rolling back

After backlash, city tweaks new special education funding rules

The Department of Education is rolling back some special education policies that drew sharp criticism last week from many principals.

The principals were alarmed by a deadline, originally set for today, to “clean up” data about students with disabilities. The deadline raised concerns that the department would take back funds from schools whose students fell into lower-than-anticipated funding tiers.

“The last-minute data capture has left us scrambling to account for potentially massive cuts to our budgets halfway through the school year,” 20 principals wrote Thursday in a letter to Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

In an email sent late Friday, the department’s chief financial officer, Michael Tragale, told principals that the department would push back the deadline and relax a particularly anxiety-inducing rule so schools could retain their special education funds.

“If your school operates on a seven period day (eight periods minus lunch), students that receive special education services in their four core classes (English, Math, Science and History) will be identified for funding purposes as students who receive full-time special education services,” he wrote, noting that the policy could change again next year.

Under the arrangement, students technically spend 57 percent of their time in special education classes, narrowly missing a 60 percent cutoff to draw extra funding. Some principals said they had so many students falling just below the threshold that they faced having to return more than $100,000 to the department.

Tragale also assured principals that reclassifying some students who receive special education services as “general education” in the department’s attendance and budgeting data system, as the department is asking them to do, would not lower the schools’ annual grades, which some principals had feared. The department will still count the students as having disabilities when awarding extra credit to schools whose highest-need students make academic progress.

And Tragale said all schools would have an extra week to check data about students with special needs. The extra time will increase the likelihood that schools’ data — and funding — are accurate. But it also means additional time away from students for special education teachers charged with resolving more than 50,000 discrepancies between two data systems.

A high school principal said he was relieved to learn that he would not lose funding because of the way his school schedules students with disabilities. But he said the department would be better off rolling new policies out slowly than scaling them back after drawing protest.

“I compare it to the academic policy changes that were done last year,” said the principal, referring to new policies announced in February 2012. “I don’t agree with all of those, but they certainly gave time and plenty of notice so that schools couldn’t say they’re changing the game on us in the middle. I don’t know why this isn’t the same way.”

Mark Anderson, a teacher who heads the special education department at Jonas Bronck Academy in the Bronx, said he thought that, even addressed, the situation reflected broader problems in the way the city is implementing special education policy changes.

“It just doesn’t seem like there’s someone in charge directing things, from central,” Anderson said. “Sometimes it seems like there’s as much confusion at the upper level as there is at the lower level. And that’s ultimately reflected on the ground level. Because there’s a lack of clarity on how things should be done.”

Tragale’s complete message to principals about the special education data concerns is below:

From: “Tragale Michael”
Date: January 11, 2013, 7:51:38 PM EST
To: “&All Principals”
Subject: Update on Midyear Adjustment Reconciliation

Dear Colleagues:

I understand that our shared effort to provide increased access to students with disabilities has raised a lot of questions regarding the mid-year budget adjustment process. I’m writing to provide additional guidance and clarification for your immediate use.

As you know, the Fair Student Funding formula for students with disabilities was adjusted this year as part of our work to educate students in their least restrictive environment and to provide funds needed for part-time (single and multiple) services. In response to principal concerns regarding the funding formula:

  • We will adjust the formula for schools with a seven period day (eight periods minus lunch), detailed in the Adjustment section below.
  • We will extend the deadline by which you must reconcile student data in ATS to January 23, detailed in the Next Steps section below.
  • We will honor appeals for data discrepancies, detailed in the Next Steps section below.

Please review the information below for immediate next steps and for a summary of these issues.

Sincerely,

Michael Tragale
Chief Financial Officer, New York City Department of Education

Adjustment to Fair Student Funding Formula

If your school operates on a seven period day (eight periods minus lunch), students that receive special education services in their four core classes (English, Math, Science and History) will be identified for funding purposes as students who receive full-time special education services. This adjustment is only applicable for these core classes and will be reviewed for FY 2014.

Clarification on School Scheduling and Student Services

Principals have reported confusion regarding how the total number of periods a week that a student is recommended to receive services and how the total number of periods in a school’s week are reflected. The DOE is using the following determinations to calculate the total number of periods in your school’s week:

  • Middle and high school period calculations will be determined from data in STARS.
  • Elementary school period calculations will be determined using the assumption of a 30 period week.
  • Instruction includes all periods (including electives and physical education) except for lunch, extended day, and discretionary before- and after-school programs.

