dress up for the job they hoped to have when they grew up.

Several of the students came to school dressed as their principal, Greer said.

“I want to make sure students of color can see someone that looks like them,” she said. “When they can see me in the specific role in education and they can say, ‘Wow, that can be something admirable and I want to aspire to that,’ it’s a big deal.”