audacity of hope

To read NY's Race to the Top bid, wear rose colored glasses

New York State’s Race to the Top application is nearly a printer-jamming 1,000 pages, but a quick skim of the documents offers some insight into how the state is presenting itself and its proposals to judges in Washington.

Charter cap:

Throughout the fight over whether and how to lift the state’s charter cap, state education officials and the Board of Regents advocated for more than doubling the number of charters allowed in New York. Lifting the cap would not only improve the state’s chances at winning federal money, they said, it had become necessary as New York was closing in on its 200 school limit.

In December, Chancellor of the Board of Regents Merryl Tisch told GothamSchools: “My opinion is that the charter cap is now at a place where it will prevent us from opening great charter schools.” Yet the state’s application paints a distinctly different picture of the charter cap’s effect:

“Article 56 of New York’s Education Law does include a cap on the number of charter schools that may be formed, other than charter schools formed by conversion of an existing public school, but such cap does not prohibit or effectively limit the number of high-performing charter schools in the state.” (emphasis mine)

It’s commonly known that the state’s charter law allows for 200 schools, but there’s a little-known provision that doesn’t count conversions — district schools that opt to become charter schools — in that limit. With this in mind, the application states that while there may appear to be 200 allowable charter schools, but there are actually 4,740 if you include all the district schools that could convert.

“The total number of charter schools that currently may form in New York are 4,540 conversion charter schools plus 200 non-conversion charter schools, or 4,740.  This represents approximately 104 percent of the total schools in the state that are allowed to be charter schools.”

The wording has charter advocates like New York Charter Schools Association policy director Peter Murphy more than a little flummoxed.

“If New York had a 10-year record of converting its schools into charter schools, that would be one thing and they could make that argument come off as more plausible, but it’s a very legalistic argument to make. And it should not be taken seriously,” he said.

Charter conversion is a rarity in New York, in part because schools that convert remain under the teachers union contract, an idea that most charter school operators find unappealing. In total, there are only 6 conversion charter schools in the state.

“In fairness to the department, the legislature didn’t give them anything to work with,” Murphy said. “They’re putting their best argument forward and it’s a hollow one.”

Tisch defended the application’s language.

“The application clarifies exactly what New York State allows, and frankly conversions are tools that are used,” she said.

SUNY charters
New York’s application gives the number of charter schools that are currently open, but it downplays the number that are set to open next year. It states:

As of the 2009-10 school year-to-date, New York has 140 charter schools currently operating (with an additional 14 charter schools approved to begin operating in 2010-2011 or later).

According to Murphy, there are an additional 17 authorized schools that will open next year, bringing the total to 31. The application doesn’t count schools that were turned down by the Board of Regents and will open under SUNY approval. Under state law, SUNY can independently authorize charter schools, meaning that if the Board of Regents vetoes a charter application, SUNY can override the decision.

Test scores and teachers

In the months that led up to the Race to the Top and in the face of opposition from state and local teachers unions, SED officials said linking test scores to teacher tenure would be part of the plan. But up until now, it they never said how much weight the test scores would have in determining which teachers were successful.

The state’s application says it plans to use five factors in coming up with an “education effectiveness score” for teachers and principals, one of which is test scores. Districts that signed onto the plan will use student data as 30-40 percent of that score, placing “student growth at the center of their evaluation system.

study says...

In new study of school-district effectiveness, New York City falls just below national average

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

Each year, state test scores offer a snapshot of how much New York City students have learned. But they say little about how the city’s schools stack up against other districts’, in part because the raw scores largely reflect student demographics — wealthier districts tend to have higher scores.

Now, a major new analysis of several years of test scores from across the country provides a better way to judge and compare districts: Instead of looking at a single moment, it shows how well school systems help students grow their skills over time.

Based on that measure, New York City falls just below the middle of the pack: In the five years from third to eighth grade, its students collectively make about 4.6 grade levels of progress — landing New York in the 35th percentile of districts nationally. By contrast, Chicago students advance the equivalent of six grades within those five years, giving the district one of the highest growth rates in the country.

Still, New York is slightly above average when compared to other large districts with many students from low-income families. And it trounces the state’s other urban districts — including Yonkers, Syracuse, and Rochester, which have some of the nation’s worst growth rates.

“Among big poor districts, it’s better than average,” said Sean Reardon, the Stanford University researcher who conducted the analysis. “In the grand scheme, it’s pretty middle-of-the-road.”

Reardon’s analysis — based on 300 million standardized tests taken by students across more than 11,000 school districts from 2009 to 2015 — is the largest of its kind. It looks both at student proficiency on third-grade math and English tests (that is, what share of students earned a score deemed “proficient”) and student growth between grades three and eight (how much their scores improved over time). Reardon’s research was supported by several foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which also provides funding to Chalkbeat.

The analysis controls for the differences in tests across states and over time by converting scores into a common scale that measures growth in grade levels, making it possible to compare nearly every district in the country to one another. (It excludes New York’s scores from 2015 and some grades in 2014 because of the high number of students who boycotted the state tests those years. However, each district’s five-year growth rates is actually an average of its year-over-year growth, so Reardon was still able to calculate a five-year rate for New York.)

