talking points

City official and biggest critic find slivers of common ground

Put the Department of Education’s Deputy Chancellor for Accountability Shael Polakow-Suransky in a room with Diane Ravitch, one of the city’s most outspoken critics, and you might reasonably expect sparks to fly.

But when NYU’s Wagner Education Policy Studies Association put them together on a panel earlier this week, where they agreed turned out to be notable.

The topic of the panel was how federal involvement shapes local education policy. (I moderated the panel; Evan Stone, the founder of Educators 4 Excellence, also spoke.)

Ravitch opened by sharply criticizing the move to hold teachers and schools accountable for their students’ scores on standardized tests. But when talk turned to how future standardized tests should be built, Ravitch and Suransky agreed with each other. Ravitch said:

I’m very supportive of the idea of developing new assessments, and I think it’s a very important thing. But it will take years.

Just as these common core standards were written in a little over a year — it took me three years working on the California history standards. I worked on history standards in other states, and it was never done in only a year. So I would like to think that it’s going to take a lot of time to do this well because anything that’s done hurriedly is not going to survive….

I’m very happy that there’s money out there to develop new tests, but don’t think that they’re going to be available next year or the year after. If they’re good tests, it could be three to five years. And then they have to be tried out….So this is not going to be in time for the next election.

Suransky, who is working with one of the groups of states using federal funds to design new tests, responded:

I would agree with that statement, and I think we might have actually some common ground on those points.

The one point I would like to emphasize, though, is at the same time that this work is underway — you can only get to good assessments through going through the deep process that you describe. That has to happen and that work has begun. And so I think that’s promising.

There’s no reason why we have to wait to begin working with teachers and kids on the kinds of skills and the kind of practices that they to engage in. And so I think that even though it will take time for the state to get its act together and for the national consortium to field test — and that’s why it’s going to take four years — there’s nothing that prevents schools and school districts from engaging deeply on this work now.

And I think that’s part of that intent, because ultimately the reason for assessment is to motivate what happens in the classroom. If it doesn’t actually lead to good practice in the classroom then it’s undermining practice in the classroom. And so this is an opportunity. This is a moment where there’s an opportunity to shift the direction of practice in the classroom and to push on the level of rigor and to actually figure out what is it that kids and teachers need in order to engage in that type of practice.

Ravitch and Suransky also weighed in on whether the city should release the names and performance ratings of thousands of city teachers. After several city news outlets requested the scores through freedom of information requests, the teachers union sued to stop the city from releasing the ratings. The city agreed to wait to release the scores until a hearing in court next month, but Chancellor Joel Klein has come out strongly in favor of publicizing the ratings.

Suransky explained why the city had been hesitant to release the scores with teachers’ names in the past, but why he thinks it should do so now:

We’ve had the scores for two and a half years and we haven’t made them public up until now because of two reasons. One, we don’t want an individual teacher to get called out in public in a way that is disrespectful and attacking them; and second, we know there is a tremendous amount of context that needs to be understood around the scores and we were still working on fine-tuning the tools. And they’ve gotten a lot better based on the feedback of principals like [P.S. 321’s] Liz Phillips….

But if it does come out I think that what we will show when we release it is: we’ll show those confidence intervals, we’ll show what the error band is around each teacher’s scores, we’ll talk about how schools are using that data; and I think that it may have a value for many parents. Because honestly if I was a parent, I don’t know that I would feel good about the Department of Education deciding that I wasn’t smart enough to figure out the nuances of this data. And I think that a lot of parents would like to know it, and so we’ll need to work with the community to help them understand it. That isn’t the choice that we would have ultimately made, but it seems to be the choice that we’re bound to make under the law.

Ravitch responded that while she does think teachers’ value-added scores have some use, they should not be published in newspapers:

It’s the release of the names that I find objectionable. Because suppose you then have smart parents — and by the way, the DOE has never cared about what parents think about anything up to now, except to get the names and test score data for their teachers — but supposing parents are really smart, and 90 percent of the parents want 10 percent of the teachers. This seems to me it’s going to be a problem….

I think the supervisor should use these numbers to make judgments about tenure, to make judgments about who gets due process and who doesn’t, who should be fired and who shouldn’t — it seems appropriate to me, in the context of having sat in the persons class. But to make them public creates the kind o situation that the LA Times did, where — you may or may not know this — a teacher there committed suicide.  And he had been rated less effective by the Los Angeles Times, not by his supervisors. The deputy superintendent John Deasy said that his personnel files showed that he had very high ratings; he was considered one of the best teachers in the school. And he took it very seriously when there was a published database calling him a less effective teacher.

Now maybe he committed suicide for some other reason but his family and colleagues said this was incredibly depressing to him. He was working in a gang infested neighborhood, fifth grade teacher for 14 years, and his colleagues said he was the one who went after the toughest kids and brought them back. And he committed suicide. Was that because of publishing his score and humiliating him? I don’t know, but I think you have to think about all the consequences not just the ones you intend.

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.