The DOE is using SESIS data to capture the total periods per week that a student is receiving special education services.

Immediate Next Steps and Data Appeals

Your network will receive an updated report that details the discrepancies in your school between SESIS and ATS by student. This report replaces data that was previously based on minutes of service; it now reflects periods of service.

1. You should work with your network to review your school’s data for possible discrepancies and ensure that ATS reflects each student’s services appropriately by January 23. Possible discrepancies in the data include:

  • If the number of instructional periods indicated for your school is different than displayed on the discrepancy report, you should indicate the actual number. For example, the report notes you have seven daily periods but your school has eight. Periods should not include lunch, extended day, or before/after school programs.
  • SESIS indicates that a program recommendation of ICT to be provided in the subject area, where “Other” was selected for five periods. “Other” may have been intended to represent multiple subjects (such as English and Math). The correct number of periods should be indicated in the school’s data appeal.
  • When updating grade codes or the USPE screen, ensure that the effective date is retroactive to when the service began.

2. You should work with your network if you decide that you need to appeal data discrepancies that have been reported. Possible reasons for a data appeal include:

  • If we have captured an incorrect amount of total periods per week for your school.
  • If the total number of service periods for an individual student is incorrect.
  • If the start/end dates in SESIS were entered incorrectly and not reflected in the budget report.

3. You should work with your network to determine the impact any updates will have on your mid-year adjustment.

Examples of Correct ATS Coding for Students with Disabilities:

1. Student A has an IEP that calls for one period a day of SETSS for math. The school has a total of seven instructional periods a day, not including lunch, extended day, or before/after school programs. This student is receiving services for 1/7th of the school day, which is 14.3% of the day. This student should be entered into a general education grade code with the single-service flag selected on the USPE screen. This will drive funding in the <=20% FSF category to the school.

2. Student B has an IEP that states two periods a day of ICT for English and Math, and one period a day in a self-contained classroom for Science. The school has a total of seven instructional periods a day, not including lunch, extended day, or before/after school programs. This student is receiving services for 3/7th of the school day, which is 42.9% of the day. This student should be entered into a general education grade code with the multi-service flag selected on the USPE screen. This will drive funding in the 21%-59% FSF category to the school.

3. Student C has five periods a day in a self-contained classroom for the subjects of English, Math, Science, Social Studies, and Art. The school has a total of eight instructional periods a day, not including lunch, extended day, or before/after school programs. This student is receiving services for 5/8th of the school day, which is 62.5% of the day. This student should be entered into a self-contained grade code in ATS. This will drive funding in the >=60%, self-contained category to the school.

4. Student D has five periods a day in an ICT classroom for the subjects of English, Math, Science, Social Studies, and Art. The school has a total of eight instructional periods a day, not including lunch, extended day, or before/after school programs. This student is receiving services for 5/8th of the school day, which is 62.5% of the day. This student should be entered into an ICT grade code in ATS. This will drive funding in the >=60%, ICT category to the school.

Context on the Fair Student Funding Formula

The Fair Student Funding rate is based on the percent of instructional time (defined by number of periods a day) that a student requires special education services during the regular school day. More information about determining this percentage is available in this chart.

In September, schools began using the USPE screen in ATS to capture information about students who require part-time special education services. Students in either self-contained or integrated co-teaching classes for 60% or more of the week continue to be coded in a full-time special education grade code in ATS. Students receiving part-time services are now indicated in ATS using a general education grade code with a flag to identify if they receive either related services only (RO REL SERVICE ONLY), services for 20% or less of the week (SG SINGLE SERVICE), or services for 21%-59% of the week (ML MULTI-SERVICE). Please note that moving a student from a special education grade code (starting or ending with 9) into a general education grade code does not impact a school’s progress report, nor does it affect the IEP designation in a student’s official ATS profile.

Context on Data Issues Reported

A comparison of IEP data in SESIS and data entered by schools in ATS currently displays discrepancies between the services a student is mandated to receive in SESIS (as per their IEP) compared to the student’s programming in ATS (as per either the special education grade code or USPE data). These discrepancies highlight instances of students with disabilities with part-time program recommendations in SESIS, who are coded as receiving full-time services in ATS, and vice versa.

