accountability absence

Under de Blasio, no measures of success or failure for schools serving the neediest kids

(Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)

Thousands of families were left wondering how well their children’s schools are performing this week after the city released new school report cards — but left out schools serving the city’s neediest students.

Together, the schools enroll as many students as the city of Buffalo. Yet they have not received public report cards since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office nearly two years ago, even though the same schools received yearly progress reports under the previous administration.

Schools that have now been left out of two rounds of annual reports include “transfer” schools, which enroll drop-outs and students who fell far behind at traditional high schools, and schools in District 75, which serve students with severe disabilities at over 300 sites across the city. Together, the two groups of schools enroll roughly 35,000 students.

“There’s no information for you to make your own assessments outside of visiting the schools in person,” said Lori Podvesker, a policy manager at INCLUDEnyc, a support agency for young people with disabilities, and whose son attends a District 75 school in Manhattan. “That’s so fundamentally wrong.”

Most city schools were issued two public reports Tuesday: a “snapshot” for parents and a “guide” for educators. The reports include key school data, including test scores, graduation rates, and the results of parent and teacher surveys.

The reports are designed to hold schools publicly accountable for their results and to help families decide where to enroll their children. They are also meant to give schools “a set of urgent priorities on which to focus improvement efforts,” as an education department press release put it.

An education department spokeswoman said the city is still deciding how to fairly measure the performance of transfer and District 75 schools, since they serve such challenging populations. In the meantime, the most recent report cards available for those schools date from 2013 — before de Blasio took office.

“You’re sort of letting those schools off the hook in terms of any accountability measures,” said Kim Nauer, education research director at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. The need to come up with fair metrics for those schools should not keep them waiting indefinitely for reports, she added.

“Parents need them,” she said, “and the schools need to know that people are looking at their results.”

The city began issuing schools annual “progress reports” in 2007 under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The reports, which assigned schools A-to-F letter grades, were used to reward top-ranked schools and to identify some low-performers for closure.

District 75 schools initially did not get reports, but within a few years the city designed modified reports for those schools that used different metrics. For instance, transfer schools were rated partly by how many students graduate within six years of entering high school — not four years, like traditional high schools. Both groups of schools were judged in comparison to how well other schools were doing that served the same types of students.

On the campaign trail, de Blasio promised to remove the letter grades from school reports and replace them with more nuanced metrics. Soon after he took office, his new schools chief, Carmen Fariña, said during a conference for city educators that the new administration would also find a fairer way to assess transfer schools, according to Erin Santana, a transfer school employee who attended the 2014 conference.

As promised, de Blasio’s revamped school reports did not feature letter grades when they were introduced last fall. But transfer schools did not receive reports with updated measures — instead, they got no reports at all.

“Fariña definitely stood on the stage and told us to our faces that they were going to change the way they evaluate transfer schools to reflect the population that we serve,” said Santana, who runs a job-readiness program at Aspirations High School, a Brooklyn transfer school. “To my knowledge, that hasn’t happened.”

It is no easy task to find reasonable and valid ways to evaluate these schools, which work with very specific groups of city students. District 75 schools serve students with autism, cognitive delays, and other serious disabilities, many of whom do not take the state’s typical standardized tests. Transfer schools enroll older students who have struggled at traditional high schools or stopped attending school altogether, often because they became caught up in the criminal justice system.

Using normal metrics to rate those schools would likely provide an unfairly negative view of their performance. Since transfer schools have some control over their admissions, it could also discourage them from accepting students who are the least likely to graduate — and who most need their services.

Still, experts say it is possible to come up with fair rating systems for the schools. For instance, District 75 schools could be judged on the progress their students make in reaching their individual learning goals and to what extent they provide students their mandated special-education services.

Meanwhile, the lack of any reports for these schools creates challenges for families who want to monitor how their children’s schools are performing, or who are looking to move a child to a different school. That is especially true for transfer schools, since they each have different admissions criteria. And to make matters more complicated, the city has not published an updated directory for those schools as it has for traditional high schools.

“When a student has to find a transfer school, it’s already a difficult process,” said Ashley Grant, a staff attorney at Advocates for Children. “So to not have all that information in one place is extremely challenging.”

Education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said that parent and teacher surveys are still available for these schools, and that students can also ask their guidance counselors for help. She added that the schools have “unique challenges,” and that the department is working with educators to find a way to a fair and accurate way to evaluate them.

Update: Kaye sent the additional response below after the story was published.

She pointed out that former Mayor Bloomberg did not introduce progress reports for any schools until five years after taking office, and said those for transfer and District 75 schools were “oversimplified” and did not include measures that matter to parents, such as a school’s social-emotional support for students and its efforts to help them prepare for college or work.

