crisis management

Here’s how Richard Carranza handled Houston’s special education crisis and what it could mean for New York City

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
With schools closed for spring break, Richard Carranza joined Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray for lunch at Katz's Deli on his first day as chancellor.

Two days before Richard Carranza took over as superintendent of the Houston Independent School District in 2016, a crisis that had been more than a decade in the making broke into public view.

The Houston Chronicle had just revealed that school districts across Texas systematically denied services to students with disabilities under pressure from the state — and Houston was no exception.

In the coming months, the paper showed that Houston officials had “enthusiastically embraced” the state’s arbitrary limit on the proportion of students who could could receive special education services. As a result, thousands of students went without access to therapies and counseling that they needed — and might legally have been entitled to.

As the full scope of the crisis came into focus after Carranza arrived in September 2016, the new superintendent vowed to enlist outside experts to conduct a thorough review of the district’s practices. “We will have a tough conversation about the importance of serving all children, regardless of any disability,” he said at the time.

So when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Carranza as his pick to replace Chancellor Carmen Fariña, local advocates privately wondered what his record on special education in Houston might mean for New York.

“It was something we scrambled and looked at,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children.

Moroff and many of the city’s special education advocates soon learned that the new chancellor shares some of their priorities. Carranza has said he supports including special education students in mainstream classes whenever possible, for instance, and said he has worked to reduce the overidentification of African-American students for special education services.

But they also learned more about what unfolded in Houston — where it wasn’t long before some advocates became frustrated that the special education scandal seemed to be subsumed by other issues including a budget crisis and threats of a state takeover, leaving some feeling like Carranza had not prioritized reforming a system that routinely left students without crucial services.

“A whole generation of educators were told to deny evaluation and be skeptical of referrals for evaluation,” said Dustin Rynders, who supervises a team of lawyers at Disability Rights Texas, a Houston-based advocacy group. “I didn’t feel change was happening fast enough.”

Rynders acknowledged that Carranza was dealt a difficult hand: Denying special education services had been encouraged by the state, ingrained in the district’s culture, and began well before Carranza arrived.

But multiple observers also said that while Carranza said many of the right things, it’s less clear to what extent his efforts changed the reality in schools. A recent audit shows that the district still kept students from being evaluated for special education services after Carranza initiated reforms.

Carranza took “good first steps,” Rynders added. “Do I think special education has largely changed during his first year and a half in the district? No.”

At the heart of Houston’s special education crisis was an arbitrary cap state officials first set in 2004: Despite federal laws that require districts to evaluate any student suspected of having a disability, the state secretly decreed that just 8.5 percent of students should qualify for special education services.

Defending themselves to the Chronicle, officials said they wanted to cut down on costs. They also cited concerns that too many students were being identified as having special needs — an issue that advocates see as particularly possible for students of color who might need different help to be successful in school. But no research suggests that only 8.5 percent of students have disabilities. Nationally, about 13 percent of students are classified as requiring special education services, a rate Texas fell below even before the cap was imposed.

Houston ISD — the seventh largest school district in the country — set an even stricter cutoff in the years before Carranza arrived, resulting in just 7.26 percent of students being identified for special education services, nearly the lowest of any urban school system in the country. (In New York City, by contrast, roughly 19 percent of students receive such services.)

To cut down on the number of students assigned special education services, “HISD officials slashed hundreds of positions from the special education department, dissuaded evaluators from diagnosing disabilities until second grade and created a list of ‘exclusionary factors’ that disqualify students from getting services,” according to the Chronicle investigation.

At the same time, district officials defended the extraordinarily low numbers, arguing that they showed early interventions were working and even that special education was not a useful service. “Special education does not deliver better outcomes for kids,” said Sowmya Kumar, the district’s special education director from 2010 to 2017.

That statement outraged advocates. Bob Sanborn, who runs Children at Risk, a statewide advocacy organization, quickly became one of the loudest voices suggesting that Kumar should be fired. He worried that Carranza was being told that the crisis was not as bad as it seemed.

Sanborn was impressed that Kumar resigned, a move he partly credits to Carranza.

“I knew there were forces inside the Houston school district saying, ‘Don’t pay attention to the Chronicle,’” Sanborn told Chalkbeat. “He was able to rise above that and see it objectively and basically pledged to try and fix the system.”

Under Carranza’s leadership, the district ultimately launched a series of parent forums, reorganized the special education department, updated its special education procedures, and added training for educators and staff. Officials also banned schools from using teaching methods designed for struggling students instead of evaluating them for special education services.

