the education agenda

Looking beyond pre-K, de Blasio unveils wide-ranging education agenda with big goals

Every year, about 120 Colorado children are hospitalized because of falls from playground equipment. All photos from Tom Peeples.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s agenda-setting speech Wednesday could have been titled: What comes after pre-K? In a word, his answer was college.

After the mayor’s widely heralded expansion of full-day pre-kindergarten, which accompanied the launch of a turnaround program for struggling schools and a reorganization of the education department, many critics and parents were waiting for a clear vision for improving the rest of the school system.

In his speech at a high-performing Bronx high school, de Blasio sought to offer one, saying that his disparate school initiatives would operate in tandem to propel students toward college.

After pre-K, new programs will ensure students can read fluently by third grade and take algebra by ninth grade. In high school, every student will have access to advanced courses and help with college applications. And at all levels, students will learn the basics of computer science, which should make them more competitive as college applicants and job seekers.

The end goal of the these efforts — which are expected to cost $186 million annually when fully in place — is that a decade from now 80 percent of students will graduate high school each year and two-thirds will leave prepared for college-level work, the mayor said. Today, 68 percent of students graduate within four years, and less than half are considered ready for college classes.

[Read more about the specific initiatives, and their timelines, here.]

The speech seemed to strike the right chords. Observers said it balanced ambitious targets with student-focused initiatives that filled in policy gaps and are likely to appeal to parents and outside partners, such as technology companies and philanthropists.

“We can finally see a working vision for school reform taking shape under Mayor de Blasio’s leadership,” said Zakiyah Ansari, a public-school parent and advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education, in one of dozens of statements from advocates, businesspeople, and politicians that City Hall sent to reporters.

Still, the policy speech came with a heap of caveats and questions.

Most of the new programs won’t launch until next fall — after state lawmakers will have had to decide whether or not to extend his control over the city school system — and he will be out of office by the time his 2026 graduation deadline arrives.

Will the city be able to pull off the new programs, which will require extensive teacher hiring and training along with philanthropic funding? And even if the efforts go as planned, will they guarantee that students read proficiently and graduate high school in record numbers?

“Those are lovely goals,” said New York University research professor Leslie Santee Siskin, “but it would take a lot of work and reconfiguring of practice to make them reachable.”

The essence of de Blasio’s new agenda, he said, was summed up in the giant banner that hung over him in the Bronx Latin auditorium Wednesday: “Equity and excellence.” The idea is to improve the quality of all city schools, while making sure every student has access to the same learning opportunities.

That means that all second-grade students will eventually be able to get help from an on-site reading specialist, all eighth-grade students will be able to take algebra at their schools, and all high-school students will be able to take a range of Advanced Placement courses, according to the mayor’s plan. In addition, all 1.1 million city school students will get a chance to study coding, robotics, and other aspects of computer science.

Kim Nauer, education research director at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, said the mayor made a convincing argument that every school should offer stronger reading, math, and computer programs.

Those “struck me as something that the middle class and upper-middle class have always assumed for their children,” she said. “And so here he’s saying, all kids should have access to this quality of curriculum.”

Still, each program faces formidable challenges.

The city is proposing that within six years the reading specialists, combined with teacher training, will be able to more than double the number of incoming third graders who are proficient readers — from 30 percent today up to 66 percent. At the same time, more than 15,000 more eighth-graders who lack access to algebra classes and nearly 40,000 high-school students without AP options will need to receive them.

Meanwhile, the system-wide computer science classes will require some 5,000 trained teachers, officials estimate. And it will cost $81 million over a decade, with half that amount coming from private sources. So far, only about 30 percent of the private money has been committed, officials said.

Even if the city pulls off the extraordinary amount of hiring, training, and curriculum development that those programs will demand, it’s far from certain that they will lead to a 12-point increase in the graduation rate within a decade.

Aaron Pallas, a sociology and education professor at Teachers College, recalled a national education panel in the 1990s setting the goal of a 90 percent U.S. graduation rate by 2000. By 2013, the rate had hit 81 percent. While Pallas commended de Blasio for setting an ambitious target, he said detailed plans are needed.

“It’s easy to set those kinds of aspirations,” he said. “It’s harder to figure out the specific strategies.”

study says...

One big upside of career and tech programs? They push more kids to graduate

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at Aviation High School in Queens.