“‎The first full school year of the de Blasio administration was 2014-15 and the data for that school year was available as of September, 2015,” she added in a statement. “We just finished the reports for the largest school types and we are working on developing the first fair and useful reports for the other school types to best inform students, parents, educators and community members.”

headcount

New York City school workforce grows, driven by 40 percent rise in teaching assistants

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A teaching assistant worked with a pre-K student in East Harlem in 2014.

New York City’s public-school workforce grew 8 percent over the past decade, according to a new report, driven largely by the rising number of teaching assistants who work with preschool students and students with disabilities — two populations whose numbers have risen even as overall student enrollment declined.

The education department employed about 131,200 people this June — an increase of 10,200 workers since July 2007, according to an analysis by the city’s Independent Budget Office released Tuesday. The expansion comes even as student enrollment in district-run schools fell by 1.5 percent, or some 15,300 students, during that same period, the report notes.

While the number of teachers remained basically flat during that time, the department added nearly 8,600 additional teaching assistants, or “paraprofessionals,” as they’re known within the school system — an increase of over 40 percent.

“This is a story about the use of paraprofessionals — that’s the main thing,” said Yolanda Smith, a senior IBO analyst who prepared the report.

The majority of the paraprofessionals who were added during that period work with students with disabilities. Teachers union officials attributed the increase to a citywide effort since 2012 to place more students with disabilities in classrooms alongside their general-education peers, often with the support of a paraprofessional. (An education department spokesman said students are assigned paraprofessionals based on their unique needs.)

Nearly 2,000 of the paraprofessionals hired over the past decade work in pre-kindergarten classrooms, which are required to have both an assistant and a teacher. The number of assistants spiked after 2014, when Mayor Bill de Blasio rapidly expanded the city’s pre-K program.

Full-time paraprofessionals with a high school degree earn a starting salary of around $22,000. While the number of paraprofessionals focused on special-education and preschool students grew during this period, those assigned to general-education classrooms declined by roughly 1,100.

At the same time, the ranks of other school workers expanded 22 percent during this 10-year period. Those more than 2,200 additional employees include nurses, occupational and physical therapists, and “parent coordinators,” who answer families’ questions and help organize school events.

The number of teachers, principals, and assistant principals barely budged over that period, adding just over 500 additional workers. Union officials noted that there was a teacher hiring freeze from 2009 to 2014, but said that in recent years any new hires were essentially balanced out by teachers who retired or chose to leave the system.

Education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement: “We’re focused on recruiting and retaining talented staff that meet the needs of New York City students and families.”

Busing Ban

As school districts push for integration, decades-old federal rule could thwart them

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Several districts across the country want to use federal money to pay for school buses as part of their desegregation plans. A federal spending restriction could get in the way.

In Florida, officials plan to use federal money to shuttle students across vast Miami-Dade County to new science-themed magnet programs in a bid to desegregate several schools.

In South Carolina, a tiny district west of Myrtle Beach intends to spend federal funds on free busing for families who enroll at two predominantly black schools, hoping that will draw in white and Hispanic students.

And in New York, state officials want to deploy federal school-improvement money to help integrate struggling schools, believing that may be the secret to their rebirth.

But each of these fledgling integration efforts — and similar ones across the country — could be imperiled by obscure budget provisions written during the anti-busing backlash of the 1970s, which prohibit using federal funding for student transportation aimed at racial desegregation. The rules have been embedded in every education spending bill since at least 1974, as Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia pointed out in September when he tried unsuccessfully to remove the provisions from the latest appropriations bill.

The rules are “a relic of an ugly history when states and school districts across the nation resisted meaningful integration,” said Scott, the top Democrat on the House education committee, during a floor speech where he called the persistence of the rules “morally reprehensible.”

After Scott’s amendment to eliminate the provisions was blocked, advocates are now working behind the scenes to convince members of the Senate from both parties to strike the rules from the latest spending bill during negotiations. More than 40 integration advocates and experts have signed onto a letter to lawmakers calling for the anti-busing language to be removed, and members of that coalition plan to meet with lawmakers in the coming days.

Advocates are especially worried about funding for magnet programs, like those in Miami and the South Carolina district, which rely on special science or art offerings or rigorous academic courses to draw students of different races into the same school — a choice-based approach that has become the primary way districts now pursue desegregation.

This is the first year districts that receive federal magnet-school grants are allowed to spend some of that money on transportation, after Congress changed the rules as part of its education-law overhaul in 2015. Among the 32 districts that received a total of nearly $92 million in magnet grants this year, at least six plan to use some of that money for transportation, according to their applications.