But some parents and advocates complained that Carranza did not make special education a top priority, and that his 18-month tenure meant that he left before any lasting changes could take hold.

“I just didn’t see Carranza very involved in the special education issues, despite the huge crisis that was going on,” said Cynthia Singleton, a Houston parent and advocate who has navigated the district’s special education system. She appreciated the district’s listening sessions, but said it wasn’t clear whether they had an impact.

Rynders, of Disability Rights Texas, pointed out that Carranza faced a litany of challenges — a natural disaster in Hurricane Harvey, a massive budget shortfall, and the threat of a state takeover — but echoed that special education never seemed to rise to the top.

“I heard him make some generic comments expressing that we must serve special kids and must make improvements, but I didn’t hear any detailed plan of action,” Rynders said, adding that he still receives calls from parents who are struggling to get their children evaluated for services.

In fact, there have not yet been significant increases in the number of Houston students who are identified for special education services.

Carranza has defended his handling of the special education crisis, pointing to meetings with parents and special education teachers and his call for an outside review of the district’s special education practices. (An education department spokeswoman in New York did not make Carranza available for comment.)

“Once that was brought to my attention we immediately acted,” Carranza said at his first press conference in New York City, referring to Texas’s cap on special education services. “In your new chancellor, as I know with the current chancellor, you have a champion for all students, including students with disabilities.”

Here, Carranza will take over a system that includes 221,000 students with disabilities — a population that is larger than Houston’s entire student population and which comes with its own set of longstanding problems.

Students with disabilities continue to post far lower test scores and graduation rates than their peers. Roughly 27 percent of students who were assigned special education services, or 48,000 students, only received some of the services they were entitled to, or none at all. And the city can’t be sure how accurate those numbers are because its system for tracking student services is notoriously glitchy.

Moroff said she is optimistic that Carranza will take those problems seriously — and that local advocates will make sure those students remain on his agenda.

“He’s obviously got some experience looking at special education, and looking at it systematically,” Moroff said. “We hope it stays on his radar here.”

working toward proficiency

Maine went all in on ‘proficiency-based learning’ — then rolled it back. What does that mean for the rest of the country?

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students work on English and math skills. Hawthorne Elementary School, in Warren Township, Indiana has adopted a "competency-based" learning model where kids can move on to other material once they've shown they have mastered a skill or concept.

When Ted Finn first heard about the new way of running a high school, he was excited.

Forget students squeaking by with Cs and moving on without truly understanding math or biology. Throw out the idea that a student has to pass a collection of classes to earn a diploma — instead, tell them what essential skills they need. Instead of letting a bad test grade derail a student, give them multiple chances to demonstrate what they know.

“The idea of having an identified set of standards and expectations that would be put out there, so that … everybody would know that if you had earned credit in, say, an Algebra I class, you did in fact meet specific identified standards — at first I was thinking, this is great,” said Finn, a longtime Maine educator and the principal of Gray-New Gloucester High School, about 20 miles from Portland.

For the last several years, he has been part of an ambitious experiment to take that approach, known as proficiency-based education, statewide. In 2012, Maine passed a law changing how high school diplomas were awarded. To earn one, students would have to demonstrate that they had mastered material in eight subjects. This advocates said, would better prepare students to compete in the future economy.

But the latest developments suggest that Maine may become a cautionary tale rather than the successful proof point advocates had hoped for.

Across the state, districts struggled to define what “proficiency” meant and teachers struggled to explain to students how they would be graded. Those challenges, plus strong backlash from parents, caused the state to scrap the experiment earlier this year, allowing districts the choice to return to traditional diplomas.

“If you don’t have the buy-in of your community, you’re in for a world of hurt,” Finn explained.

Maine’s meltdown matters because the ideas at the core of the state’s efforts are influencing states and school districts across the country. Forty-eight states have adopted policies to promote “competency-based” education to varying degrees, often at the urging of a constellation of influential philanthropies, including the Nellie Mae Foundation, which poured at least $13 million into Maine’s effort.

Meanwhile, new research documents the challenges that beset the effort seemingly from day one. And there remains little evidence that proficiency-based education has boosted student learning, in Maine or elsewhere.

“A lot of folks are looking closely at what’s happened in Maine and trying to draw lessons from it,” said Charlie Toulmin, the policy director of the Nellie Mae Foundation.

Maine schools quickly faced hurdles

Earlier in 2012, the Massachusetts-based Nellie Mae Foundation awarded nearly $9 million to two of Maine’s largest school districts, Portland and Sanford. The money was meant to help them adopt what the organization calls “student-centered” approaches. That includes what’s called mastery, competency, or proficiency-based learning, which means that students progress at their own pace, moving on only when they demonstrate they’ve learned a certain topic.

