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.

temporary reprieve

Parents score a temporary victory in slowing the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a recent set of closure plans.

A judge blocked the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school Thursday — at least for now.

Three families from P.S. 25/the Eubie Blake School filed a lawsuit in March backed by the public interest group Advocates for Justice, arguing the city’s decision to close the school was illegal because the local elected parent council was not consulted.

Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Katherine Levine did not make a final ruling Thursday about whether the closure plan violated the law. But she issued a temporary order to keep the school open while the case moves forward.

It was not immediately clear when the case will be resolved or even if the school will remain open next year. “We are reviewing the stay and will determine an appropriate course of action once the judge makes a final decision on the case,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

The education department said the school has hemorrhaged students in recent years and is simply too small to be viable: P.S. 25 currently enrolls just 94 students in grades K-5.

“Because of extremely low enrollment, the school lacks the necessary resources to meet the needs of students,” Holness wrote. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide oversight board that must sign off on all school closures, voted in February to close the school.

But the school’s supporters point out that despite low test scores in the past, P.S. 25 now ranks among the city’s top elementary schools, meaning that its closure would force students into lower-performing schools elsewhere.

“Why close a school that’s doing so well?” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and one of the lawsuit’s supporters. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The lawsuit hinges on a state law that gives local education councils the authority to approve any changes to school zones. Since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them, forcing students to attend other district schools or enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

But even if the education department loses the lawsuit, the school’s fate would still be uncertain. The closure plan would theoretically be subject to a vote from the local education council, whose president supports shuttering the school.

Still, Haimson hopes the lawsuit ultimately persuades the education department to back away from closing the school in the long run.

“My goal would be to get the chancellor to change his mind,” Haimson said. “I don’t think the future is preordained.”

Future of Schools

Four school leaders hope to bring innovative ideas to Indianapolis education

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Brandon Brown introduces four new innovation school fellows.

Hoping to jumpstart innovation in Indianapolis education, four experienced educators will spend a year or more developing new models for schools.

The educators were chosen from among 39 applicants for fellowships from the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports district-charter partnerships. This is the fifth round of innovation fellowships, which give leaders one to two years to prepare to launch or takeover schools in Indianapolis Public Schools.

The fellowship includes an annual salary of about $100,000, benefits, and support for creating new schools, such as visits to other schools, training, and legal assistance. The package for each fellow is worth approximately $200,000 per year.

The city has 16 innovation schools, and they enroll about 20 percent of the students in Indianapolis Public Schools. They are under the umbrella of the district, but they are managed by outside charter operators or nonprofits, and most of the teachers are not employed by the district nor do they belong to the teachers union. The Mind Trust has been instrumental in the creation of innovation schools, and the vast majority of the schools were founded with support from the nonprofit.

The innovation fellowship winners include two people from Indianapolis and two recruits from other cities. But in a sign that the nonprofit’s leaders have become more cautious in their choices, all four have years of experience in education.

Brandon Brown, CEO of the Mind Trust, said that’s by design. About four early innovation fellows never ended up opening innovation schools. But all of the recent winners have either opened schools or are on track to open them, he said.

Candidates are much more likely to be successful, he said, if they have the entrepreneurial spirit to create their own nonprofits and win community support — and have experience in education.

“There’s this notion that if you’re a great entrepreneur, you don’t have to have the unique skill set to know education and [yet] you can go operate a school,” Brown said. “We’ve learned that that’s a very rare thing to see.”

While the winners have all worked in established schools, however, Brown said they are trying new models.

Tihesha Henderson, principal of School 99, won a fellowship to develop a school designed to meet the social and emotional needs of students. She will take a yearlong leave from her current job and hopes to return and transform School 99 into an innovation school.

Henderson envisions a school that adjusts to meet student needs, whether through therapy, small classes, or classroom redesign. School 99 already has significant flexibility, but as an innovation school, Henderson would be able to change the school calendar and set teacher pay, she said.

“We don’t have to be the status quo,” she said. “We can branch out and do some things differently, but it all comes back to — are we meeting out kids needs?”

The other fellows are Alicia Hervey, dean of student development for Christel House Academies; Kim Neal, managing director of secondary education for the charter school network KIPP DC; and Brandy Williams, an expert in special education from New Orleans.

Although innovation schools are considered part of Indianapolis Public Schools, they also often have charters through the office of Mayor Joe Hogsett. The collaborative nature of the schools was on display at the announcement Thursday, where Hogsett, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, and Brown all spoke.

The innovation schools, said Ferebee, are part of a broader district strategy to give principals more flexibility to run their schools.

“We hire great leaders, get out of their way and give them the space and agility to make decisions about academics [and] operations to better serve our students and our families,” he said.

The city’s reputation in the education community is helping it attract educators from across the country, said Hogsett.

“They know our city is one where they can make a difference,” he said. “Indianapolis welcomes their passion with open arms.”