meanwhile in albany

Here’s your Albany education cheat sheet for 2019. SHSAT, charter schools and mayoral control will be among hot topics this session.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat file photo
Supporters of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity gather in 2016 before their 150-mile walk from New York City to Albany.

On Wednesday, state lawmakers will head back to Albany for what could be a historic 2019 session, with the first fully Democratic-led state government since 2010.  

That new political makeup in the Senate will likely change the course for state education policy: What can we expect for mayoral control of city schools? How bleak is the future of charter school openings? Will lawmakers move to get rid of the admissions test for New York City’s specialized high schools, or will they push the issue off for another year?

Here’s what to expect over the next few months.

SHSAT

New York City’s controversial proposal to diversify its most elite high schools needs state approval — specifically, the part of the plan that calls to eliminate the specialized high school admissions test, known in short as the SHSAT.

Last June, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan that would instead grant admission to the top 7 percent of middle school students. He swiftly earned a mix of backlash from families who believe the test is the best method of admissions and support from those who see his proposal as an important step toward integration.

The plan would usher more black and Hispanic students into the city’s eight most selective high schools. Many parents of white and Asian students, who represent the majority in these schools, have called the test “race blind” and argued that the city must instead properly educate all  students earlier so they’re prepared to take the test. Supporters of the plan say that preparation for high-stakes testing is usually only accessible to more affluent families who have the time and resources.

Some advocates for keeping the test have decided to invest in lobbyists. The alumni foundation for Bronx High School of Science, one of the elite high schools, signed a $96,000 contract with lobbying firm Bolton-St. John, according to public filings. Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, which renewed a $120,000 contract with firm Yoswein, has lobbied for the test since at least September 2017, filings show.

Another group called the Scholastic Merit Fund, comprised of more advocates who want to preserve the test, hired Parkside Group LLC for $60,000 to lobby in support of the test.

Sen. Shelley Mayer, a Yonkers Democrat who will chair the Senate education committee, said she has “serious process concerns” about how de Blasio’s office handled the rollout of this plan, but she declined to comment beyond that. She deferred to newly elected Queens senator John Liu, a Democrat who will chair the New York City Senate education subcommittee, who says he acknowledges the city’s segregation problem but feels the Asian community should have been consulted.

Larry Cary, president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, said his group supports efforts to diversify the elite high schools through stronger enrichment programs, but scrapping the test is not the answer. He says his group will “actively” engage lawmakers “about what the problem really is,” but he’s not sure it will even matter this year.

“It remains to be seen in all of the issues — and there are huge issues facing the legislature now — what kind of priority this issue will take,” Cary said in an interview late last year with Chalkbeat.

Teacher evaluations

Senate Democrats will prioritize untying certain state assessments from teacher evaluations, Mayer said. Like many opponents to the current law governing teacher evaluations, Mayer called it a “terrible system” for judging teachers, ultimately hurting students and parents.

Mayer expects Democrats to act quickly and believes support exists in both chambers. A similar bill to untether tests from evaluations sailed through the Assembly last year, but died in the Senate. The new make-up of the Senate could change that this year.

The state Board of Regents will soon formally extend a moratorium  that separates evaluations from how students score on elementary English and math assessments. In the meantime, the board is planning to assemble work groups that will explore how to best evaluate teachers.

From these work groups, state education officials want to provide guidance for lawmakers as they make policy decisions on assessments and evaluations. Mayer said she welcomes the Regents’ input, but she’s also not willing to wait past this session.

“I think we should go right ahead,” Mayer said. “Let’s get this bill done.”

In December, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia told reporters that she hadn’t received a signal from lawmakers on whether they’ll wait for the Regents’ recommendations.

“They certainly know the work we’ve done and have started, and we have shared with them that this is our plan,” Elia said. “If they are in a position to use that, then that’s great. And if that doesn’t happen, that’s certainly up to them.”

Mayoral control

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s control of city schools expires on June 30, so it’s the issue with perhaps the most pressing deadline.

Mayoral control, which replaced a fractured system of boards of elected officials, reaches back to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration in 2002. State lawmakers must decide whether it should be extended past the expiration date written into law, and for how long.

It’s “weighing heavily” on state lawmakers, especially since it “has been thrown around as a political football for so long,” Sen. Liu said in an interview with Chalkbeat last month.

With de Blasio’s political party at the wheel, he is likely to get the extension he needs without fighting the ugly political battle that bubbled up in past years with Republicans and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. But there could be some pushback over what mayoral control will look like in the future.

Liu and newly elected Sen. Robert Jackson, another former New York City politician, have suggested that the nature of de Blasio’s control over schools could be the real focal point.

“I don’t want to call it control,” Jackson told City and State New York. “Let’s call it mayoral authority with oversight. Oversight by the City Council, oversight by the state of New York, not control.”

