Looking back

The year that was: Looking back at 2010's education headlines

It’s the last day of 2010 and we’re flipping back our calendars to the very beginning for a look at the education goings-on of this past year and what they bode for the future. That is, tomorrow.

January

The year began with a 20-day race through public hearings on the city’s plans to close 19 schools. At Beach Channel High School, Jamaica and Columbus high schools, in front of Mayor Bloomberg’s house, Metropolitan Corporate Academy, and other schools (but not Kappa II), teachers, parents, and students rallied against the closure plans. Yet the mayoral appointees on the citywide Panel for Educational Policy, at a meeting that lasted until 4 a.m., voted to approve closing all of the schools.

Meanwhile, in Albany, legislators were negotiating changes to state law that would improve the state’s chances in the Race to the Top competition, which offered millions of federal dollars in exchange for education reforms. Gov. Paterson proposed eliminating the charter school cap altogether, in accordance with the Obama Administration’s preferences, and lawmakers spent the day of Race to the Top’s deadline trying — and ultimately failing — to reach an agreement. The state submitted its bid anyway, initially refusing to release it and ultimately revealing a host of long-shot promises and bizarre furniture requests.

Other changes were afoot in Albany. Because of our reporting, the state reversed a policy that barred charter schools from giving priority in admission to students identified as English language learners.

Back in New York City, it was mostly business as usual, with a new round of budget cuts, the fifth in two years, an impasse in union contract negotiations, and yet another reorganization of how schools get support from the central administration.

February

The shortest month was long on conflict. First, the teachers union sued to stop the 19 school closures that were approved in January. We looked at what would happen to their teachers — hint: the group of teachers without positions, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve pool, would swell — and to their students.

A second front opened over whether to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, something national union president Randi Weingarten said she could support and local United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew initially said he couldn’t. When the city unveiled a new tenure process that would use test scores, the UFT immediately put up a legal challenge, arguing that the city had violated the union’s contract. Tying test scores to teacher evaluations wasn’t in the city’s list of contract demands (which were accidentally released about this time) but it might as well have been. Topping the list: flexibility in firing.

And communities in Harlem, the Lower East Side, Queens, and Red Hook were divided by vicious fights over charter school siting.

March

New York State was named one of 16 Race to the Top finalists but went home empty-handed, just as it had been expected to. Officials vowed to try again in the competition’s second round.

Also entering round two: The school closure showdown. High school decision letters went out late because of the court battle. Two days after decision letters were sent to students the State Supreme Court ruled the closure votes “null and void”, finding that the city hadn’t followed the complex state law governing school closures. We explained the implications, which included the placement of some students at schools the city said were too bad to keep open.

That’s not to say that the city and union couldn’t agree on anything. In fact, they worked on a deal to close the rubber rooms. And together they quaked at the doomsday budget being floated in Albany, which would have slashed $400 million from the city’s schools.

In other news: the number of teachers without positions decreased. New York State’s NAEP reading scores stayed flat and the city’s graduation rate went up. NYU historian Diane Ravitch’s book about came out and so did our own Elizabeth Green’s New York Times Magazine article on making a better teacher. The city restricted bake sales and parents protested, yelling, “Viva el cupcake!”

April

April was the month the Department of Education eliminated its division of teaching and learning and announced a major push toward online education. It was also the month that lawyers for the city revealed their argument for why the school closures should go through as planned: At least we tried to follow the rules.

Michael Mulgrew won his first full term as UFT president in a landslide vote but met some up-and-coming adversaries in the group Educators 4 Excellence, formed to lobby against “last in, first out” layoff rules.

The city announced it would close rubber rooms by the end of the year but it didn’t reach any agreement with the union on other contract issues, including “last in, first out.” We judged the rubber room timeline too optimistic.

We visited one school where classes felt like rubber rooms of their own and met students from several other schools who had defied the odds.

Looking toward Race to the Top’s second round, the State Senate introduced a bill to double the number of charter schools, while Harlem Senator Bill Perkins held his own heated charter school hearings.

May

The charter cap bill zipped through the State Senate but stalled in the Assembly. After a month of delay, legislators hashed out a last-minute deal to more than double the charter cap to 460. But questions remained about how other components of the new charter school law would be implemented.

The city planned for $750 million in cuts to schools and massive teacher layoffs, the nitty-gritty of which we explained. Education Secretary Arne Duncan stopped in New York City (and altered his itinerary at the request of the teachers union) to call for a federal schools bailout.

The city looked for extra change by charging schools for lunches that students left unpaid and permitting schools to fire parent coordinators.

The State Education Department and the teachers union inked a deal to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores; the city pushed back against the court ruling barring its school closures; and State Senator Eric Adams told baggy-panted students to Stop the Sag.

June

We read the state’s bulked-up second-round Race to the Top application so our readers didn’t have to. The state promised to replicate city initiatives; meanwhile, the city promised the feds it would “turn around” a host of struggling schools.

Mayor Bloomberg cut teacher raises to save money and prevent teacher layoffs— postponing speculation that layoffs would happen to 2011 — and teachers rallied against budget cuts. Devising their 2010-2011 budgets, principals started excessing teachers. Also shedding numbers: The schools kept open by court ruling, where we revealed that the city had discouraged enrollment.

We said goodbye to the rubber rooms and DOE press secretary David Cantor and hello to hip-hop Regents prep. The city and union ended the school year fighting over when the next one would begin: The city tried to delay the first day of school until after Rosh Hashanah, which fell during the week after Labor Day, but abandoned the plan, blaming the union.

