merryl mouths off

In 90 minutes, Tisch took on readiness gap, test objectors, TFA

Learning Matters' John Merrow and New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch (Photo: Nancy Adler)

The city’s very low college and career readiness rate for black and Hispanic students is a statistic usually cited by advocates seeking to discredit the Bloomberg administration’s education record.

But when asked to measure the true value of a high school diploma in New York City Wednesday night by education reporter John Merrow, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch turned to the familiar statistic to convey her concerns.

“That, to me, is tragic,” Tisch said, after rattling off the numbers.

Merrow pressed her to account for the disparity between the city’s graduation rate, which is over 60 percent, and its low college-readiness rates. “Why isn’t this fraud?” he asked.

“I didn’t say it wasn’t,” Tisch said.

The exchange was part of a 90-minute public dialogue in which Tisch also criticized families who opt out of state tests, set firm limits about the city’s request to certify teachers, and proclaimed that the city and its teachers union would reach a teacher evaluation deal before Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mid-January deadline.

The conversation was part of a series at the JCC on the Upper West Side in which Merrow interviews high-profile education personalities. Past guests have included AFT President Randi Weingarten, former city Chancellor Joel Klein, Success Academy Charter Network founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz, and KIPP founder Dave Levin.

During the wide-ranging conversation, Tisch took a number of stands on contentious education issues facing the state. Notably, Tisch faithfully defended standardized testing and its use to measure student growth and evaluate teachers, even after Merrow confronted her with a copy of last year’s widely lambasted “Hare and the Pineapple” test question.

Tisch criticized parents who opted their children out of the state tests as setting a “dangerous precedent” about privilege. In the city, 113 students opted out of the math and reading tests this spring, and this month, some schools are refusing to administer field tests meant to help the state develop more challenging exams. The most vocal objections have come from parents at a handful of high-performing Manhattan and Brownstone Brooklyn schools with many middle-class families.

“When you choose not to be part of something, you’re sending loads of messages about who can and who can’t opt out,” Tisch said. “And I always think that’s a dangerous precedent.”

And despite her grim view of the city’s college readiness rates, Tisch also hailed Bloomberg’s decade-long effort to overhaul the city’s schools. She said Bloomberg wasn’t to blame for the city’s failure to prepare poor students of color for college and careers after graduation.

“In New York City, you’ve had a very deliberate attempt to try and fix the public school system,” Tisch said. “I think it’s been a heroic attempt.”

It was a common theme for Tisch, who carefully balanced her opinions on both sides of most of the issues Merrow raised.

In one breath, Tisch praised the energy that Teach for America’s teachers were injecting into the poorest neighborhood schools. In the next, she criticized the organization because too many of its teachers end up leaving the profession after only a few years.

“I don’t like the fact that Teach for America produces a lot teachers who come in and out of the system quickly,” she said.

Tisch had equally critical things to say about traditional teachers colleges and the NYC Teaching Fellows, a city-run alternative certification program that is now run by TNTP. Tisch said the program for years sent hundreds of unprepared teachers into the class room.

Tisch reiterated her support for the city’s recent proposal to certify its own teachers, so long as the city limited the practice to license areas where it hasn’t been able to fill positions, such as science and special education. But would she consider giving the city permission to certify teachers for any job?

“Absolutely not,” she said.

Perhaps the most urgent issue for Tisch and the New York State Education Department is the timeline that districts have to submit evaluation plans for approval. Gov. Cuomo has set a January deadline and threatened to withhold state aid from districts that miss it. As of 5:00 p.m. yesterday, Tisch said 495 of the state’s 694 districts have submitted plans.

The state’s largest district by far, New York City, is one that hasn’t submitted plans, but Tisch insisted she wasn’t worried about that.

“I am telling you here tonight that they will get to an agrement before the deadline,” she said.

Struggling Detroit schools

The list of promises is long: Arts, music, robotics, gifted programs and more. Will Detroit schools be able to deliver?

PHOTO: Detroit Public Television
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti answers questions at a community meeting in Detroit.

Arts. Music. Robotics. Programs for gifted kids. New computers. New textbooks. Dual enrollment programs that let high school students take college classes. International Baccalaureate. Advanced Placement.

They’re all on the list of things that Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a group of community members assembled in a Brightmoor neighborhood church that he would introduce or expand as soon as next school year.

Vitti didn’t get into the specifics of how the main Detroit district would find the money or partnerships needed to deliver on all of those promises, but they’re part of the plan for the future, he said.

The comments came in a question and answer session last month with students, parents and community members following Vitti’s appearance on Detroit Public Television’s American Black Journal/One Detroit Roadshow. The discussion was recorded at City Covenant Church. DPTV is one of Chalkbeat’s partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.

Vitti has been appearing at community events since taking over the Detroit schools last spring. He is scheduled next week to join officials from two of the city’s major charter school authorizers, Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University, at a State of the Schools address on October 25.


Watch the full Q&A with Vitti below.


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 Spokane, 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.”