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Twelve lessons we learned from New York City’s schools in 2012

Jan. 1, 2012, dawned just as 2013 will: with the city at odds with the UFT over teacher evaluations, under the threat of a bus strike, and in the process of closing down dozens of schools. But just because the city’s education news sometimes seems like it’s on a loop doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it.

Here are a dozen of the lessons we took away from the city’s schools this year:

1. The Department of Education can’t always get what it wants.

When the year opened, everyone expected the city and UFT to continue negotiating new teacher evaluations and unfreeze federal funds. But Mayor Bloomberg shocked New Yorkers by announcing that he would circumvent the requirement for new evaluations by closing and reopening the 33 schools using a federally prescribed overhaul process called “turnaround,” which would require many teachers to be replaced. The union’s opposition began immediately.

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo brokered an evaluations deal between the state teachers union, he also brokered a deal for New York City that resolved the appeals issue that torpedoed negotiations in the past. The city’s plan, which borrowed heavily from a program in New Haven, Conn., seemed to set the stage for Bloomberg to withdraw his divisive turnaround proposal. But he doubled down on it instead.

The teachers and principals unions filed suit, and the city agreed to fast track the proceedings so hiring could proceed at the schools. But an arbitrator ruled against the city, saying its lawyers used “circular reasoning” to justify the overhauls, and then a judge did, too — twice. Over the summer, five months of turnaround planning was undone as 3,500 pink slips were rescinded, and the 24 schools reopened (almost) as normal in September.

Turnaround was only the most prominent instance of the city not getting its way. Legislators also decided to shield teachers’ ratings, which Bloomberg emphatically opposed and vowed to circumvent. Albany also declined to give the city unchecked power to fire teachers accused of sexual misconduct. Legal action stymied the city’s bid to close two charter schools. And the city fell short in a federal competition for funds to “personalize learning.”

2. Good teachers are great, but it’s still hard to identify, lure, develop, or keep them.

A 20-year study released in January found, using “value-added” measures of teacher quality, that students whose test scores rise in one teacher’s class do better over the long term. The finding fueled state and local policy initiatives to improve teacher quality, but their impact at the end of the year is unclear.

One approach is to help teachers get better and urge especially weak teachers out of the classroom. The state’s evaluation law — revised under pressure from Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a late-night vote in mid-March — sets out some parameters around which districts must negotiate new evaluation systems with their teachers unions to do just that. The city and UFT seem to have agreed on a model for teachers to be observed, but after months and multiple rounds of negotiations, many particulars remain unresolved and logistical issues loom. Talks fell apart  amid tension at the end of the year, making the district one of very few on the verge of missing a deadline Cuomo set to adopt new evaluations or lose added school aid.

A data dump by the city complicated the public perception of one required component of teacher evaluations, “value-addedmeasures that look at how much one teacher’s students’ test scores improve compared to the scores of students like them in other classes and schools. In February the city got the green light to release its own ratings for 18,000 teachers, to the dismay of educators, union officials, and Bill Gates. (Other folks who usually support tougher accountability stayed quiet.) While teachers were on vacation, their names and ratings were splashed across local news media — but not on GothamSchools. Distressed by what happened in the city, lawmakers included a teacher data shield in their annual budget deal, over Mayor Bloomberg’s objections.

Another approach to boosting teacher quality is to make sure that teachers are good before they enter the classroom. In the same speech where he announced his turnaround plans, Mayor Bloomberg proposed offering loan forgiveness to new teachers in the top of their college classes. To retain strong teachers, which a different report said districts don’t do well, he proposed offering a steep raise to those with two straight top ratings. But even if there were new evaluations to enable the second proposal, it would not pass muster with the UFT, and the loan forgiveness program is also on ice for now. And the department’s request to be allowed to certify its own teachers hasn’t moved forward yet, either.

3. The more some things change, the more they stay the same.

The end-of-year breakdown in teacher evaluation talks was only one of many stories this year that could have been near-carbon copies of stories we’ve published in the past. Class sizes rose; charter school co-location plans generated fierce opposition; and the Panel for Educational Policy rubberstamped proposals to close schools full of needy students, despite intense and prolonged protests. Among the lessons learned from the PEPs closure vote: The UFT’s annual display of resistance was no longer the only protest strategy in town.

The closed “rubber rooms” for teachers accused of misconduct were actually open, sort of, and the principal of ultra-selective NEST+M drew more criticism from parents and teachers at her school. Middle schools are the weak link; teachers without permanent positions in the Absent Teacher Reserve rotate among schools with little support; the UFT and City Hall are at loggerheads; and race and class inequities are deep. Same as it ever was.

4. But some things really are changing, especially when it comes to the classroom.

After focusing its reform efforts for a decade on structural change, the Department of Education turned its attention to instruction for the first time, and officials promised that academic reforms would double the city’s dismal college-readiness rate by 2016.