July

Bad news abounded in July. The state admitted that test standards had been too low for too long. Thousands of students had been misled into thinking they had proficient skills, and once standards were raised, the proportion of city students passing the state reading tests dropped by more than 25 percent. After years of announcing gains, Mayor Bloomberg was left scrambling for a message. The city promised extra attention but not extra money for struggling students.

Also falling short: The city’s appeal in the school closure legal fight. An appeals court upheld the ruling barring the closures, though the city said it would stay the course on opening new schools.

New York State ended the month a Race to the Top finalist for the second time, but with improved prospects for winning. And the city started getting ready to adopt toughened, national curriculum standards.

August

City and state officials went to Washington, D.C., to pitch the state’s Race to the Top application and brought home about $700 million in school funds, of which about $300 million would go to the city. The federal “edujobs” bill sent about $200 million — and hope for a layoff-free year — to New York City.

Otherwise, the month was about as boring as a fifth-grader’s summer homework. Breaking the monotony: Chancellor Klein threatened to use emergency powers to expand a Lower East Side charter school (but didn’t), and protesters distressed by lower state test scores derailed the month’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting. We also revealed that a Brooklyn charter school was holding classes in illegal space and dug up 1974 footage of Muhammad Ali’s visit to PS 41.

September

The school year started — and then started again — with too many teachers (though too few in classrooms), not enough kindergarten spaces, and scheduling problems. We live-blogged the first day of school, traveling with Chancellor Klein to all five boroughs.

During September, we met the Independent Budget Office’s new education watchdog, teachers who built their own data systems to make up for problems in the city’s, and fans — and foes — of the education documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman.'” The city quietly released lower progress report grades based on diminished test scores. We learned some bad news — just half of the year’s summer school students were promoted — and some good news: City students reversed a trend and posted an SAT score boost.

We also got a hint of the policy issues that would define the school year: more budget cuts, major problems on the value-added teacher data reports, and changes to tenure policy, for which Mayor Bloomberg promised new rules, the union be damned.

October

In collaboration with WNYC, we launched “The Big Fix,” a reporting project about the city’s various efforts to fix failing high schools. Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx escaped the chopping block only to start the school year with a stripped down budget, growing needs, and students who mostly wanted to be there. William Grady High School banked on a new principal for needed improvements. And officials at Chelsea Career and Technical Education High School moved student by student toward a higher graduation rate.

Aiming to avoid more legal problems, the city started laying the groundwork for school closures early.  It closed out the month with 47 schools on the at-risk list and conflict with the teachers union over whether the city had tried to help them or neglected them. The city didn’t improve its relationship with the union when it said it would flout an agreement and release individual teachers’ value-added scores. The union immediately headed to court to halt the release.

The state told districts how to spend their Race to the Top spoils, we looked into the chancellor’s school visit history, and Eva Moskowitz got permission to open a charter school on the Upper West Side. The GothamSchools team found time during this busy month to travel to North Carolina for its first wedding (mine!).

November

Not much happened in November. We threw a party. And Joel Klein shocked the city (and most of his own deputies) by announcing his resignation after eight years as chancellor. Jaws dropped even further when Bloomberg announced that Cathie Black, a publishing executive with no experience or apparent interest in education, was his pick to take Klein’s place. We joined the scrum of journalists analyzing Black’s preparedness, Bloomberg’s mysterious search process, and the circumstances of Klein’s abrupt departure.

Parents, teachers, voters, and lawmakers took a stand against Black’s appointment, but Gloria Steinem gave her okay. That wasn’t enough for a special state panel convened to consider whether Black should receive the waiver required for non-educators to become chancellor — a majority of its members voted against her. City and state officials worked through the Thanksgiving weekend to reach a deal that would let Black become chancellor as long as a DOE official, Shael Polakow-Suransky, became her second in command in charge of academics. The next week, Black made her first visit to a city public school since her appointment.

Rupert Murdoch, Joel Klein’s new boss, bought Wireless Generation, a major education technology company based in Brooklyn. Looking forward, it’s unclear what Klein’s relationship will be with the company. But that’s for the future. For the past, here’s our take on Klein’s career at the DOE.

In non-Cathie Black news, Andrew Cuomo, no friend of teachers unions, was elected governor, but union-backed candidates won many other races. A preliminary budget brought back the specter of teacher layoffs, this time 6,100 in 2011. The city said it missed its rubber room deadline for just 16 teachers. And new, lower high school progress report grades came out, but some schools got higher grades that paved the way for them to stay open.

Then, bedbugs struck.

December

Where was Cathie Black? The DOE wouldn’t say, so we joined the NYC education press corps in calling on the city to reveal her whereabouts. We found her on the phone and on TV, but not at any low-performing schools.

Parents and elected officials filed lawsuits to block Black’s appointment. But during the year’s last days, a State Supreme Court judge dismissed all three of the suits, clearing the way for Black to take over on January 3, the first day of school after the winter recess.

Black’s first piece of business — assuming there’s no remaining fallout from a riot over bathroom access at Murry Bergtraum High School — is likely to be presiding over the latest round of school closures. The city finalized its intentions to close 26 schools, fewer than the maximum number possible but still the most in any year. Mulgrew promised a serious fight over the closures, suggesting the city might see a repeat of 2010’s school closure showdown in 2011.

There’s much more to look forward to in 2011, from changes to the way school safety data gets reported, continued sparring over teacher data reports, a new tenure process for new teachers, and, if Klein’s final missive is to be trusted, a push to address the ATR situation. The city is also looking at more federally mandated turnarounds next year, although federal reforms could be in jeopardy as the balance of power shifts in Washington. If nothing else, we can at least count on a musical performance featuring the PS 22 chorus during the Oscars in February.

You made it to the end of 2010! Have a happy New Year’s Eve and we’ll see you back here on Monday.

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.”