after the fall

After test score criticism, Klein allows more planning time

Teachers are starting the school year with 37.5 more minutes a week to figure out how to raise test scores.

In an email sent to principals on Friday, Chancellor Joel Klein announced that schools are now allowed to convert one period of tutoring time into teacher planning sessions aimed at boosting scores. The four-times-weekly, 37.5-minute sessions were introduced in February 2006 for teachers to offer small-group instruction.

“This time must be used in a structured way to look at data and student work, to examine curriculum and teacher practice and to diagnose what changes and supports are needed to improve performance for the students who need it most,” Klein wrote.

Klein’s email announcement marks the city’s first concrete response to the state’s more stringent test score standards. In July, when the scores were announced, Klein said schools would have to give struggling students “more attention” but didn’t specify how. Mostly, he and Mayor Bloomberg have focused on defending the city’s progress despite lower scores. In the email to principals, Klein dismissed challenges to the city’s claims as “belligerent critiques.”

Klein’s complete back-to-school email to principals is below:

Dear Colleagues,

There’s been a lot of discussion and debate about the impact and meaning of the decision by the New York State Education Department to make testing requirements for student proficiency significantly more demanding.  As school starts, parents and teachers will have questions about what the resultant decline in proficiency throughout our state and City means for students.

The State’s purpose was to align the results better with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which indicated that New York State had dramatically lower proficiency rates than our New York State test had demonstrated.  The State set out to resolve this inconsistency by redefining the cut scores needed to achieve a desired percentage of Levels 1, 2, 3, and 4 after the results were known.  If you increase the score required to pass a test, the number of people that pass is inevitably going to fall.

Understandably, we are all disappointed that the pass rate went down.  When you are working hard to achieve a result, and then it becomes even harder to achieve that same result, it’s frustrating.  But I strongly believe that we shouldn’t be disheartened.  New York State is not alone in having set a proficiency standard that was too low to serve our children; the vast majority of states have similarly low standards.

I know you are working with your networks to interpret these adjustments, their impact, and the instructional strategies you can use to help your students improve. I appreciate the time you’re taking to understand your school-level data thoroughly, especially Progress Reports, which underwent significant changes this year to reflect the higher bar that has been set. I encourage you to check out our Principals’ Portal for helpful information.

As you know, our goal is to have all our teachers working collaboratively to meet students’ individual instructional needs. I have received many requests from principals over the past year to build in regular time for these teacher teams to meet.  I know it’s essential, in order to improve instruction in your school, for you to have built-in time for your teachers to plan in teams.  Moving forward, we will support your SBO requests to use one of the 37.5 minute blocks for teacher teams to meet.  This time must be used in a structured way to look at data and student work, to examine curriculum and teacher practice and to diagnose what changes and supports are needed to improve performance for the students who need it most.  This time and the remaining 37.5 minute blocks will be an important resource that must be used strategically in this tight budget year to raise achievement for our weakest students.  Our networks will be working with you to ensure that this time is used to maximum effect.  These teacher teams are also critical to our efforts to raise the bar as we prepare for the Common Core standards.

Raising standards is the easy part.  The hard part will be getting our students to achieve at higher levels.  There are two important points that I want to reinforce with you directly today to help provide context as you plan for the important work that lies ahead.

High proficiency numbers may make us feel good.  But calling a child proficient who is not on a secure path to college and career success is a disservice to the student, her family and the school system.  That’s why I wrote to you almost a year ago stating that “we must hold our students to standards that are as rigorous as those set by NAEP.”  I know it’s not easy to do this, but we have got to be honest with ourselves. Otherwise, our children will pay a terrible price when they graduate into a globally competitive world that will not be forgiving to them if they are not properly prepared. We need to embrace the change the State has imposed, even if it hurts to see our proficiency results fall in the short-term.

I also want to address head on some of the belligerent critiques of our collective work in the days following the State’s announcement of our scores.  Instead of seeing it for what it is-a call for more demanding standards-some have suggested that the data obliterate the substantial progress that we have made.  That view is wrong.  Had it not been for the tremendous progress made over the last eight years, we could not conceive of how we would meet the new standards.  Other school districts in this State are now at proficiency levels in the mid- to low-20s.  That’s where we would be if not for the good work that you and your staffs have done.
Let me emphasize what you already know: while important, data, like test results and graduation rates, don’t tell the whole story of what’s going on at a school.  Many intangibles matter, and in so many dynamic ways our schools have improved-not all at the same pace or in the same manner.  But this is a very different and greatly improved school system compared to what it was in 2002.  The data also confirm that view.

I am linking here to a presentation that shows in detail the progress we’ve made and how substantial it has been.  Here are some of the highlights-what I see as our biggest accomplishments.


  • On our watch, fourth graders have made big gains-11 scale-score points in English and 11 in math, which reflects an increase of more than a year’s worth of learning. The percentage of kids proficient in math went from 21 percent to 35 percent-a 67 percent increase-and the percentage proficient in English went from 19 percent to 29 percent-a 53 percent jump. (Slide 14) In fourth grade, NYC’s performance now matches that of the nation as a whole, even though NYC serves a much more challenging population. That’s called “closing the achievement gap.” * In the eighth grade, the results are mixed and trending up. We’ve gained 7 points in math, mostly since 2005, and, while we’re flat in English, on the last exam we were up 3 points, boding well for the future. (Slide 4)

New York State tests

  • First, let’s look at how NYC would have performed in the past under the new, much more rigorous proficiency standards adopted by the state.  Applying the new standards, our overall proficiency rate would have gone up by 6.4 points in English (from 36 percent in 2006 to 42.4 today) and by 22.1 points in math (from 31.9 percent in 2006 to 54 percent today). Whichever way you measure it, we’ve made progress.  (Slide 3)* From 2006-2010 our scale scores went up across the board in grades 3-8, by an average of 23 points in math and 13 points in English. Those are big gains. (Slide 4)

High school graduation

  • NYC’s gains in high school graduation and college-going rates are impressive.  From 1990-2002 the City’s graduation rate had stagnated in the mid-forties. Last year, it was 63 percent. (Slide 16)
  • This increase has resulted in significantly more NYC students going to college. From 2002 to 2009, the number of graduates attending City University of New York (CUNY) colleges went from 16,000 to more than 25,000-a 57 percent increase.  At the same time, the percentage of students requiring remediation at CUNY decreased. (Slide 20)

Highlighting this point and responding to vocal critics, former U.S Secretary of Education Richard Riley wrote an article in the Daily News summarizing the City’s achievement results, especially the NAEP gains, concluding that “we should celebrate students and educators in New York City for significant improvements-even as we call for higher levels of performance.”  The current Secretary, Arne Duncan, similarly stated in a recent speech: “And these higher standards [adopted by New York State] in no way erase the gains made by New York City in recent years, gains that showed up not only on the state tests, but also on the national tests, called NAEP.”

As you may also have heard, last week New York State won the Race to the Top federal grant competition which will send more than $240 million to New York City over the next four years.  Winning this competition means that we have additional funds to institute core reforms that will support students’ continued progress.  But it’s about more than the money: this victory validates the significant strides we’ve made as a City to improve student achievement.

I am more confident than ever before that we have the right people in place-our principals, teachers, and other school staff-to make our City’s public schools even stronger tomorrow than they are today.  It isn’t going to be easy-putting children first never has been.  But our students are counting on all of us to work together to help prepare them for success.
Thank you, as always, for your hard work and dedication.  Best of luck for a great first day.

Joel I. Klein

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”