Experts generally prefer growth rates over proficiency as a way to evaluate school quality, since growth measures the progress students make in school rather than where they started. Even if a district enrolls many poor students who are less likely than their affluent peers to hit the “proficiency” benchmark, its schools can still help them advance at a rate comparable to or even better than schools filled with wealthier students.

“Growth is way better than achievement,” said Douglas Ready, an education and public policy professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. “We know low-income students start school behind — the question is what do school districts do with the kids they get?”

New York’s growth rate falls just below the national median of 4.8 grade levels. Among big districts, its students made gains similar to those in Dallas and Detroit, and greater than students in Los Angeles, Miami, and Indianapolis.

By contrast, Rochester ranks rock-bottom nationally. In that high-poverty district, where the median income among families with children in the public schools is $26,000, students advanced about three grade levels in five years. Yonkers’ $48,000 median income is much higher, yet its schools barely do better, with students moving just 3.5 grade levels. (Among New York City public-school parents, the median income is $42,000.)

Reardon emphasized that test scores provide an important but incomplete picture of student learning, and growth rates are an imperfect measure of school effectiveness since factors outside of the classroom also influence how much students learn over time.

Still, he argued that officials who rate schools and parents who choose them would do much better to look at a school’s growth rate over its average test scores. In fact, he said, a focus on growth rates could theoretically drive down socioeconomic segregation since higher-income parents might be willing to enroll their children in schools with many poor students and low overall test scores if the schools nonetheless had outstanding growth rates.

Ready, however, pointed out that even when schools and districts are highly effective at helping students make progress, they are still unlikely to close the yawning achievement gaps that separate most poor and wealthier students from the time they start school. Reardon came to the same conclusion.

“The large gaps in students’ academic skills between low- and higher-[socioeconomic status] districts are so large,” Reardon’s analysis says, “that even the highest growth rate in the country would be insufficient to close even half of the gap by eighth grade.”

In response to the analysis, New York City education department officials pointed to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test taken by a representative sample of students in each state and certain districts, including New York. Only one other district among the country’s 10 largest cities performed better in reading and math than New York, which had the highest share of low-income students reach the proficient level on the reading test.

“Our schools are the strongest they’ve ever been, with record-high graduation and college enrollment rates, and improving state test scores,” said the district’s spokesman, Will Mantell.

change up

Just as Lower East Side integration plan takes off, superintendent who helped craft it steps down

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Carry Chan, left, will become acting superintendent in District 1 when Daniella Phillips, right, leaves this month to join the central education department.

The longtime superintendent of the Manhattan community district where parents pushed for a plan to desegregate the local schools is stepping down just as the plan gets underway.

After a decade at the helm of District 1, which includes the Lower East Side and East Village, Superintendent Daniella Phillips is leaving to join the central education department, Chalkbeat has learned. During the yearslong campaign for an integration plan, Phillips acted as a liaison between parents and the education department, which finally approved a new admissions system for the district’s elementary schools this fall.

She will be replaced by Carry Chan, who has also played a role in the district’s diversity efforts as the interim head of a new Family Resource Center, an information hub to help district parents sort through their school options. Chan takes over as acting superintendent on Dec. 18.

The leadership change comes at a crucial time for the district, which also includes a portion of Chinatown. Parents are currently applying to elementary schools, marking the first admissions cycle under the new enrollment system. Under the system, schools give certain students admissions priority based on their economic status and other factors, with the goal of every elementary school enrolling share of disadvantaged students similar to the district average.

It will be up to the new superintendent to help schools recruit and welcome a greater mix of families, and to help steer parents towards a wider range of schools. Advocates hope the district can become a model for the city.

“There is a torch that needs to be carried in order to really, fully execute,” said Naomi Peña, president of the district’s parent council. “The next superintendent has to be a champion for the mission and the cause.”

During heated public meetings, Phillips tried to keep the peace while serving as a go-between for frustrated integration advocates and reluctant education department officials. The tensions sometimes boiled over, with advocates directing their anger at Phillips — though they were eventually won-over and endorsed the final integration plan.

In her new role, she will oversee school consolidations as part of the education department’s Office of School Design and Charter Partnerships. In District 1, Phillips helped steer three such mergers, which often involve combining small, low-performing schools with ones that are higher achieving.

“It has been such a joy and privilege to be District 1 superintendent for over 10 years, and I’m excited for this next chapter in the district and my career,” Phillips said in an emailed statement.

Chan is a former principal who launched the School for Global Leaders, a middle school that focuses on community service projects and offers Mandarin classes. Last year, she joined the education department’s Manhattan support center, where she helped schools form partnerships in order to learn from one another.

Since October, Chan has served as the interim director of District 1’s Family Resource Center, which is seen as an integral part of making the new diversity plan work. Families must apply for seats in the district’s elementary schools, which do not have attendance zones like other districts. The family center aims to arm families with more information about their options, in the hopes that they will consider schools they may not have previously.

“I think we’re all really passionate about this plan and we really want this to work,” Chan said. “Communication is the key, and being transparent with how we’re progressing with this work.”