These discrepancies have serious implications for how students are receiving mandated services. As the DOE is committed to ensure students’ mandated services are being provided in the least restrictive setting appropriate, we need schools’ assistance in reconciling this information to ensure student programs match student IEPs.

Additionally, the information on the USPE screen will also replace the Special Education Integration Survey (SEIS). Using this screen was intended to be a faster and more convenient process for schools in comparison to the print-out process used previously for the SEIS schedule. It is therefore critical that services reflected be an accurate representation of services received.

chronically absent

Newark’s absenteeism problem persists as thousands of students miss several days this year, new data show

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León addressed ninth-graders in September. That month, about 30 percent of those students were considered "chronically absent."

Thousands of Newark students have already missed multiple school days this year, newly released data show, even as the district’s new superintendent makes improving attendance a top priority.

About one in five students missed more than a week’s worth of class during the first three months of school, according to the district data. Those roughly 8,000 students are already considered “chronically absent.”

Newark has long grappled with exceptionally high rates of chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days in an academic year for any reason. Students who miss that much school tend to have lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and greater odds of getting in trouble with the law.

The district’s new superintendent, Roger León, has promised to attack the issue — even going so far as to set a district goal of 100 percent attendance. But the new data, which León released this week, show how far the district has to go.

Nearly 9 percent of of the district’s 36,000 students have already missed the equivalent of more than two school weeks, according to the data. Those 3,200 or so students are labeled “severely chronically absent.”

Experts say that tracking and publicizing attendance data, as León has done, is the first step in combating absenteeism. Now, some district leaders are calling for the next phase of work to begin — analyzing why so many students are missing class and taking steps at the district and school level to help get them to school.

“It’s great that we have all this great data,” Newark Board of Education member Kim Gaddy said at a board meeting last month. “But if you have the data and you’re not using the data to change the situation, we won’t do any justice to our children in this district.”

Students who missed six or more school days from September through November qualify as chronically absent. If they continue at that pace, they are on track to miss the equivalent of a month or more of school by June. Students who missed 10.5 days or more during those three months count as severely chronically absent.

Attendance from Sept. to Nov. 2018. | Green = absent 0-2.5 days | Yellow = absent 3-5.5 days | Orange = absent 6-10 days | Red = absent 10.5 or more days. | Credit: Newark Public Schools

The early data show that Newark’s long-standing absenteeism patterns are continuing. The chronic absenteeism rates over the past three months were about the same as in 2016, according to the data.

The problem remains most acute among the district’s youngest and oldest students: 41 percent of pre-kindergarteners were chronically absent this November, as were 45 percent of 12th-graders. At least a third of students at five high schools — Barringer, Central, Malcolm X Shabazz, Weequahic, and West Side — were severely chronically absent last month.

While absenteeism rates varied among schools, they tended to be highest in the city’s impoverished South Ward.

“I’m concerned particularly about the South Ward,” Gaddy said at the Nov. 20 board meeting. “That’s where our children need the most assistance.”

León, a former principal who became schools chief on July 1, has already taken some early steps to improve attendance.

His most visible effort was a back-to-school campaign called “Give Me Five,” where he ordered every district employee to call five families before the first day of school. The campaign, for which León himself recorded robocalls to families, appears to have made a difference: 91 percent of students showed up the first day, the highest rate of the past four years, according to district data. (In 2013, when former Superintendent Cami Anderson launched her own attendance campaign, about 94 percent of students attended school the first day.)

The district also eliminated some early-dismissal days, which typically have low attendance. And students with mid-level test scores whom León has targeted for extra support have had better attendance this year than their peers, officials said.

Attendance in Nov. 2018 | Green = 0-0.5 days absent | Yellow = 1-1.5 days absent | Orange = 2-2.5 days absent | Red = 3 or more days absent | Credit: Newark Public Schools

However, León hit a snag trying to enact the crux of his attendance plan — reinstating more than 40 attendance counselors whom Anderson laid off years ago to cut costs. The state’s civil service commission has said the district must offer the jobs to the laid-off counselors before hiring anyone new, León told the board — forcing the district to track down former employees who, in some cases, have moved to different states. Only eight counselors have been hired to date, but León said he hopes to fill the remaining positions next month.