City Hall officials did not answer questions about what de Blasio is expecting as the session starts, but asserted that mayoral control is in the best interest of New Yorkers.

“Mayoral control is the reason why we have record high graduation rates and college enrollment, record low dropout rates and a Pre-K seat for every four year old in New York City,” said Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokeswoman for de Blasio. “This policy empowers families and strengthens school communities and allows us to build on our record progress.”

School funding

Expect a tough fight over education funding in this year’s budget proposal, Mayer said.

Backed with a majority, Mayer expects a “very aggressive response” from Senate Democrats for more education dollars, especially after Gov. Cuomo’s repeated rejection of a formula that is supposed to provide extra dollars for high-needs schools throughout the state.

The formula, called foundation aid, was the result of a 1993 lawsuit that argued the state wasn’t providing enough money for schools. The formula sent extra dollars to high-needs schools until the recession set in. Now, advocates and state education officials contend that districts with the most vulnerable students are owed $4 billion in foundation aid.

In a speech and on a radio program, Cuomo called the lawsuit a “ghost of the past,” and compared people still pushing for foundation aid dollars to those “who would say the world is flat.”

Cuomo’s comments angered funding advocates and progressive lawmakers, who campaigned on boosting education funding. State education policymakers have requested an almost $5 billion phase-in of foundation aid money (adjusting for inflation) over the next three years. Sen. Jackson, the former New York City councilman, was one of the lead plaintiffs on the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit that eventually created foundation aid. In a statement last month, he and a few new Democrats rejected Cuomo’s view.

“The outcome of CFE’s lawsuit still remains clear: New York state is legally obligated to release billions of dollars in funding to our schools, and the foundation aid formula should be used to allocate those funds,” Jackson said. “Burying this obligation and claiming that it’s ‘a ghost of the past’ doesn’t make it go away—it makes a bad problem worse.”

Mayer, who also believes districts are still owed foundation aid, said there will likely be budget negotiations to revamp the formula so that it uses more updated data when counting how many high-needs students are in districts throughout the state.

Charter schools

After November’s elections, charter school advocates lost some of their biggest cheerleaders in state government— several Senate Republicans and a group of Democrats who broke with their party.

Now, new and more public-school-focused lawmakers probably won’t have the appetite to expand the cap on how many charter schools can open in New York. There are just seven slots left for New York City, so for advocates of charter schools, the issue is essential for their expansion efforts.

Some charter advocates told Chalkbeat that their main strategy will now have to be grassroots organizing — so that new progressive lawmakers who campaigned against charters can hear the “drumbeat” from constituents who want different school options.

In the meantime, it’s possible the new Democratic majority will push for stronger regulation of charter schools and maintaining the cap — both things Mayer supports.

“Our focus has to be on primarily on something for public schools,” Mayer said, adding New York City and her own community in Yonkers are “desperately” in need of resources.

“My door is open to the charter school community and I look forward to hearing what their concerns are. They educate a lot of kids — I’m very mindful of that — but we can’t pretend we’re starting on an equal playing field.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly said the Scholastic Merit Fund and Brooklyn Tech alumni foundation were lobbying against the SHSAT. 

Civics lesson

Water fountains, a march, and dreams: Brooklyn kindergartners learn about the civil rights movement ahead of MLK day

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Kindergartners at New American Academy Charter School in Canarsie learned about the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. by staging a peaceful march in the school hallway.

A dozen kindergartners held picket signs and marched down their third floor hallway, chanting about Martin Luther King Jr., “He was great, and he was good. He taught peace and brotherhood.”

Stopping in front of the nearest water fountain, one student taped to the wall a sign that, in child’s penmanship, read “White Only.”

“Did people get punished for drinking out of the wrong water fountain?” asked their teacher, Diamond Mays.

“Yes,” several of the children, all of whom are black, responded.

How, Mays asked, did black people who couldn’t use certain water fountains feel, especially on a hot day?

“Sad!”

“Frustrated!”

This scene on Thursday was one of several exercises the kindergartners at New American Academy Charter School in Canarsie participated in ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Each year, the school commemorates the day with lessons or activities tailored to each grade.

Since the students are so young, teachers have mostly focused on King’s promotion of peace and his legacy, rather than the more violent aspects of the American civil rights movement, said Fatima Toure, a kindergarten teacher at the school. It’s part of the school’s model to promote King’s vision and ideology, which is what “we want for our students,” said Lisa Parquette, the school’s headmaster.

The activities at New American are one slice of what schools across the city are doing to teach their students about King ahead of the national holiday, which marks when the civil rights leader would have turned 90. Brooklyn’s PS 261 participated in an annual march to Borough Hall. P.S. 770 in Brooklyn will hold a volunteering event Monday to commemorate the holiday, which children have off from school.