As a high school teacher in Pennsylvania, Shaun Dougherty noticed that students in career-focused programs seemed much more engaged than his other students.

Now a researcher, Dougherty set out to see whether data backed up his experience. Could the programs not just prepare students for the workforce, but keep students from dropping out of school?

To find out, Dougherty studied Massachusetts’ 36 vocational and technical high schools, where students alternate between academic coursework and full-time work in areas like auto repair, graphic design, and machine technology. What he found was striking: At those schools, students were substantially more likely to graduate high school than similar peers at typical high schools.

“The intention for CTE is to help with skill development for long-term career and earnings potential,” said Dougherty, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut. “The fact that it’s having this payoff on high school graduation is a positive, but perhaps unintended, consequence.”

Career and technical programs can come with downsides, too — in particular, offering training in skills that may eventually become obsolete or devalued. But the new research bolsters the academic case for the programs, a rare education initiative that carries bipartisan imprimatur.

In the study, published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Education Finance and Policy, Dougherty finds that the career and tech high school students came out far ahead of similar students on a number of metrics.

In addition to being 21 percentage points more likely to graduate high school, students from low-income families scored slightly higher on standardized tests. Graduation rates were also higher for higher-income students, though they did not see any test-score gains.

Those are encouraging results. Still, it’s possible that the students who chose to attend the vocational high schools were more motivated than their peers to begin with, skewing the results.

Dougherty addresses this by narrowing his lens to just three schools and using a different approach to nail down cause and effect. Using school admissions data, he compares students who just missed the cut-off to earn entry to students who just barely earned a spot — the idea being that the two groups of students are essentially identical.

Again, the results show that the career and technical schools notably increase the chances of graduating high school for both higher- and low-income students: by 7 to 10 percentage points and possibly more. In this case, there was no clear effect on test scores.

The approaches in tandem suggest Massachusetts’ career-focused high schools really do boost graduation rates.

That’s consistent with recent studies on career and tech programs in a variety of settings. Analyses of data from Philadelphia and Wake County, North Carolina found that students who randomly won a chance to attend a career-focused high school were more likely to graduate high school and attend college.  

Other research by Dougherty has found that students in Arkansas who took several career-focused courses in one focus area are more likely to graduate than similar students who don’t. And using national data, two other recent studies found that students who took more CTE courses, particularly later in high school, were also more likely to graduate on time, compared to demographically similar students. (Keep in mind, though, that these studies are less able to clearly isolate cause and effect.)

That research generally doesn’t show clear positive effects on math and reading test scores — but the students also don’t find negative effects, which to Dougherty is an encouraging sign.

“One of the classic concerns with vocational and technical education is that by specializing in an area of training you might be trading off general knowledge,” he said. “You wouldn’t necessarily expect their test scores to be higher, but we might worry that they would be lower.”

The reason for the career and technical schools’ particular success is unclear. It could be that CTE programs are particularly effective at boosting non-academic skills like grit — or that students benefit from peers all motivated to participate in the same program.

Dougherty suggests that students may benefit from being able to select a school or program that’s a good fit for them. He also points to the specific regional structure of CTE schools in Massachusetts, where the “learning environment may make learning more relevant and engaging, while simultaneously reducing the stigma associated with participating in CTE, and providing better mentorship opportunities.”

Still, Dougherty cautions that the positive finding doesn’t necessarily mean that policymakers should rush to expand the programs. One concern is that growing such offerings could actually train too many students for a small pool of specific jobs. Another is that it’s not clear what makes a high-quality program.

“I’m very skeptical that we know exactly how to scale it well,” Dougherty said.

career oriented

Newark looks to build school-to-work ‘pipeline’ by boosting vocational education

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Monique Baptiste-Good (left), vice president of programs for Newark Alliance, and Erin Sweeney, executive director of Schools That Can Newark, helped launch a new coalition devoted to expanding vocational education in Newark.

Newark has an employment problem — and the school district wants to help.

While more than half of jobs in the city pay more than $40,000 annually, just 10 percent of those jobs go to Newark residents. Instead, most Newarkers have lower-paying jobs, while about 8 percent are unemployed.

The mayor has targeted local employers, challenging them last year to hire 2,020 Newark residents by 2020. Now, the school system is focused on the other side of the equation: training workers. employees.

“We can hire more Newark residents,” said interim schools Superintendent Robert Gregory, “but we need to make sure that they’re prepared for the positions that they step into.”

