study says...

Graduation rates vary widely at schools serving similar students

CFE found that eighth-grade attendance was more closely associated with graduation rates than any other variable.
CFE found that eighth-grade attendance was more closely associated with graduation rates than any other variable.

City high schools that serve similar students graduate their students at wildly different rates, according to a report to be released today.

Among schools with the neediest students, one school graduated 90 percent of students in four years. Another graduated just 34 percent, the report found.

The report confirms that the city’s highest-performing schools overwhelmingly enroll students who already had high test scores and attendance rates. But it also shows that even among schools serving the highest-need students, some do a much better job graduating students than others.

The report was prepared by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the group that successfully fought for an extra $5.4 billion in 2004 for the city’s neediest schools.

The study looked at ninth graders who entered high school in 2004.  It separated high schools into peer groups based on the demographics and eighth-grade academic performances of that class.  (Read the full report here.)

Some of the report’s conclusions will not come as a surprise. Schools whose students had higher eighth-grade test scores had higher graduation rates, for example. And eighth grade attendance was the strongest predictor of a high school’s graduation rates, the report found.

Because high achievement and high attendance were strongly correlated with high graduation rates, selective schools and zoned schools in high-achieving districts performed much better than others. But even within school peer group, there were wide gaps in graduation rates.

The report reiterates concerns that impending higher graduation standards could have an outsized impact on city students. Just over 60 percent of the cohort that began school in 2004 graduated four years later. But only 42 percent earned a Regents diploma, the more rigorous of the state’s diploma levels that will soon become the standard for most students. And among schools serving the highest-needs students, the rate of students earning Regents diplomas ranged from zero to 83 percent.

City officials said that the report’s findings validate its move toward replacing large, struggling high schools with small ones. “This report confirms what a landmark study found in June—that, by creating hundreds of new, high quality options, our small school strategy is improving outcomes for our neediest students,” said DOE spokesman Matt Mittenthal, referring to an MDRC study that found that the city’s small, non-selective high schools boost needy students’ chances of graduating.

The report did find that among schools with the lowest-achieving incoming ninth-graders, schools with high graduation rates did tend to be smaller than schools with low rates. But many small schools posted low rates and many large schools posted high ones, prompting the study’s authors to tentatively conclude that other factors like instructional strategy are critical to a school’s success, whatever its size.

Figuring out exactly what those factors are will be the focus of CFE’s next report, said Helaine Doran, the group’s deputy director. By studying the schools with high-risk students that also posted high graduation rates, CFE hopes to identify best practices. “How do you share these practices that clearly some are figuring out?” Doran said.

CFE argues that schools that serve large numbers of needy students should receive a greater share of the funding won in the 2004 Contracts for Excellence settlement. But determining how schools should spend that money is equally important, Doran said.

“The resources have to be spent right,” she said. “And as budgets are getting tighter, we have to disseminate best practices.”

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.