the new deal

New York state says it wants to expand its definition of success — and focus on equity — in judging schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
J.H.S. 162 Lola Rodriguez De Tio, the lone school to face state receivership thus far

New York unveiled a blueprint Monday for education policy under a new federal law, which officials said will help launch the state beyond a narrow focus on test scores when it comes to evaluating schools.

The Every Student Succeeds Act is designed to provide more flexibility for states to decide what makes a school successful and to support schools that don’t meet that bar. New York education officials have said they hope to capitalize on the extra wiggle room – and framed that choice as a statement of values.

“This is a vision plan for New York state,” said Chancellor Betty Rosa at a Board of Regents meeting Monday, where the draft plan was announced. Still, she cautioned, it’s a work in progress. “The road to success is always under construction.”

There are practical constraints that make aspects of this plan similar to its predecessor, No Child Left Behind — most importantly that student achievement is still a prominent feature. But there are also key differences that state officials argue mark a real shift, including a stronger emphasis on student growth and college, career and civic readiness.

New York officials also say the draft plan advances equity by asking schools to report on their resources. That gets at a broader philosophical shift, a statement that accountability involves inputs — or access to resources, qualified teachers, and advanced coursework — rather than just student outcomes.

Rating schools: A dashboard approach, not letter grades

Rather than using one summative rating to indicate school success — like creating an A-F rating system — the draft plan opts for a dashboard approach that will include a number of different metrics.

It’s unclear exactly what the dashboard will look like, but a local example exists in New York City’s online dashboard, where leaders have moved sharply away from an A-F approach and toward providing multiple measures in the form of numbers, charts and graphs.

To add transparency, the state plan would report information about accountability measures on a 1-4 scale. Schools will also be put into one of four broad buckets from most to least successful: Recognition Schools, Schools in Good Standing, Targeted Support and Improvement Schools, or Comprehensive Support and Improvement Schools.

The dashboard approach is part of the Regents’ equity agenda, since it requires reporting information beyond accountability metrics, such as per-pupil spending. The hope is that making that type of information prominent will help diagnose why schools are struggling and encourage the state and schools to address those problems.

“You want high-quality accountability, and part of that accountability is also knowing what you need to do to fix things,” Linda Darling-Hammond, an education expert who advised the state on its plan, said earlier this year. “Because otherwise you’re not being accountable to parents and to children.”

But some believe providing a dashboard, without a more concrete rating system, could be confusing to parents.

“Parents should be able to see a clear rating for the school and for each indicator, along with a dashboard of deeper data,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of EdTrust-NY. “But SED’s draft plan appears to reject the transparency of school and indicator ratings altogether in favor of potentially dozens of individual ratings that, on their own, could cause confusion rather than provide clarity.”

State tests: Experimenting with new models and addressing opt-out

New York wants to apply for a federal program that allows a handful of states to pilot innovative assessments, according to state materials.

That signals New York is interested in revamping standardized tests, but cost will likely remain a major hurdle. State officials expressed concerns about expenses last year, when they learned that the federal pilot program came with no additional funding. This year, the state asked for $8 million from the legislature to pilot project-based assessments this year, but did not get the funding.

The federal law also requires that 95 percent of students participate in state tests, a major sticking point in New York state, where more than 20 percent of families opted out of state tests last year.

The state draft plan says it will require districts and schools with a history of low participation rates to create plans to address the problem, while “recognizing the rights of parents and students.” That will start with a self-assessment for schools that have pattern of frequent opt-outs, but may escalate to more state involvement.

Test scores: Greater emphasis on growth, science, social studies

Unlike No Child Left Behind, which focused on whether all students could reach a certain bar, like a third-grade reading level, this plan is designed to place a stronger emphasis on whether students make progress compared to where they started.
A narrow focus on proficiency leads schools to pay more attention to students close to attaining proficiency and ignore those far behind or far ahead, critics have argued. It can also be unfair for schools that serve high-needs students, since those populations of students often start well below grade-level.

In elementary and middle school, this plan would use one rating for achievement and one for growth. Schools could be targeted for improvement if they fall in the bottom 10 percent of schools on those two metrics combined. (That would avoid identifying schools that have either a lot of high-performing students but a poor growth score, or those that do an excellent job helping students improve over time.) For high schools, graduation rates replace the growth metric.

Also in this plan, the state plans to include social studies, with an emphasis on civics and democracy, at the high school level, along with science scores for elementary, middle and high schools.

Other metrics: Moving beyond test scores

Under ESSA, states get to experiment with a way to judge schools beyond academic achievement and test scores.

New York state, like many others, plans to use chronic absenteeism, defined as missing more than 10 percent or more of enrolled school days, at the elementary and middle school level. Research shows that absenteeism is associated with poor academic outcomes and addressing it can help change a student’s trajectory.