To do that, Newark Public Schools is looking to strengthen and expand its vocational programs — also called “career and technical education,” or CTE — that provide students with in-demand job skills and sometimes even college credit by the time they graduate high school. Many Newark high schools advertise programs in fields ranging from carpentry and engineering to cosmetology and the performing arts, but some disappeared after teachers left and many are not recognized by the state.

Gregory said he wants to “revamp” the district’s vocational offerings so that there’s a “seamless pipeline” from schools to jobs — whether students choose to enter the workforce right after high school, attend college, or get specialized job training. To oversee the effort, the district recently brought on Chamiris Mantrana, a former teacher and vice principal at Technology High School who began her career as a chemical engineer. She said that, just a few years ago, vocational education got scant attention from the district.

“Then all of a sudden,” Mantrana said, “we’re back again.”

It won’t be easy to shore up the district’s vocational programs. Many schools struggle to find qualified teachers with up-to-date industry skills, and to offer programs matched to the demands of local employers. Meanwhile, the county-run vocational and technical, or “vo-tech,” schools offer selective programs that lure away many of the district’s top students.

To help navigate those challenges, the district has joined a new coalition of Newark industry and education leaders called the Newark CTE Network. The group, which hopes to steer more students into high-quality vocational programs, held its first meeting Monday.

It was founded after regional employers complained that they couldn’t find workers for “middle-skill” jobs — electricians, dental hygienists, or crane operators, for instance — that require specialized skills but not four-year college degrees, said Monique Baptiste-Good, vice president of programs for Newark Alliance, who co-founded the network with the nonprofit, Schools That Can Newark. At the same time, many schools are unsure what types of vocational programs to offer, Baptiste-Good added.

“Right now, a lot of institutions are just researching online,” she said. “There’s no reason for that when you’ve got industry leaders right here.”

The network’s inaugural meeting was held in the downtown offices of the Newark Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes the city’s economic revitalization. About a dozen people gathered in a sixth-floor conference room including Mantrana, her counterparts at the county and the state education department, and representatives of local education-focused nonprofits and employers.

Most agreed that a top challenge is attracting qualified teachers, who must have a special CTE certificate issued by the state. Individuals who have studied or worked in certain industries can get provisional teaching certificates, but they must then undergo two years of classroom supervision and coursework to become fully certified.

Convincing skilled workers to switch to a lower-paid profession with a demanding certification process all to teach teenagers is not easy, several people said. Dicxiana Carbonell, assistant superintendent of the Essex County vo-tech district, which serves about 2,200 students across four high schools and adult-education programs, said she recently interviewed a prospective automotive-technology teacher. An automotive technician for BMW, the interviewee’s current salary topped $150,000.

“How do we compete with that?” she said.

The difficulty of finding qualified teachers can lead schools to offer vocational courses based on their teachers’ certifications, rather than employer demands. Gregory, the interim superintendent, said the district has “a lot of archaic CTE programs that are not mapped to current industries.”

And while several of the system’s roughly 15 high schools offer CTE classes in areas including dentistry, the performing arts, and telecommunications, only a handful have programs that meet the state’s stringent requirements, said Mantrana, who became the district’s special assistant for CTE earlier this year. (The requirements include at least three sequential courses, a combination of classroom and hands-on learning experiences, and a culminating skills assessment.)

The district is looking to create more state-approved programs, which would make them eligible to receive federal funding that could be used to buy updated equipment and curriculum materials. Officials want those programs to tap into local job markets. For instance, Gregory said, the district is launching a transportation and logistics program that could help prepare students to work at the nearby ports, which have been criticized for hiring few local workers.

To design the new programs, the district has turned to local universities such as Rutgers and New Jersey Institute of Technology. It has also partnered with the group Schools That Can Newark, a nonprofit focused on real-world learning.

A couple years ago, the group helped West Side High School build an advanced manufacturing program from scratch — a labor-intensive process that involved finding a curriculum, setting up mentoring and internship opportunities, and establishing an advisory committee with industry representatives.

Now the group is partnering with other high schools, advising the district on its CTE strategy, and helping lead the Newark CTE Network. Its goal is for every Newark high-school student to have the chance to take high-quality vocational classes that lead to well-paying jobs, said Erin Sweeney, the group’s executive director.

“You should have employers that are lined up,” she said, “ready to grab those kids when they graduate.”