Those districts quickly got to work. “Parents may ultimately stop seeing report cards with A, B, or C grades on it and instead start seeing what it is that their student can do,” the Sanford superintendent said.

Those district’s moves made what came next seem less radical than it might otherwise have. With bipartisan support, Maine lawmakers passed the bill revamping graduation requirements statewide, titled “An Act To Prepare Maine People for the Future Economy.” It required all districts to begin awarding diplomas based on student proficiency in several years.

Then it fell to districts and schools to make sense of the new rules — a complicated endeavor that sometimes meant scrapping key elements of how high school traditionally worked.

Each district was tasked with determining what it meant for a student to be “proficient” in the subjects Maine required. Officials knew that if they set standards too high, an unprecedented number of students could fail to graduate. Too low, and it would defeat the purpose of the whole exercise.

Those questions reverberated in schools, too. Schools weren’t required to change their grading systems, and some held onto their A-Fs. Teachers in many others starting awarding students scores of 1 through 4, with 3 equalling proficient, for each of the key standards.

The law required that students be able to demonstrate that proficiency in a variety of ways, whether through a traditional exam, a portfolio of work, a project, or a performance. But what that meant varied widely between classrooms, creating headaches for students.

Many let students take and retake tests to prove they were proficient, and some stopped grading homework or classwork altogether.

“Each teacher has their own system,” Ellie Roy, a senior at Gray-New Gloucester High School, told the Hechinger Report last year.

Evan Cyr, a high school teacher in Auburn, Maine, said the changes forced him to get “really explicit with students” about the connection between the work they were doing in class and the standards that they would actually be tested on.

At the same time, teachers began evaluating students on things like being a critical thinker or an informed citizen — qualities that were included in the new graduation requirements.

The shifts left plenty of students and parents confused and frustrated. Proficiency was the goal, but doesn’t 3 out of 4 equate to a C? Would out-of-state colleges be able to make sense of the new and confusing transcripts? And how did any of these scores translate into the information that undergirds many of the traditional trappings of high school, like sports eligibility, class rankings, and a valedictorian?

Research, including a series of papers released by the University of Southern Maine and a  study funded by Nellie Mae released this month, has examined how a number of districts responded to those challenges.

They found that most teachers continued using traditional exams, not portfolios or performances. Some teachers remained overwhelmed by the prospect of helping struggling students clear the bar without more guidance.

“We’re only till the end of quarter one, and they’re already not able to meet the standards from quarter one of that class, so it’s very concerning,” one special education teacher told researchers. “How is this going to work? And to be honest, nobody really … has a good answer for us.”

Others remained concerned that allowing students to demonstrate proficiency whenever they wanted could have unintended consequences. Cyr said this was the most controversial aspects with parents in his district. “Some of our students have developed some bad habits that are really going to plague them about deadlines,” said one teacher.

A few students agreed. “I just feel like I’m not getting challenged enough because I know if I don’t pass it, I can just do it again and do it again,” one 10th-grader told researchers.

Concerns began mounting among district leaders, too, about how the changes might affect their graduation rates. Since 2011, Maine, like virtually every other state in the country, has seen its graduation rate climb.

“We heard school administrators indicate that their graduation rate wasn’t going to plummet — because they would just change their definition of proficiency,” said Erika Stump, one of the researchers.

Then there was the issue of funding. Districts got a 0.1 percent boost in state funding to implement the law, which in most cases amounted to just a few thousand dollars. This ran headlong into some of the ramped-up graduation requirements, like proficiency in a foreign language. One Maine district resorted to purchasing the Rosetta Stone program after being unable to find French or Spanish teachers.

Nellie Mae tried to fill in some of that funding gap. The foundation has given nearly $9 million since 2010 to the nonprofit Great Schools Partnership to help schools implement the law and to build support for the policy. The state department of education was also supposed to provide support; it created a help website, including a best practices page also funded by Nellie Mae.

But the foundation’s outsize role has drawn criticism. “The proficiency-based diploma law has created a niche market for a special group of education ‘consultants’ with financial backing, mostly from the Nellie Mae Foundation, to dictate to policymakers what a diploma should mean,” one skeptical Republican state legislator wrote in March.

Toulmin of Nellie Mae said the philanthropy wasn’t the driving force some made it out to be. “There was already some energy in different places of the state to do this before any of our support came along,” he said.

It’s unclear whether Maine’s new approach led to better results

Did all of that change help students?