For high schools, the state wants to create a metric for college, career and civic readiness. That new metric would provide more information than a simple graduation rate. It could help distinguish, for instance, between students who graduate, and those who earn a more advanced diploma, or complete career training.

These metrics would come into play if a school is identified as in the bottom 10 percent based on its combined growth and achievement scores. Among those schools, these extra measures would help determine if a school should be targeted for improvement. If a school scores a Level 1 on any category, the school and district must investigate.

Schools would also be judged based on whether they make progress toward long-term goals.

Certain metrics that groups have urged the state to include, like suspension data, were not included in the draft plan as accountability measures. In fact, there is a whole tier of indicators, including school safety and teacher turnover data, that would not be used initially for accountability under this draft plan, either because the state does not currently collect the data or officials thought they could result in misleading conclusions about school success. But state officials said “Tier 2” indicators could be used to rate schools in the future.

Boosting diversity: A new stab at an old problem

At the last meeting, officials suggested they may leverage ESSA to tackle the state’s problem with school segregation.

State materials on Monday indicated the draft plan allows the use Title I School Improvement Funds to increase diversity and address socioeconomic and racial isolation in schools. But it remains unclear what exactly that might look like.

When asked about how schools could use those funds to support diversity, State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said the state will not get a sum of money specifically for integration efforts, but that it may be part of a broader approach to school improvement.

Intervention: Moving from consequences to support

State officials emphasized that they want to move from a culture of consequences toward one of support. They hope to provide technical assistance and evidence-based interventions to schools. If those schools continue to underperform, they would be folded into the state’s receivership program, officials said. That program, however, has been significantly scaled back since it was launched in 2015, and so far, has yielded only one school slated for receivership.

Walk it out

NYC mayor encourages school walkouts in wake of Florida shooting: ‘If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out’

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio

In the wake of a school shooting in Florida that left 17 dead, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said students won’t face serious disciplinary action if they choose to participate in a national school walkout planned for next month to protest gun violence.

“If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out,” de Blasio said Thursday. “This is too important a moment in history to try to hold back the desire of our young people to see fundamental change and to protect themselves.”

Students across the country are planning to walk out of class at 10 a.m. on March 14 “to protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods,” according to a Facebook description of the event.  The protest is scheduled to last 17 minutes, one for each person who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

And unlike one Texas school district, which threatened to slap students with suspensions if they walked out, de Blasio said students would not face serious discipline. “There’s no negative, lasting impact if they do this,” the mayor said.

De Blasio’s tacit endorsement of the walkout comes just days after he announced that schools across the city would deploy more “rapid-response lesson plans” about current events. On Friday, de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that the protests are a “teachable moment.”

We are going to do lesson plans around this issue leading up to that day,” de Blasio said. “We are going to make sure that there’s a real educational impact.”

The city also announced this week that every New York City school will hold a lockdown drill by March 15, and every middle and high school will be subject to at least one random screening with metal detectors this year.

Here’s more on what de Blasio told Lehrer this morning:

For high school students – we are going to be very clear, we want parents to weigh in, to let us know if they are comfortable with a young person walking out. It is supposed to be for 17 minutes. We expect the school day before and after to proceed. For younger folks – middle school, elementary school — the model I’m interested in, we are still working on this, is to have it be within the context of the building, you know to gather in the building for the memorial to the 17 young people lost, 17 people lost I should say. And again that may be silent, that may be with young people speaking, that’s all being worked through.

Speaking Out

Students at Denver’s George Washington High say their voices were unheard in principal selection

PHOTO: Denver Post file

When Shahad Mohieldin learned that students, parents, and teachers at George Washington High School in Denver would have a say in who was named the next principal, the high school senior spent days recruiting representatives from all three groups to participate.

Mohieldin, a member of the school’s advisory board, said she and others worked hard to ensure the group vetting the principal candidates would be diverse. It was important to include students of color and white students, parents who speak English and those who don’t, and teachers of both International Baccalaureate and traditional classes, she said, especially since the high school has been working to heal years-long racial and academic divides.

The students particularly liked one candidate who they said seemed to understand the school’s struggles. He would have also been a leader of color at a school where 70 percent are students of color. Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg ultimately chose a different candidate, a more experienced principal with whom he’d worked closely before.

It was a whirlwind process that took just seven weeks from when the current principal announced his retirement. In the end, Mohieldin and other students said they were left feeling like their voices were ignored.

“We were often told that, ‘Hey, your voice really matters in this. Please, we want your input,’” Mohieldin said. “It really hurts. Now we don’t trust the district as much, which is really sad.”

District leaders said the process was quick but thorough. Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said that while it was clear the students preferred one candidate, the input collected from parents, teachers, and community members was more mixed. The slate of three finalists was unusually strong, she said, and it was not an easy decision.

