ATR Exemption

Fariña: Low-performing ‘Renewal’ schools won’t be assigned educators from the Absent Teacher Reserve

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
The group StudentsFirstNY staged a rally this summer to protest the city's plan to place educators in the Absent Teacher Research in schools with job openings.

When the city begins placing teachers without permanent positions in schools next week, there’s one place it won’t send them: low-performing schools in its “Renewal” turnaround program.

New York City schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said on Thursday that the education department will not assign teachers from the controversial Absent Teacher Reserve to any of the 78 schools in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s high-profile Renewal program, which is intended to revamp struggling schools. The announcement seems to address some critics’ concern that those high-needs schools would be saddled with teachers that other principals had declined to hire.

Fariña also announced that no teachers in the reserve with a record of disciplinary problems will be placed in any schools.

“We are not putting people who have a record of not behaving in any school,” she told reporters during an unrelated press conference. “We are also very clearly asking everybody to be vetted by the principal.”

An education department spokesman later added that the department has “full discretion” to decide where to send teachers in the reserve, and that decisions would be made on a case-by-case basis.

The reserve, commonly known as the ATR, is a pool of educators who don’t hold permanent positions because they face disciplinary or legal issues, or because their school declined in enrollment or closed.

Educators in the reserve typically serve as roving substitutes. But education department officials recently announced they would begin filling school positions that are vacant as of Oct. 15 with educators from the group — potentially even over the objections of principals. The assignments will last through the school year, and would become permanent if the teacher earns a positive evaluation.

Critics say the city’s plan will put sub-par teachers in the neediest schools, since those are also typically the hardest to staff.

Two weeks after the school year began, a Chalkbeat review of school vacancies revealed that four out of five school districts with the most postings were in the Bronx. At the same time, according to city figures, teachers from the reserve are typically rated less effective than the full body of teachers: Only 74 percent of teachers in the ATR received positive ratings in 2015-16, compared to 93 percent of all city teachers.

While the city tried to reassure parents and advocates that it will use “discretion” when placing teachers from the reserve, the chancellor’s comments went a step further. In an email, the department spokesman, Will Mantell, wrote that the chancellor’s comments were “further clarifications” of the city’s policy.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday that there are “very good teachers” within the ATR. He has pledged to cut the pool in half from more than 800 educators, which costs the city more than $150 million a year.

“We believe that there is now a real process in place to find the right placement for someone in that ATR pool, with principals who are ready to take the talented folks,” de Blasio said. “And if they find in some cases someone is not up to the challenge, they’re ready to act on that and we can work to move that person out of the system.”

This is not the first time the city has made a special exception for schools in de Blasio’s signature school-improvement program. The education department also reduced the number of hard-to-serve latecomer students that it sent Renewal schools, and gave them extra time to meet performance goals.

study up

Do community schools and wraparound services boost academics? Here’s what we know.

At Gompers Elementary Middle School in Detroit, where the city health department and the Vision To Learn nonprofit announced a partnership to provide free eye exams to 5,000 children in 2016. (Photo: Detroit Public Schools Community District)

New York City has been trying to help struggling schools by partnering them with nonprofits that provide counseling and health services. A Detroit school recently added a washing machine to make sure students have clean clothes. A Tennessee superintendent just petitioned the state for more funding to offer similar help to students and families.

The strategy, often referred to as the “community schools” model or “wraparound services,” has been embraced by districts across the country. It also makes intuitive sense to help kids in class by directly dealing with out-of-school factors, like poverty, that affect learning.

So do school-based efforts to counter the harmful effects of poverty lead to measurable academic gains?

Here’s what we know: Research shows that these efforts often do help learning, but in a number of cases they don’t seem to have any effect — and it’s not clear why efforts sometimes succeed and sometimes don’t.

The impact on academics is promising

Child Trends, a research group, recently compiled and analyzed the results of 19 rigorous studies that tried to isolate the effects of efforts to improve students’ mental and physical health, offer counseling services, add after-school programs, provide direct social services to families in need, and other similar programs.

Examples include the national Communities in Schools and Boston’s City Connects programs, which place site coordinators in schools to connect students and families to those resources.

When looking at the effect of wraparound services on grades and test scores, those 19 studies come to a mix of positive and inconclusive findings. Results were a bit more positive in math than in English, which is common in education research.

There was also variation within programs, like Communities in Schools, which has become the most evaluated wraparound-style initiative. Separate studies have shown that the program produced test score gains in Chicago and Wichita, but not Austin or Jacksonville. A recent national evaluation focusing on Texas and North Carolina found a mix of outcomes.

One notable finding: across the 19 studies, there are virtually no cases where students appear to do worse thanks to the programs, the review notes. The researchers conclude that the approach is “promising but not yet proven.”

Not included in the review were a few initial evaluations of New York City’s community schools-based turnaround program, which included extending the school day. One analysis found that the program actually seemed to reduce high school graduation rates relative to similar schools that did not participate, and had no effects on elementary or middle school test scores. But another study using a different approach found that the initiative did lead to moderate test score gains.

The impact on attendance, behavior, and other outcomes is inconsistent

One surprising aspect of the research on these wraparound services: there aren’t consistent findings about how the programs affect things other than academics.

In a handful of studies in the Child Trends that examined other outcomes, most found no effects on students’ attendance, behavior, engagement in school, or social-emotional outcomes. Still, a few studies found positive effects and, again, negative ones were quite rare.

One recent paper, not included in the Child Trends review, found that a wraparound initiative in Massachusetts led to substantial gains in students’ math and English test scores. That program made no apparent impact on students’ attendance, their likelihood of being held back a grade, or suspension rates, though.

What makes a program work?

Frustratingly for policymakers, it’s not clear.

The Child Trends report suggests providing community schools with substantial resources over several years is most likely to lead to success. But it concludes that there’s a “lack of evidence regarding the concrete elements that make different models successful or how they must be implemented.”

Meanwhile, there appears to be stronger evidence for the academic benefits of direct anti-poverty programs that are separate from schools. The earned income tax credit, health insurance, child tax credit, food stamps, and simply giving cash to low-income families have all been linked to better outcomes in schools for children.

Finally, many would argue these sorts of wraparound services and anti-poverty programs are worthwhile regardless of students’ short-term academic gains.

Elaine Weiss, who led a group that supported wraparound services, previously told Chalkbeat that the approaches have intrinsic value.

“Don’t we all agree that having kids who have access to mental and physical health care, regular nutritious meals, and quality, safe after-school and summer programs is inherently a good thing?” she asked.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.