The patchwork of local policies mean it’s difficult to measure just how much instruction in Maine high schools changed. The recent Nellie Mae-funded report found that across 11 high schools, most students still weren’t experiencing much “personalized” instruction.

It did find that students who were exposed to more of the approach had slightly lower SAT scores but a higher feeling of engagement in school, though the study couldn’t show whether the proficiency-based approach was the cause of either one.

As for educators, a survey found that only 18 percent of high school teachers believed that the new graduation requirements “increase academic rigor.” But some did say it pushed them to focus more intensely on struggling students. In a number of places, schools added tutoring and after-school programs to help kids who were behind.

“I want them to meet the standard, and the only way to meet some of those kids is to sit down one-on-one,” one math teacher told researchers. “I’ve done a lot more conferencing, and a lot more walking around the room, and a lot more helping them than I have before.”

Any educational successes, though, weren’t enough to keep the experiment from becoming a political failure.

Earlier this year, talk of changing the law attracted hundreds of comments from parents and teachers, sometimes spurring fierce protest.

The state legislature soon conceded. Lawmakers repealed the requirement that districts issue proficiency-based diplomas in June — before a single class of students statewide was required to earn them. Maine Governor Paul LePage, who backed the 2012 law, signed off on the changes in July.

A few districts quickly jumped at the chance to scrap the proficiency-based diplomas.

“Student achievement will be recognized as it has historically been recognized with honor roll, with valedictorian, salutatorian, top 10 percent of the class, some of the historical things that we’re familiar with will be in place,” explained a principal in York, Maine.

Other districts have announced they’re going to keep going. The state department of education says it doesn’t have a count on how many districts have moved back to the traditional system.

Finn, the principal at Gray-New Gloucester High, is still optimistic. He wants his district to continue working to get proficiency-based education right, particularly after the time and money that’s already been invested.

“Can you imagine shifting gears?” he said. “We’ve got kids right now, members of the class of 2020, who are under the new graduation requirements.”

Advocates push forward

Proponents of proficiency-based learning argue that none of this reflects flaws in the concept. Maine struggled, they say, because they didn’t introduce the concept thoughtfully enough, moving too quickly and requiring change rather than encouraging it.

“When there was poor implementation — and there was poor implementation — then of course the parents and the community members start saying, hey, we don’t like this competency-based education,” said Chris Sturgis, co-founder of CompetencyWorks. “But it wasn’t really competency-based education.”

“It is a lesson on the perils of putting a mandate in place and not having organized for the necessary clarity and guidance for the field,” said Toulmin, Nellie Mae’s policy director.

Those lessons matter far beyond Maine. Competency-based education and other related approaches, like “personalized learning,” are spreading across the country, catalyzed by prominent advocates and influential funders. They include the U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, as well as philanthropies like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Chalkbeat is funded by CZI, Emerson via the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and Gates.)

Many have made arguments strikingly similar to the ones Maine lawmakers used to push for the new graduation requirements — that schools haven’t changed in many years and they need to in order to prepare students for a rapidly changing economy.

Neither of those claims is nearly as clear-cut as advocates contend, and there remains limited research on whether competency-based or personalized approaches boost students’ success in school. Existing studies have often focused on schools that are best poised to implement such changes and have generally found small to moderate learning gains.

“A lot of it says: The reality is that there is some initial early results, and that we don’t know enough,” said Eve Goldberg, the director of research at Nellie Mae.

Today, almost every state support proficiency-based education in some way — a number that has increased dramatically since 2012, according to CompetencyWorks. Fifteen districts in Illinois are participating in a competency-based high school graduation pilot program. In Arizona, students can opt to earn a proficiency-based diploma. Examples of schools and districts trying the approach also exist in Indiana and Colorado, among others.

The concept has particularly taken hold in the Northeast, often with funding from Nellie Mae, which focuses on the region. New Hampshire now requires districts to base academic credits on mastery of content.

Most similar to Maine is Vermont, which is set to require students to earn proficiency-based diplomas in 2020. That’s causing pushback there too.

“We are leapfrogging everyone,” one resident said at a Vermont house committee hearing in April. “We are running an educational experiment on our kids based on theory, not proof that this has worked in another state.”

Election 2018

It’s not just the governor’s race. Here’s what Tennessee’s big legislative turnover could mean for education.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam receives an ovation during his final State of the State address in January before a joint session of the 110th General Assembly, cabinet members, and guests.

The battle to replace term-limited Gov. Bill Haslam has consumed the spotlight for Tennessee’s education-minded voters, but more than a hundred legislative races will decide who the new governor will work with on school policy for the next few years.