Kristin Waters, the candidate who was hired, is a former district administrator with years of experience leading a comprehensive Denver high school similar in size to George Washington. The students’ top choice was an assistant principal at East High School named Jason Maclin.

Cordova said she wants to assure students that although district leaders didn’t choose students’ favored candidate, they did consider their opinions.

“It is important to use your voice,” Cordova said. “Sometimes your voice isn’t the only piece of information we look at, but in no way does that mean to stop speaking out.”

Not listening to community feedback is a perennial criticism of Denver Public Schools, and one district leaders are continually trying to address. Recently, several major decisions have been based on recommendations from committees of parents and community members. While the process hasn’t always gone smoothly, the district has followed the community’s advice.

In the case of the George Washington principal selection, the process worked like this: Current principal Scott Lessard announced in mid-December that he’d be retiring at the end of the school year. Lessard has helmed the school for two years, and students and teachers credit him with fostering a sense of unity and a culture of openness to new ideas.

But he said the daily challenges of being a school principal led to his decision.

“I was going to retire at some point,” he said. “It may not have been at the end of this year, but it was going to be soon. The school in such a good place, I thought it was a unique opportunity now to find somebody who would be a good principal.”

The district has a pool of pre-screened principal candidates who are invited to apply for openings as they come up, Cordova said. With every vacancy, the district convenes a committee of parents, teachers, and community members to interview the candidates. In the case of high school principal jobs, the district also asks students to participate.

For George Washington, the district assembled the committee and three separate focus groups, which Mohieldin helped organize: one of parents, one of teachers, and one of students. The groups and the committee interviewed five candidates selected by the district, and based partly on their feedback, district leaders whittled the field to three finalists, Cordova said.

The three finalists then participated in a community forum. Forum attendees were asked to submit written comments on candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, and Cordova said she personally read every single one. She said district leaders also read emails students sent afterward urging the district to pick Maclin. Students said they never received responses to those emails – one reason they felt unheard.

A week after the forum, on Feb. 6, the district announced its decision to hire Waters.

Cordova said she has every confidence that Waters will be “an amazing school leader.” Waters has been principal of three Denver schools: Morey Middle School; Bruce Randolph School, which serves grades six through 12; and South High School, whose demographics are similar to George Washington. More than 300 of the 1,239 students at George Washington are black and more than 400 are Hispanic.

“She has a strong track record working in similar communities,” Cordova said.

Students had some concerns about Waters’ approachability and her seemingly close ties with district leadership; Boasberg was listed as the first reference on her resumé. They said they liked Maclin’s presence, and that he seemed knowledgeable about the school’s past struggles and had concrete ideas for its future. Maclin submitted a proposed plan for his first 100 days as principal that included conducting a listening tour of the school community.

But students said their main complaint is not the outcome but the way the process unfolded.

“The district goes through this whole act of putting on these focus groups and interviews at the school and it’s like, ‘What really came out of that?’” said sophomore Andrew Schwartz. “At this point, it seems like the answer to that question is very little. I think that’s upsetting.”

Schwartz was part of the student focus group that interviewed all five candidates. So was junior Henry Waldstreicher, who noted that students missed an entire day of school to participate.

Waldstreicher said he was also left feeling disillusioned. “Why should we even try to talk to the district if they’re not going to listen to what we’re going to say?” he said.

The perception that the selection process was top-down wasn’t just among the students. Some teachers and community members said they felt the same way.

“We were given the opportunity to give our feedback and then it went into a black box and a decision was made,” said Vincent Bowen, a community member who participates in a student mentoring program at George Washington and was on the selection committee.

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver teachers union, shared those concerns, adding that what happened at George Washington has happened at other schools, too: Candidates, she said, “go through this process, this rigamarole, but the district already knows who they’re going to pick.”

Parent Elizabeth Sopher said she feels district leaders weren’t as transparent as they could have been about what they wanted in a new principal, which she suspects contributed to the disconnect between the students’ top pick and the district’s ultimate decision.

“When you say to a group, ‘You tell us what the most important thing about this new principal is to you,’” she said, but then don’t make a decision based on that, “that’s a mistake.”

For her part, Waters said she’s excited to step into her new role at George Washington. She’s slated to start March 1 and finish out the school year alongside Lessard, a transition plan Cordova said was important to the district and the school community.

Waters said she wants to build a strong relationship with students. To that end, she has already met with a group of them to talk about their concerns.

“Once I get on board, they will see me out and about and hopefully feel comfortable coming up to me and letting me know what they’re thinking,” Waters said. “I want their input.”

Junior Cora Galpern said rebuilding that trust will be crucial. In the future, Galpern said the district should give students and others more of a say in principal selection by seeking a consensus on a candidate rather than simply soliciting feedback.

“Because at the end of the day,” she said, “our next principal has a huge effect on our day-to-day lives.”