shots fired

Democrats for Education Reform blasts New York state’s school turnaround program

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
J.H.S. 162 Lola Rodriguez De Tio is the only persistently struggling New York City school that faced consequences state's receivership program.

An education reform organization took a swing at city and state officials Monday, releasing a report critical of their approach to turning around New York’s struggling schools.

The report, issued by the local chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, argues that the state’s education department has watered down its “receivership” program. That program allows officials to make staff changes, re-negotiate union contracts, and eventually appoint outside leaders to take control of long-floundering schools. But schools in the city and across the state have largely avoided those more aggressive sanctions.

DFER says that represents a missed opportunity.

“No school wants to be ‘taken over’ but the truth is, autonomy and targeted spending on instruction can really improve a struggling school,” DFER’s Nicole Brisbane said in a statement.

The report offers several familiar critiques of the program, but is notable for its authorship: It was issued by the local chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, a national organization that has supported the expansion of charter schools and sweeping changes to local school districts, but has not been a vocal presence in New York City in recent years.

That role had largely been played by Families for Excellent Schools, a separate advocacy group that forcefully criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio’s education policies and abruptly imploded several months ago after its leader was accused of inappropriate behavior. Monday’s report could signal that DFER is interested in filling that void. 

“DFER-NY has been expanding in capacity and is able to tackle a wider range of issues than it has in previous years,” Ryan Fajet, a DFER spokesman, wrote in an email.

In its report, DFER criticizes the state’s goals as unambitious, noting that some schools were expected to improve on academic measures such as reading proficiency by just fractions of a point.

The receivership program has also shrunk dramatically. Changes to the rules determining which schools qualify, and school mergers and closures, have reduced the number of schools in the state’s program. As of December 2017, only 18 city schools remained, down from 62 when it launched. Just one school in the state has faced the most severe consequences of receivership, a junior high school in the Bronx that the city ultimately closed rather than turn over to an outside manager.

The receivership program has been part of a complicated web of school-improvement efforts in recent years. New York City introduced its own turnaround program in fall 2014, as the receivership program — which launched in 2015 — was under discussion. Dozens of schools in the city’s program have since merged and several have closed, making the “Renewal” program more central to school improvement debates.

A spokesman for the state education department declined to comment on the main criticisms lodged by the report.

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy Devos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver.

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear: Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers.

They’re hoping federal education officials will come to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

Michigan is the second state to ask for a waiver from a federal law that requires children who arrived in the U.S. this year to take standardized English tests a year after arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The state’s request includes stories from the Detroit area, which is home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 7 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say. The candidate speeches begin at around the 12:00 minute mark.