Toure said the activities also appeal to students’ natural curiosity. “They seem more curious as to, you know, why it was happening because I believe they just heard about Martin Luther King, but they didn’t really understand what he did,” Toure said. “They would ask questions about why African Americans have to sit in the back of the bus, why was everything separated, why were there colored signs in certain places.”

Since kindergartners do better with visuals, school leaders chose the march and water fountain activity so they could actually see slices of what life was like before and during the civil rights movement, Toure said.

Over the past week, kindergarten classes reviewed a few readings about King. With a teacher’s help, they wrote about the ideas King pioneered that left an impact on their daily lives.

A guest speaker visited students on Tuesday and answered questions about segregation and King’s biography.

They learned key terms like segregation and Jim Crow and helped make their “protest” signs featuring facts about the civil rights movement.

“Jim Crow laws legalized racial segregation,” one kindergartener read proudly from her sign before their march.

After the march, the students returned to their classroom to share their dreams (with inspiration from King’s “I Have A Dream” speech). Several of the children, a little confused by the lesson, wished that black and white people could use the same water fountains, and their teacher gently reminded them that this was already the case. One girl hoped to “get more big and grow up.”

Then it was Nathan’s turn.

“My dream is white and black people can come together,” he said.

where's the research

Summit Learning declined to be studied, then cited collaboration with Harvard researchers anyway

English teacher Adelaide Giornelli works with ninth grade students on computers at Shasta charter public high school, part of the Summit public school system. (Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

Summit Learning, a fast-growing “personalized learning” system, touts a partnership with Harvard researchers even though Summit actually turned down their proposal to study the model.

The online platform is backed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropy and is now being used in 380 schools across the U.S.

The program “is based on collaborations with nationally acclaimed learning scientists, researchers and academics from institutions including the Harvard Center for Education Policy Research,” Summit’s website says. “Summit’s research-backed approach leads to better student outcomes.” Schools have used that seeming endorsement to back up their decision to adopt the model.

In fact, though, there is no academic research on whether Summit’s specific model is effective. And while Summit helped fund a study proposal crafted by Harvard researchers, it ultimately turned them down.

“They didn’t tell us explicitly why,” said Tom Kane, a Harvard education professor and faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Research. “All I can say is that the work that we did for Summit involved planning an evaluation; we have not measured impacts on student outcomes.”

Summit’s founder Diane Tavenner said the organization had a number of reasons for not moving forward with the proposed study, including its potential to burden teachers and to limit the platform’s ability to change or grow. Their general approach is backed by other research, she said, and their track record as a charter network.

As to the mention of the Harvard center on Summit’s website, Tavenner said the organization had learned a lot from the process of developing a potential study. Tavenner said that, after Chalkbeat began reporting this story, she offered to change the website’s language, but said Kane had not asked her to do so.

More broadly, Tavenner says she is skeptical of the usefulness of large-scale research of the sort the Harvard team proposed, saying the conclusions might be of interest to journalists and philanthropists, not schools.

“I’m not willing to give up what’s best for kids for those two audiences,” Tavenner told Chalkbeat last month.

It’s a notable stance for Summit, given its ambitious claims and the platform’s wide reach.

As “personalized learning” becomes a more popular idea among those trying to improve America’s schools, Summit’s platform has been adopted for free by schools across the country. That’s thanks largely to the backing of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the philanthropy poised to receive Zuckerberg’s billions. Summit’s model has drawn praise from parents and teachers in some schools, but proven controversial in others.

Regardless, CZI’s support means Summit could continue to grow rapidly — which has some observers wondering when its backers will show that what it’s offering is particularly effective.

“I do think that there is an obligation to provide credible evidence to schools when you’re trying to convince them to adopt things,” said John Pane, a researcher at the RAND Corporation who has extensively studied personalized learning initiatives.

Summit spreads, but research talks with Harvard team fizzle

Summit’s claims about a Harvard collaboration have their roots in conversations that began in  late 2016.

Zuckerberg’s wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, took a fateful tour of a school in the Summit Public Schools charter network two years earlier. The network soon began working with a Facebook engineering team to build out its technology.

Summit’s model has a number of components: a curriculum in core subjects for grades four through 12; weeks scheduled for students to deeply examine a topic of interest; long-term mentors for students; and a technology platform, which serves as the approach’s organizing structure. The goal is to better engage students and to give them more control over what and how they learn, Summit says.

By the 2016-17 school year, Summit had rolled out its program to more than 100 schools outside its own network. That’s also about when Summit started talks with Harvard professors Marty West and Kane.

