incenting change

Obama official to New York: Change your tenure law or else

joanne-weiss
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Joanne Weiss

The Obama administration official in charge of an educational innovation fund yesterday issued a warning to a New York audience: Unless the state legislature revises a law now on the books about teacher tenure, the state could lose out on the $4.35 billion fund she controls.

Joanne Weiss said the Obama administration aims to reward states that use student achievement as a “predominant” part of teacher evaluations with the extra stimulus funds — and pass over those that don’t. New York state law currently bans using student data as a factor in tenure decisions.

Test scores aren’t everything, Weiss said. “But it seems illogical and indefensible to assume that those aren’t part of the solution at all,” she said, echoing nearly word-for-word Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s remarks last week to the National Education Association.

The pessimism about New York’s policies is a departure from Duncan’s tone during a visit to New York City in February, when he was cheery about the state’s chances in the competition. Duncan also briefly mentioned New York as one of several states whose firewalls around student and teacher data need to come down in a recent speech, and he indicated that New York’s cap on charter schools may also hurt the state’s chances at a slice of the stimulus pie.

Weiss, who worked at the New Schools Venture Fund before heading to Washington, said the “disadvantage” of the tenure law to New York could be counterbalanced by efforts here that the Obama administration admires. She praised a New York City program that is evaluating individual teachers based on their students’ test scores.  One strength of the program, Weiss said, is that city teachers generally accept the evaluations as an accurate and fair assessment of their performance.

The question, she said, is whether the district uses the evaluations in a meaningful way to drive high performance. “Can you pull it together in time and in a coherent fashion?” she said.

Currently, the teacher reports have no bearing on formal job evaluations or personnel decisions, and it was just after their creation that the city teachers union lobbied for the law banning test scores in decisions about tenure. The change stipulates that “a teacher shall not be denied or granted tenure based on student performance data.” The provision sunsets next year, but after the panel Weiss said that the sunset is too far away to help New York’s applications.

Weiss was in town to discuss The New Teacher Project’s report “The Widget Effect,” which was released last month and urged districts to overhaul their teacher performance evaluations. She spoke on a panel at the Carnegie Corporation alongside Rob Weil, the American Federation of Teacher’s deputy director of educational issues.

The federal Department of Education won’t release the exact criteria for receiving the competitive Race the the Top money until the end of July, and New York City is only just beginning to plan an application for a separate $650 million fund available to school districts. (A New York State Education Department spokeswoman did not return a request for comment this morning on the state’s progress.)

But Weiss’s remarks match the fund’s requirement that a state has made “significant progress” in four areas: raising academic standards, improving data systems, turning around struggling schools and improving teacher effectiveness. These are the same “four assurances” that states promised to pursue when they accepted the stimulus money that has already been distributed.

Weil, of AFT, said that the assurances are already affecting conversations around the country, where districts are using them as an excuse to push certain programs. In order to assure federal funding, the district officials tell union leaders, they need to make these changes, Weil said.

One reason federal officials have praised New York City while deriding the state could be that states and local districts are applying for two separate pots of money. The $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund is dedicated to projects at the state level. An additional $650 million of stimulus funds have been set aside for local district innovations. It’s possible, then, that the fund could award a grant to the city while passing over the state.

Daniel Weisberg, who co-authored The New Teacher Project’s report and who formerly headed up labor policy at the city Department of Education, said that he thought the change in tone at the federal level could drive a change in state law. The turmoil in the state legislature keeps everything up in the air, but he said the pressure from above makes significant reform to teacher evaluation a realistic goal.

“It’s a motivator,” he told me. “Will it get the job done? I don’t know.”

In an interview after the panel, Weiss said that the state will need to get the job done to have top consideration for the grant funds. “We will reward accomplishments, not promises,” she said.

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.