In addition to either Democrat Karl Dean or Republican Bill Lee as the state’s new chief executive, at least a fourth of the General Assembly’s members will be new to Capitol Hill in January. That’s because of an unusually high number of legislative departures, due mostly to retirements or the pursuit of other government jobs.

Incumbents aren’t running to fill 25 out of 99 seats in the House of Representatives and six out of 33 seats in the Senate — setting the stage for the biggest turnover since at least 1995, according to legislative librarian Eddie Weeks.

Among those opting against re-election bids are the leaders of three of four House education panels — Harry Brooks, John Forgety, and Roger Kane — all East Tennessee Republicans who have wielded considerable power in controlling the flow of bills in their committees or subcommittee. The fourth chairman, Rep. Mark White of Memphis, has been in office since 2010 and faces Democrat Danielle Schonbaum on Election Day on Nov. 6.

“It’s like getting Jupiter, Mars, the Earth, and the sun all lined up at the same time. It’s a ton of change,” said Kane of getting a new governor, a new education commissioner, and a critical mass of freshman legislators, in addition to administrative staff turnover.

At stake is whether Tennessee will stay the course on a massive school improvement plan launched in 2010 under former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen and continued since 2011 by the current Republican governor. The overhaul, spurred by Tennessee’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, is grounded in higher academic standards; a new test to measure student growth and proficiency based on those new standards; and policies that hold students, teachers, and schools accountable for results.

The years since the overhaul have coincided with student gains on national tests, but also major headaches in administering the state test known as TNReady, now entering its fourth year. Technical glitches disrupted two years of giving the new computerized assessment, while scoring and score delivery problems marred another year.

“I hope we don’t try to reinvent the wheel,” said Rep. John DeBerry, a Democrat and education committee member who is running unopposed in his Memphis district. “We’ve laid a very good foundation that’s been proven by a lot of measurable factors.”

Kane, who serves on the other side of the aisle, agrees.

“I worry that you could see a total change in philosophy and literally everything we have done the last 10 years could become unwound,” he said. “When you have people coming in who are totally against any kind of testing but the ACT, as well as people who want to test everything, that’s a wide disparity.”


Read why Haslam worries that TNReady problems could unravel Tennessee education policy


Both gubernatorial candidates want to take a closer look at testing, but the next General Assembly will have a lot to say about steps moving forward.

“We’re the ones who pass the laws,” said DeBerry. “The governor has tremendous influence, but he doesn’t cast votes either in committee or on the floor.”

Still, uncertainty about legislative turnover, especially in the House, was on the minds of members of the State Board of Education on Thursday as they discussed how to make TNReady work better this school year, as opposed to just gutting the test and starting over.

“That’s the big unknown at this point that quite honestly nobody has control over,” said Wayne Miller, the former state superintendents chief whom Haslam recruited to facilitate his recent statewide listening tour on testing.

 “If we start to slide off track, it will be important for this group and others to speak loudly that this is not where we want to go,” Miller told the board.

A lot will depend on new legislative leadership, especially in the House which, like the Senate, has a lopsided majority of Republicans that likely won’t change significantly.

The speaker of the House decides committee appointments, both for membership and leadership, but that job is up for grabs too due to the exit of Nashville Republican Beth Harwell after her unsuccessful bid for governor. The Republican caucus is scheduled to elect a new speaker on Nov. 20, and candidates thus far are Reps. Glen Casada of Franklin, David Hawk of Greeneville, and Curtis Johnson of Clarksville.

The next speaker is expected to maintain Harwell’s two-committee system for education legislation because of the large number of bills on K-12 and higher education. Kane said the system has worked well.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter/Chalkbeat
Rep. Roger Kane of Knoxville is the retiring chairman of the House Education Instruction and Programs subcommittee.

“Last year there were 400 education bills alone,” Kane said. “That number would be grueling for one committee in the House. We have more members than the Senate committee and therefore more discussion.”

The Senate is less likely to see any kind of fruit basket turnover, and Dolores Gresham is expected to continue chairing her chamber’s education committee. The Somerville Republican has served in the legislature since 2002 and is not up for reelection this year.

But the huge turnover in the House will mean a significant loss of institutional knowledge on education policy. At the same time, the handoff presents an opportunity to gain fresh and innovative ideas, according to Brooks, the powerful committee chairman who is retiring after 16 years in office.

“I’m not worried,” Brooks said. “This legislature has been around for over a hundred years, and it’s managed to pick up and go after huge shifts in the past. There’s a lot of quality people returning, and there will be a lot of good folks who are going to be elected.”