Future of Schools

Deputy mayor praises KIPP founder as some collaboration efforts continue

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
KIPP co-founder Dave Levin

Buery, a charter school founder himself, gave a warm introduction to Dave Levin on Tuesday, noting that one of his favorite books is “Work Hard. Be Nice.,” which chronicles Levin’s early days as a teacher and founder of KIPP, which started in Houston and is now the country’s largest charter school network.

Buery’s comments, made Tuesday at an event for district and charter school educators, serves as a reminder that the de Blasio administration’s position on charter schools is more nuanced than how it is often portrayed by pro-charter advocacy groups. Sometimes that perception is fueled by officials’ own comments, such as when de Blasio said he wasn’t going to support lifting the city’s charter school cap or when Chancellor Carmen Fariña recently suggested that some charter schools were inappropriately recruiting and pushing out students.

After Buery’s introduction, Levin gave an abbreviated version of his online course on character education to about 150 teachers and principals. The two-hour session was the latest example of a charter school leader stepping into the role of district school collaborator, something Chancellor Carmen Fariña has encouraged during her time at the department. Last month, Uncommon Schools hosted an all-day professional development conference tailored to district principals and teachers and, in October, Success Academy took visitors on a tour at two of its Harlem schools in the morning and hosted workshops in the afternoon.

NYC Collaborates, which hosted the event, emerged from the District-Charter Collaboration Compact, signed in 2010 by then-Chancellor Joel Klein amid the rapid expansion of charter schools during the Bloomberg administration. (Klein offered a less enthusiastic view of collaboration as a tool for improving the school system at an event promoting his book on Wednesday. “We’re not going to change it by kumbaya, building a bigger tent,” he said.)

Fariña serves on the board of the New York City Charter School Center, which operates NYC Collaborates, but was with de Blasio at an announcement about high school football safety during the event.

Most of Levin’s presentation explored the different ways school staff members can respond to the small interactions that make up a school day. One exercise called on participants to brainstorm ways to reinforce what he calls “positive psychology,” which prompted one teacher to say he wanted to say ‘good morning’ more often and another to say she would smile more while giving instructions.

In the video below, Levin demonstrates how a teacher should and should not react when a student gets stumped by a math problem.

the fight continues

New York officials vow to keep fighting for controversial testing rules after federal agency rejects them

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School.

Days after federal officials denied New York’s request to create special testing rules for students with disabilities and those still learning English, the state’s education chief vowed to keep up the fight.

New York is “not giving up” on its requests, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said during a state Board of Regents meeting on Monday. She added that state education officials are scheduled to speak with their counterparts at the federal education department later this month, when they will ask the federal officials to reverse their decision.

“We will continue to make the case that we believe that this is something important in New York,” she said.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education rejected New York’s request for two waivers related to the state’s annual standardized tests for students in grades 3 to 8. One would have allowed some students with severe disabilities to take tests below their grade level, while the other would give students who recently arrived in the country and are still learning English additional time before their English scores are counted in school ratings.

The state submitted the waiver requests alongside a plan they were required to create under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act. The waivers quickly became one of the most controversial aspects of the state’s submission, which the federal agency approved after making some relatively minor changes.

Some advocates for students with disabilities — and the New York City education department — have raised concerns about the waivers. They say that testing students below grade level would violate federal law, and would lower expectations of students with serious disabilities.

But state officials say that testing those students at their instructional level, rather than their age, would provide schools with more useful data about what they have actually learned. They add that the waiver would only affect a small group of students, and argue that it is unfair to give students tests they have no real chance of passing.

Board of Regents member Roger Tilles suggested New York should make the case for the testing waiver by analyzing what happens to students with disabilities when they take tests that surpass their ability level.

“What it does to those kids is put them on a pipeline to all kinds of problems,” Tilles said at Monday’s meeting.

'rigorous and realistic'

Some struggling New York City schools can lose ground and still hit performance targets

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

Despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious promise to transform struggling schools, some of New York City’s bottom-ranked schools can backslide this year and still hit new goals that the city has set for them.

For the first time, the city has told schools in its $582 million “Renewal” program to aim for test scores, graduation rates, or attendance rates that fall within a certain range, rather than hit a specific target. But some ranges include goals that are below the schools’ current levels.

For instance, Bronx Collegiate Academy posted a 67 percent graduation rate last year. This year, its city-issued goal is to land between 63.6 and 81.9 percent — meaning its graduation rate can go down and still fall within its target range.

At the Bronx’s J.H.S. 123, the goal is for students to earn an average score on the state English tests of between 2.3 and 2.45 — despite already achieving a 2.42 average last year. (Students must earn a 3 or higher on the 4-point scale to be considered proficient.)

The latest round of goals continues a pattern of modest targets for schools in de Blasio’s signature school-turnaround program, even as the city loads them with extra social services, extended hours, and bigger budgets. Some experts say the goals are appropriate for schools that started so far behind, and note that school turnaround can take years. But others say the goals set a low bar, and question whether they are designed to make it easier for the de Blasio administration to claim its pricey program was a success.

What’s more, the new goal ranges have created some confusion among school leaders about what they are expected to achieve and what will happen if they don’t.

“If [the goals] really are supposed to be guiding stars and shaping what schools are doing on a day-to-day basis,” said Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas, “fuzzy ranges with unclear accountability consequences is not the way to do it.”

The goals are one of the factors officials consider when deciding whether schools in the Renewal program have made sufficient progress or should instead be closed or merged with other schools.

But if they are meant to provide low-performing schools with clear targets and a sense of urgency, the new ranges have instead created some confusion. The city offered online trainings on the goals, but some school leaders remain unsure of what’s expected of them.

“What we’ve been told is: ‘You need to reach for the upper range of your benchmark,’ said an administrator at a Brooklyn Renewal school, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It’s not a fixed number, so what’s good enough and what isn’t?”

Eric Ashton, the education department’s executive director for accountability, acknowledged that the new goal ranges had left some people confused.

Still, he defended them as “rigorous and realistic,” and said schools are expected to aim for the upper end of the range. The ranges are meant to encourage schools to focus on making progress rather than fixating on a single number, he added

“If you just have one number as a target then it’s all or nothing,” Ashton said. “We don’t want it to be all or nothing.”

The tweaks partially reflect the political dilemma the education department faces when assigning goals to the city’s lowest-performing schools: Overly modest goals could invite criticism that such small gains do not justify the program’s hefty price tag, while overly ambitious goals could set the program up for failure.

Yet despite their caution, officials have fallen into both traps.

Early goals they set for Renewal schools required such slight improvements that a top state official called them “ridiculous.” Still, many schools have failed to meet those goals, providing ammunition to some critics who say the program has been a costly disappointment.

Some schools have made strides, including a group of 21 “Rise” schools that officials say have made enough progress to begin transitioning out of the Renewal program. Pallas, the Teachers College professor, said that officials may have assigned achievable goals to the program’s remaining schools as a way to ease even more out — raising questions about the city’s long-term plans for the program.

“Setting low targets could allow the department to shift more of the schools to the Rise category, which is the declaring-victory category,” he said. “I think we’re all still wondering what the future of this program is going to be.”