Now, just as those funds are about to flow to busing — which many families insist upon before they will enroll their children in magnet schools across town — the decades-old spending restriction could cut them off, advocates warn.

That could create a major problem for districts like Miami-Dade County.

It hopes to attract students from across the district to three heavily black and Hispanic schools by launching magnet programs that focus on zoology, cybersecurity, and mobile-app development, according to its application. To pull that off, it requested $245,000 for buses next year since, as the application notes, the “most limiting factor” for many families is “the cost associated with transporting their child to the magnet school.”

The district in Lake City, South Carolina wants to pull new families from different neighborhoods into an elementary school and a middle school that suffer from sagging enrollment and intense poverty. Previous recruitment efforts that didn’t provide transportation amounted to “failed attempts,” the district said in its application.

However, if the anti-busing provisions are not removed from the next federal spending bill, they would cancel out the new rule allowing those districts to spend some of their magnet money on transportation (though districts could still use local funds to fill in the gap). As such, magnet-school representatives are pushing hard for lawmakers to remove the provisions during budget negotiations.

“We’re hoping this doesn’t see the light of day,” said John Laughner, legislative and communications manager at Magnet Schools of America, an association of magnets from across the country. He plans to discuss the issue with lawmakers next week.

Beyond magnet schools, other desegregation efforts could be undercut by the anti-busing provision, which was included in a spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that the House approved and one the Senate has yet to vote on.

At least one state — New York — listed socioeconomic and racial integration among the ways it could intervene in low-performing schools under the new federal education law. In addition, New York officials announced a grant program this week where up to 30 districts will receive federal money to develop integration plans.

Advocates fear the anti-busing rule could disrupt any of those plans that require transportation and aim to reduce racial segregation. (New York education officials said they did not want to speculate on the impact of a spending bill that hasn’t been approved.)

A Democratic Congressional aide who has studied the issue said the provision could even block federal funding for planning or public outreach around desegregation programs that involve busing, not just busing itself.

Either way, advocates say the provision could dissuade districts from using the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to pursue integration — even though research suggests that student achievement on tests and other measures improve when they attend less segregated schools.

“We shouldn’t have this,” said Philip Tegeler, a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity, which is leading the charge to remove the restriction. He added that the provision stemmed from mandatory desegregation busing of an earlier era: “It’s clearly an anachronism that doesn’t really fit any more with what states and districts are doing voluntarily.”

A U.S. education department spokeswoman said Secretary Betsy DeVos would be bound to enforce any funding prohibitions that Congress approves, though she noted that state and local funds are not subject to the same restrictions.

Negotiators from the House and Senate must still agree on a single spending bill, which would go before the full Congress for a vote. Until then, lawmakers have voted to temporarily extend 2017 spending levels through December. It’s possible Congress will pass another extension then, meaning a final deal — and a decision on the anti-busing language — may not arrive until early next year.

In the meantime, advocates are pressing lawmakers like Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee who helped craft ESSA, with the argument that the anti-busing provision limits the flexibility and local control the law was meant to provide districts.

Margaret Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the senator, would not say whether he is open to removing the provision, but said he would continue working to ensure ESSA “is implemented as Congress intended.”

The anti-busing language — found in two sections of the current appropriation bills — prohibits using federal funds for transportation “to overcome racial imbalance” or “to carry out a plan of racial desegregation,” or forcing students to attend any school other than the one closest to home. (A separate education law contains a similar restriction, but ESSA exempted magnet schools from it.) The provisions emerged in the early 1970s, just after the Supreme Court ruled that busing students to schools outside their own racially isolated neighborhoods was an appropriate tool for school desegregation.

At the time, many white parents raged against what they called “forced busing.” In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed at least one law annually from 1966 to 1977 meant to curb school integration, according to historian Jason Sokol, and in 1974 the full Congress voted in favor of an anti-busing amendment to an education bill. The restrictions in the current spending bills appear to have originated around the same time.

The attacks on busing reflect how crucial free transportation is to school desegregation, said Erica Frankenberg, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies segregation. Busing was included in guidelines outlining how districts should comply with desegregation requirements in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and later upheld by the Supreme Court, she pointed out.

More recently, studies have shown that non-white parents are more likely to opt into magnet schools when they provide transportation, and that magnets that don’t offer busing are more likely to enroll students of a single race, Frankenberg said. Yet, many politicians remain reluctant to endorse busing for desegregation — which may reflect a deeper ambivalence, she added.

Resistance to busing, she said, “is a very politically acceptable way to be opposed to integration.”