New learning standards known as the Common Core are the linchpin of the reforms. The department asked all teachers to tailor some lessons to the standards, which emphasize critical thinking and real-world problem solving. City and state officials emphasized the urgency of switching to the new standards, inducing stress for some teachers and leading the union to call for more curriculum materials. Proactive teachers opened the door to their planning, and the city recruited others to offer a helping hand to colleagues who are having a harder time with the transition, which is proving to be especially tricky in math. If the city had more money, officials told the state, the rollout could go even better.

The new standards are geared at preparing students not only for high school graduation, but to be ready for college, the city’s new benchmark for success. To a limited extent, the department put its metrics where its mouth was and gave schools credit on their annual report cards for having students who earn high grades, take tough classes, and thrive in college. It also certified some high school courses as meeting the higher standards.

But college readiness requires more than strong academic skills, educators are learning, and this year saw multiple efforts to prepare students more comprehensively. City officials said they were starting to think about how to measure “soft skills” such as persistence and curiosity, as well, echoing the KIPP network of charter schools’ touted “character report card.” We took a peek into the classroom of a teacher who was helping his students prepared to ”assimilate” into a college environment. Comptroller John Liu suggested spending $160 million a year on high school guidance counselors to motivate and coach students. And the department picked 40 schools to pilot strategies to get long-lagging male students of color ready for college, in the hopes that they will generate lessons other schools can use.

Other policy changes were subtler but also reflected a shift in priorities at the Department of Education. The department softened its rules about grade promotion, made the discipline code a little less punitive, and joined a union-led “community schools” project.

5. High school and special education policy changes could be the sleeper news of the last year.

The city ramped up a sweeping initiative to integrate students with disabilities better into general education classes and schools. Only scarce data emerged from a pilot, the special education official who designed the change retired, and skepticism about the city’s motives was rampant. But the general idea got backing from a wide range of special education advocates. How students fare as a result is yet to be seen.

Also yet to be seen: the impact of a slew of new policies the Department of Education enacted to cut down on graduation-rate inflation. The department stopped letting schools grade their own students’ Regents exams, set limits on makeup credits, cracked down on physical education requirements, and started mandating seniors to carry a full schedule of classes. Some of the changes began to yield results, and they all put new pressure on already stretched schools. Combined with the state’s tougher-than-ever diploma requirements, the city’s graduation rate could fall in Bloomberg’s final year after hitting a plateau in 2012.

Other subtle changes affected high school enrollment even as the department continued to promote the choice model that has been the Bloomberg administration’s hallmark. Under pressure from the state, the city began distributing mid-year enrollees, who often present steep challenges, across a wider array of schools. Chancellor Walcott also told all high schools they would have to enroll students with disabilities. A tiny but significant uptick in the number students of color admitted to the city’s most elite high schools could continue if a civil rights complaint filed by advocates this fall is successful. And the department revised its attendance regulations to shorten the commute time considered a travel hardship, potentially enabling more students to attend school close to home.

6. If you think you knew the state’s testing program, think again.

As they have every year, (almost all) elementary and middle school students sat for state math and reading tests this spring. We offered a pre-observation, observation, and post-observations about the city’s test scores, whose incremental rise Bloomberg attributed to innovations at the Department of Education.

But the big story was not the scores but a particularly befuddling reading passage — about a hare and a pineapple — that led state officials to promise, again, to stop using altered texts. That promise joined several others the state had already made about 2013’s tests, which are being redesigned to the Common Core standards (high school tests will start to change in 2014). The rollout so far has been less than smooth: Pearson, which is getting $32 million from the state to develop the exams, has come under heightened criticism for errors on the 2012 tests.

The Common Core-aligned tests are supposed to be harderand shorter — than previous tests, and state education officials have warned that scores are likely to drop as a result.

Also potentially diminishing test scores in the future: New efforts to root out and punish cheating. An audit in March revealed that the state was ill equipped to ensure test security and issued a number of recommendations to safeguard scores. In response, the state created a new investigative unit — staffed with lawyers, prosecutors, and former law enforcement officers — to detect and investigate instances of cheating.

In New York City, the education department actually cut back on another one of the audit’s recommendations, to place monitors in schools on testing days. After we reported about gaping holes in the city’s much touted test security measures, the city made plans to build its monitoring presence back up. But officials said they will not look for anomalous scores that could indicate cheating.

7. The road to 2014 has already been paved.

Next fall, New Yorkers will elect a new mayor for the first time in 12 years, and for the first time in more than two decades, the next resident of Gracie Mansion is likely to be a Democrat. (But it won’t be Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch or charter school operator Eva Moskowitz, who each popped up during the year as a possible candidate.)

For those who have benefited from the mayor’s pro-charter school policies or who agree with his tough-on-teachers stances, the prospect of a change is frightening. Those people are forming advocacy groups and seeking to curry favor with some of the leading contenders. Those who believe that Bloomberg neglected their interests are currying and coalescing, too. Multiple groups have formed around the idea that Bloomberg’s education policies have steered the city’s schools in the wrong direction.

So far, many of the likely candidates have turned out to offer that criticism in hopes of winning the union’s endorsement, which will come with votes and funds. Former comptroller Bill Thompson has called for a moratorium on school closures; Comptroller John Liu has said he would stop placing charter schools inside public school buildings; and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has indicated that he would include parents in decision making more often.

