Alternate Route

School without Regents exams says mayor should spread its model

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Students at City-As-School High School, which is a member of the New York Performance Standards Consortium. The Consortium will help run one of the new "affinity groups."

Hunched-over high school students across the city will be shading in multiple-choice bubbles and dashing off essays next week as they take the state Regents exams.

But last Friday, students at City-As-School High School in Manhattan offered a very different vision of assessment.

During a student-organized conference meant to showcase the school’s instructional model, students read monologues from the point of view of Chinese immigrants, screened documentaries they had produced on gun violence and harassment, argued for changes to the city’s school-discipline policies, and described internships where they had cared for injured animals and assisted kindergarten teachers.

Such projects stand in for tests at City-As-School, which is one of more than two-dozen city high schools that have state permission to tie graduation to student work instead of Regents-exam scores.

As Mayor de Blasio promises a school system that relies less on standardized tests and more on portfolio-style assessments, students and staff at City-As-School suggested Friday that their school could serve as a model. At the same time, the school’s experience may hint at some of the difficulties of moving away from traditional tests.

“I feel like now is our moment, because there is so much dissatisfaction about standardized testing,” said John Antush, who teaches a class called “Economics and Education.” “I think the world is on our side.”

City-As-School, a four-decade-old public school for older students who transferred out of other high schools, is a member of the New York Performance Standards Consortium. The consortium is a longstanding coalition of 28 high schools (all but two are in the city) with state waivers that allow their students to complete intensive projects rather than take the Regents exams (except for English, which they still must pass).

The consortium enjoys the backing of the city’s teachers union and education department, which has lobbied the state to let 22 additional city schools that have been trained in the consortium’s assessment model also skip the Regents tests.

While de Blasio hasn’t explicitly cited the consortium model, he too has called for more schools to use student-work portfolios to assess student learning.

Students in Antush’s economics class, who organized Friday’s event, said de Blasio should apply elements of their school’s model, which they call “performance-based education,” throughout the school system. They made petitions to that effect, which they plan to deliver to City Hall.

Classes at the City-As-School are ungraded. Instead, if students meet the class requirements and complete a culminating project, they earn credit.

To graduate, they must earn 40 class credits, pass the English Regents exam, and complete a portfolio. The portfolio includes an internship report that involved research, a literary essay, science experiment, math project, career plan, and a college application.

When students choose to include projects in their graduation portfolios, they must defend them before evaluation panels that can include teachers from other consortium schools. The projects are evaluated according to rubrics used by the entire consortium.

Alexandra Garcia, 18, transferred to City-As-School in September from Brooklyn Technical High School, where she said she struggled to keep up with the heavy workload. She said that while City-As-School is “not as hard” overall, the portfolios can be more demanding than traditional tests.

“I think it’s actually a little harder to stand in front of a group of people and talk about what you wrote and know it well enough to prove your point,” she said. “You can’t just guess.”

Because teachers are freed from having to cover all the material that might appear on the state exams, they can design courses that explore particular topics in depth, such as transcendentalism or immigration, students and staff said.

The school’s defining feature — and the source of its name — is its focus on real-world learning. Students spend up to 20 hours and two to three days per week interning at about 300 different sites, according to Principal Alan Cheng.

Those sites range from bakeries and flower shops to museums, law offices, and hospitals. Unlike at most high schools, students earn academic credit for the unpaid internships if they complete all the requirements, including the final reports.

“You learn so much hands-on that you take back with you,” said Jennifer Matos, 17, who interned at a wildlife rehabilitation center. “If you’re learning in a school environment, just learning definitions, you don’t remember that.”

But if City-As-School reveals the benefits of a hands-on, mostly test-free model of learning, it suggests some of the challenges as well.

First, the amount of academic content students glean from their internships — which they describe in reports that can go in their graduation portfolios — seems to vary widely according to the sites they choose.

Also, the school’s deep-dive classes miss out on some of the breadth of material covered by classes subject to the state tests.

And while students’ graduation portfolio work is judged by panels using the consortium-wide rubrics, they may still enjoy some flexibility in grading not afforded to students who must pass the state’s standardized tests.

“It is somewhat subjective,” Antush said about the school’s grading system.

While City-As-School’s experiential learning model has attracted the interest of other districts, the school earned a C on its most recent progress report and an F in the section that factors in credit accumulation, attendance trends, and scores on the English Regents exam.

Cheng said a recent quality review of the school, which commends its environment and leadership, offers a fuller picture of the school. But the staff is also “actively working to make improvements” in the areas cited by the progress report, he said.

He also said City-As-School graduates who go to college tend to remain enrolled at higher rate than graduates of other transfer schools — mirroring higher-than-average college persistence rates for consortium graduates as a whole.

Cheng said those rates stem from the consortium’s teaching and assessment model.

“It certainly is a higher standard,” he said, which, “more closely replicates the kind of skills students will need once they leave high school.”

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.