An ideal study might have randomly assigned schools or students to use the learning platform, creating two groups that could be compared. That was a non-starter for Tavenner, as it would limit schools’ access to the platform. If 250 schools were assigned to use it, and another 250 expressed interest but were not, for example, that would be bad for students, she said last month while discussing the organization’s approach to research.

“Am I really going to say to 250 people, ‘You know what, we’re not going to actually help you, even though we actually could right now?’” she said.

Kane says they came up with a few alternatives: comparing students using Summit to others not using it in the same school or comparing schools that had adopted Summit to similar schools that hadn’t. They suggested tracking test scores as well as suspensions and attendance, measuring the effectiveness of the support offered to teachers, and using surveys to measure concepts important to Summit, like whether students felt in control of their schoolwork.

But Summit passed on an evaluation. “After many conversations with Harvard and the exploration of multiple options, we came to recognize that external research would need to meet certain baseline criteria in order for us to uphold in good faith our partnership with schools, students, and parents,” Tavenner said.

Metrics were a particular concern. “Standardized tests are not good measures of the cognitive skills,” a Summit spokesperson said, saying the organization had developed better alternatives. “Attendance and discipline are not measures of habits of success, full stop.” Tavenner said she feared that a study could stop Summit from being able to make changes to the program or that it might stop participating schools from adding new grades. (Kane and West say their plan wouldn’t have limited growth or changes.)

Tavenner told Chalkbeat that research of the kind the Harvard team was offering isn’t needed to validate their approach. Summit is based on decades of research on ideas like project-based learning, she said, citing the organization’s report titled “The Science of Summit.”

Dan Willingham, a University of Virginia educational psychologist, said that’s useful, but not the same as knowing whether a specific program helps students.

“You take a noticeable step down in confidence when something is not research-based but rather research-inspired,” he said, while noting that many education initiatives lack hard evidence of success. “There’s a hell of a lot going on in education that’s not being evaluated.”

What about Summit’s original charter network, now 11 schools? Summit cites internal data showing its graduates have success being accepted to college. But outside research is limited. A 2017 study by the Stanford-based group CREDO found that attending Summit led to modest declines in students’ reading scores and had no clear effect in math, though it looked at only a small portion of the network’s students.

The Summit charter schools are also part of an ongoing study of economically integrated charter schools, and a few were included in two widely cited RAND studies looking at personalized learning, though they didn’t report any Summit-specific information. California’s notoriously limited education data access has stymied more research, Tavenner said.

What does philanthropy owe the public?

Today, Summit’s learning platform has far outpaced its charter network. About 380 schools, with over 72,000 students, use the platform; the national charter network KIPP, by comparison, runs 224 schools serving around 100,000 students.

Summit now gets its engineering help from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, not Facebook. That philanthropic partnership has fueled its growth: While CZI has not disclosed how much it’s given to Summit, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation — through which CZI funnels much of its education giving — lists grants to Summit totalling over $70 million in 2016 and 2017.

Summit has also netted $2.3 million for the platform from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2016, and another $10 million in 2017. (CZI, the Gates Foundation, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation are all funders of Chalkbeat.)

Some major foundations regularly invest in research to better understand whether their gifts are doing good, noted Sarah Reckhow, a Michigan State professor who studies education philanthropy. In a number of instances, that research comes to unfavorable conclusions, like a Gates-funded study on its teacher evaluation initiative or a Walton Family Foundation-backed evaluation of charter schools’ propensity to screen out students with disabilities. (A Gates spokesperson said that part of its $10 million to Summit was set aside for “measurement and evaluation.”)

Reckhow said she hasn’t yet seen that same inclination from CZI. And she worries that school districts might be less likely to carefully examine programs that are offered free of charge, like Summit.

“If you reduce that barrier, you’re making it potentially more likely to adopt something without as much scrutiny as they otherwise might do,” she said. “That increases the obligation of Summit and CZI to evaluate the work.”

CZI spokesperson Dakarai Aarons said the organization is committed to research and to Summit, and pointed to a number of schools and districts that saw academic improvements after introducing Summit’s platform. “As the program grows, we look forward to expanded research to help measure its long-term impact,” he said.

Tavenner said Summit is exploring other options to prove its approach is working, including talking to researchers who study continuous improvement. “We can’t just keep saying no to [randomized studies],” she said. “We’ve got to have another way, but I don’t have another way yet.”

Researchers Kane and West, for their part, say Summit’s concerns about evaluating its evolving model should also raise questions about Summit’s swift spread.

“The evaluation we proposed would have assessed the impact of the model at that point in time, even if the model continued to evolve,” they wrote in an email. “When a model is still changing so radically that a point in time estimate is irrelevant, it is too early to be operating in hundreds of schools.”

“Unfortunately, Summit is closer to the rule than the exception,” they said.