The three men also said they would select an educator to be chancellor. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, considered a front-runner for the Democratic nomination, wouldn’t make the same commitment, but she has appeared alongside UFT President Michael Mulgrew on several occasions, nonetheless. So far, Mulgrew is throwing his support to all four candidates, but that will change.

And it’s not just City Hall that will see new faces in 2014. Other citywide and local positions will be open, and parents are gunning to fill them. Before that, Mulgrew himself will contend with growing dissent within the UFT as he faces reelection this spring.

8. The city’s charter school sector isn’t monolithic anymore.

For most of the Bloomberg administration, the city’s charter sector was unified both in its ambitions to grow and its support from City Hall. But with the sector maturing, some internal conflicts emerged in 2012. A rally to defend charter schools also revealed deepening tensions between charter management organizations and independent charter schools.

A leading advocacy group for city charter schools documented some of those tensions in a self-assessment report that was readied, then delayed, and finally released. While some schools avoid filling spaces that open up at any point, a few others were trying to figure out how leverage state regulations to fill seats mid-year.

Charter school advocates also responded differently to the state’s move toward setting enrollment targets for high-need students. Some operators, including Success Academy founder Eva Moskowitz, pushed back against efforts to get charter schools to enroll more high-need students. But others vigorously recruited poor students, English language learners, and students with disabilities, who have all historically been underrepresented in city charter schools.

Local voices have also joined in a national call by charter school advocates to see more weak charter schools closed. The State Education Department has been bulking up its capacity to make closure decisions, and a possible casualty could be the union-run school that has struggled mightily during its eight years in operation.

9. The recession might be weakening, but that doesn’t mean money isn’t still tight.

For the first time in years, the city’s budget proposal included an increase for the Department of Education and did not call for teacher attrition. In fact, the door opened slightly to aspiring teachers, and teachers’ discretionary funding was restored — but only to the tune of $40 a head.

But it still took some wheeling and dealing among the city, UFT, and City Council to avert school aide layoffs and prevent day care and after school seats from being closed. More schools than ever told the city they had been allocated too little money to conduct their essential operations. And when Mayor Bloomberg asked all city agencies to tighten their belts in September, the education department was not spared.

The budget picture could grow grimmer in 2013 if the city does not adopt new teacher evaluations and the state withholds $250 million in new aid the city is due. But a group of advocates are pressing the state to comply with a court order to distribute more aid to needy districts, such as New York City.

10. Even in a polarized climate, people can set aside their differences when they want to.

Bickering and bargaining were put on hold when Hurricane Sandy struck the city at the end of the month, devastating low-lying areas and flooding or cutting power to dozens of school buildings. All schools were closed for a week, and dozens of schools had even more days canceled before they reopened in temporary locations. Attendance at the relocated schools was low, but over time, the schools moved home and students returned. The last of the schools is set to reopen in its original building at the beginning of the year, although the academic, physical, and emotional effects are sure to resonate for some time.

Although they had been in the middle of tense negotiations when the storm hit, the city and union quickly struck a deal to safeguard teachers who were displaced and to choose days to make up the missed time.

In a less dramatic example of detente, folks from both sides of the education aisle lined up to pay their respects when former Chancellor Frank Macchiarola died this month.

11. As interesting as policy debates can be, being on the ground is often more compelling.

Like Chancellor Walcott, we dashed from school to school all year, and some of our most memorable reporting happened when we sat in on instruction.

We learned how M.S. 244 in the Bronx is using statistics to identify which students need help; saw Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky teach a rare lesson at the Bronx Academy of Letters; and narrated the fast pace of math and art classes. At Olympus Academy, we watched students proceed online at their own pace; at the Queens High School of Teaching, we saw how students with disabilities are included in every activity; and we joined the prime minister of South Korea for a visit to a language class at Democracy Prep Charter High School.

Not all of our on-the-ground stories were so cheery. We also documented the way Fort Hamilton High School was shortchanging some of its teachers, wide-ranging issues under new leadership at the High School of Graphic Communication Arts, and students’ constantly changing schedules at John Dewey High School.

Other highlights include forays onto the food beat that revealed a baked-goods ban at Brooklyn Tech, a 2 p.m. lunchtime at Paul Robeson that might have been legal but certainly left students hungry, and new support for cafeteria salad bars. In June, we attended several graduation ceremonies, including for an innovative school graduating its first class; the Harbor School, whose founding principal was moving on; a newcomer school whose undocumented students for the first time did not need to fear deportation; and a couple of turnaround schools that thought they were graduating their last classes.

Among our New Year’s resolutions: To get into schools even more often in 2013.

12. Our readers made all of our reporting more significant.

This year, we left our desks frequently to interact with our readers offline. We introduced one reader, then asked to meet many more in a series of happy hours, a talk with “How Children Succeed” author Paul Tough, a screening of “Brooklyn Castle,” and a Common Core-themed student work exhibition. We also started offering pats on the back to our readers who leave constructive comments, and we look forward to watching the conversation continue in 2013. We’re turning five — that means mandatory kindergarten now — and plan to be better than ever.