Meanwhile, León is arguing that some of the responsibility for improving attendance falls on families. At November’s board meeting, he said some parents and guardians “believe that, in fact, they can keep their children home” from school. At a parent conference this month, he took that message directly to families.

“I don’t care if school ends at 10 and they’re only going to come for an hour, and half an hour is on a bus,” he told several hundred parents who showed up for the daylong summit. “When I tell you that your child is coming to school, it’s your job to make sure the child comes to school.”

Afterwards, several parents and school employees said they welcomed León’s tough talk on attendance.

“It was about parents ensuring kids are in school and they are doing good,” said Bilikis Oseni, who has a child in first grade at Camden Street School. “Attendance is very key.”

Still, Newark families face many obstacles in getting their children to school, according to a 2016 report on chronic absenteeism among young students. Parents cited a lack of school busing, asthma and other childhood health problems, and work schedules that make it hard to drop off their children in the morning. High school students listed uninspiring classes, mental-health challenges, and safety concerns when traveling to school as reasons why they don’t show up, according to a 2017 report.

At the November board meeting, several members asked León whether he planned to dig deeper into the causes of absenteeism.

“I was looking through all the statistics here in the packet,” said Andre Ferreira, the board’s student representative, who attends Science Park High School. “But there were none that looked towards having a survey of students themselves telling you why they aren’t coming to school.”

León noted that he held forums with high-school students in September where he stressed the importance of showing up. He also said he has a student-only email address that some students have used to explain why they miss school.

“So I’m gathering data that lets me know why a particular student in fact hasn’t been to school,” he said. “Ultimately, we would have to do that for every single student, in every classroom, in every grade, in every school. That’s really the work — and it’s hard to do.”

Peter Chen, who co-authored the two reports on chronic absenteeism in Newark, said the superintendent had taken a crucial first step by raising awareness about the city’s attendance challenges. The district also appears to be sharing attendance data more regularly with schools, he said.

The next step is for the district to help schools identify and assist students who are chronically absent. The central office can do that by sharing effective attendance strategies, training school workers on how to support students’ social and emotional well-being, and offering grants to fund schools’ own attendance campaigns, he added.

“This is something that requires tailored, school-level responses,” said Chen, who is a policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “The district can help support some of that — but it’s not something that’s easy to impose from on high.”

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

As Indiana’s teacher pay debate heats up, some lawmakers say schools spend too much outside the classroom

PHOTO: Allen Underwood, Courtesy of Wayne Township Schools
A teacher helps a student during classroom instruction at McClelland Elementary School.

Facing a tight budget year and widespread calls for teacher pay raises, some Indiana politicians are questioning whether school districts are spending too little of the funding that they already receive in the classroom and too much on administration.

The lawmakers point to statistics from the Office of Management and Budget showing that 57 percent of the $11.9 billion state dollars schools spent in 2016 were used in the classroom. And a report using data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows personnel hiring across the country has dramatically outpaced enrollment, with non-teacher hiring dwarfing that of full-time teachers.

“While the number of teachers and students in our public schools have essentially flatlined, administration and non-teaching staff have ballooned,” House Speaker Brian Bosma, a Republican from Indianapolis, told fellow lawmakers in November.

But school districts — eager to receive more money for teacher pay increases that will make them competitive with neighboring states — are pushing back on the characterization that they aren’t using funding as efficiently or responsibly as possible. Trimming administrative payroll alone won’t be enough to raise money for higher teacher salaries.

“When people make broad brush stroke comments about funding, it’s easy to take a shot at administrators,” said Flora Reichanadter, superintendent of Pike Township schools. “There’s this misconception … that (districts) just kind of squandered their money, which is an absolutely inaccurate statement.”

But just figuring out how much of what Indiana spends on schools directly affects students is a complicated endeavor — and figuring out what share goes solely to teachers is even harder. We know that in 2015, the most recent year available, 38 percent of Indiana’s K-12 staff members were full-time teachers. But Rep. Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee, said Indiana can’t isolate teacher salaries and benefits from those of other licensed educators in order to see how much schools and districts spend on them alone.

“Part of our discussion has been trying to isolate those numbers and trying to figure out exactly what that is,” Behning said. “We’ve had difficulty getting data … The fact that teacher by definition is not just a classroom instructor, but could be a librarian or any number of things.”

During last month’s ceremonial first day of the legislative session, Bosma said lawmakers and education advocates, including the state teachers unions, were working on a plan to ensure teacher raises are part of the state’s next two-year budget — mirroring efforts underway to raise teacher pay across the nation. Gov. Eric Holcomb said he also plans to address teacher compensation — in the short- and long-term — though it’s not yet clear whether that means any action in 2019.

But numerous interests are fighting for limited state budget dollars this year, so lawmakers are scrutinizing how existing state funds are being spent by school districts.

“I think we need to have an open discussion about how do we have efficiencies and drive dollars to the classroom,” Behning said. “There’s no question there are things we can do … how do we do more to streamline the operations of the system?”

As an example of cost savings, Behning said that many districts, some of them small and rural, have their own bus depots and maintenance teams — services that could be combined with other districts or cities and towns to reduce spending.

A 2017 report from EdChoice, a national pro-school choice organization based in Indianapolis, criticized school districts for increasing spending on non-teaching staff instead of using the dollars on teacher salaries. Marty Lueken, director of fiscal policy and analysis for EdChoice, questions whether that has helped students.

“Whenever I hear someone say that schools are struggling with large classes, or need more resources for schools or classrooms, or teachers should be paid more, I think about these hiring practices,” he added. “We could have had those other things, like smaller classes or higher take-home pay for teachers, if district leaders made different personnel decisions.”

But only looking at staffing and comparing spending on full-time teachers and to spending on non-teacher leaves a lot out of the picture, said Dennis Costerison, executive director for the Indiana Association of School Business Officials. On its face, that comparison underestimates what schools spend on other adults, such as counselors and principals, who work directly with students, and part-time instructors, who are often cheaper and easier to hire than full-time educators.

“Administrator,” too, is a finicky term, Costerison said. Sometimes, the term includes department heads, who might also be full-time teachers.

Money not spent on teacher salaries also funds resources necessary to ensuring clean and safe schools, such as custodians, accountants, human resources staff, and school safety officers.

Reichanadter, who previously led Franklin Township schools, said school funding has not kept pace with the cost of living, and even if it had, cutting administrative positions isn’t enough to add up to teacher raises.

“There’s only so much you can cut,” she said. “There’s only one of me. There’s 500 teachers. Divide my salary up between 500 teachers and we’re talking about maybe a cup of coffee.”

Administrators, she cautions, also do work that otherwise would fall to principals or teachers, who should be spending their time in the classroom or guiding instructions, she said, not doing payroll or buying supplies. And while some administrative work seems far removed from student learning, the tasks add up to an environment and a system where learning can be the priority, she said. Plus, she added, some non-teaching roles have naturally increased as schools have added services for vulnerable students, such as nurses, occupational therapists, and interpreters.

“It’s ludicrous for some of the legislators to conclude that we didn’t pay attention to this,” Reichanadter said. “I have to be a really good steward of my resources because if I don’t and I don’t compete with my local area, then I’m going to lose teachers and have a lot of turnaround … and that affects learning.”

Costerison added that a portion of a district’s non-teaching costs are the result of mandates made by the very legislature that is critiquing school spending, such as requirements around school safety, testing, and teacher training.

“Whenever bills are passed and laws are enacted, some of them do have repercussions from the standpoint of additional staffing and additional responsibilities for administrators and teachers,” Costerison said.

The state’s most recent 2016 report on classroom spending from the Office of Management and Budget estimates about 57 percent of state dollars go to the classroom — a figure that includes teacher and principal salaries, dollars spent on materials and textbooks, and pay for counselors and similar staff. But that percentage not spent on classrooms includes funding that state law currently says can’t be spent on instruction, Costerison said.

Those off-limits categories include money for building maintenance and debt service — money that, until changes in the state laws about district budgeting take effect next year, couldn’t go toward teacher salaries even if districts wanted.

Lawmakers will have a tough time come January deciding which funding asks to prioritize in the face of shrinking state revenue and several urgent competing issues, including the need to better fund the Department of Child Services.

“When you look at the revenue that exists, the funding, quite frankly, isn’t there at the moment,” said Sen. Jeff Raatz, the new chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “The reality is that we have some significant hurdles we have to overcome to get where we need to go.”