National newsletter

Chalkbeat’s national newsletter: The new testing debates look a lot like the old testing debates

Welcome to Chalkbeat’s national newsletter! We’re Matt Barnum and Sarah Darville, Chalkbeat’s national team. Our goal is to help you make sense of the messy, fascinating, often controversial efforts to improve education for poor students across the country. Want to receive this in your inbox? Subscribe here.

The big story

Betsy DeVos’s education department has been on an ESSA plan approval tear. Last week, the department approved 16 states’ (and Puerto Rico’s) plans for complying with the federal education law, bringing the total number of plans that have gotten a green light to 35.

Some of those states have promised to use new metrics, such as absences and suspension rates, to help measure schools. But underneath talk of new ideas lurks the same old debates about how to use math and English tests.

We recently talked to Harvard professor Daniel Koretz, whose new book “The Testing Charade” makes the case against the way tests were used during the Bush and Obama administrations. His concern is that ESSA doesn’t change “the basic logic of the system” — the idea that pushing schools to boost test scores will improve the schools themselves.

Critics of testing in New York echoed those concerns yesterday. State officials there had hinted that they would apply for a federal program to give their tests a more radical makeover, but this week announced that they had abandoned the plan, in part because it would have been expensive. “I am frustrated,” one opt-out advocate said.

Others are skeptical about state plans for different reasons. “States mostly produced plans that are vague and noncommittal about how they will support low-performing schools,” according to a review of by Bellwether Education Partners, a reform-oriented consulting firm.

Those issues are holding up approval of California’s ESSA plan, the L.A. Times reported this week. Colorado is still waiting for a decision, too, months after appearing to bow to federal pressure to penalize schools where many students opt out of testing.

Local stories to watch

  • Poor families are leaving Denver — and charter schools may soon follow. KIPP says it’s looking to add schools outside the city where priced-out families are clustering.
  • Detroit is the latest city to rethink admission to its elite high schools. A placement exam has been the only factor; now the test will count for only 40 percent of admissions decisions.
  • New York City has a low bar for some turnaround schools. Graduation rates and test scores can actually fall at some schools and still land within the city’s targets.
  • In Memphis, the superintendent has raised the possibility of bringing charter operators into struggling district schools. That’s a big shift, since the district has battled openly with the charter sector. The state’s Achievement School District has been absorbing Memphis schools (and state dollars) and turning them over to charters for six years.

Matt’s research roundup

  • Scores (and hard work) on international tests pay off. That’s the conclusion of a new study, which shows that a country’s overall performance predicts economic growth — but so does students’ persistence over the course of a lengthy exam, which the researchers see as a measure of their “non-cognitive” skills. That give more credence to concerns from a long list of policymakers — including, most recently, Betsy DeVos — about the U.S.’s mediocre international rankings.
  • The worst principals aren’t sticking around. School principals don’t get studied nearly as much as teachers do, so a recent paper caught our eye. Focusing on Tennessee, the research found that less effective school leaders were especially likely to leave the job, often to take an assistant principal or classroom teacher position. That’s good news for students, as long as new principals are better than the ones they replaced. The best principals also had slightly higher-than-average turnover, in part because they were often promoted to central office positions.
  • Update: CHIP gets a six-year extension. Last week, we wrote about the research showing that children benefit educationally from health insurance programs. This week, as part of a deal to end the government shutdown, the Children’s Health Insurance Program was extended for six years.

Names to note

TNTP President Karolyn Belcher is stepping down in April and says she hopes to “lead an urban school district.” Jeffrey Villar will be the state-appointed “receiver” of schools in Southbridge, Massachusetts. Angélica Infante-Green is the subject of a campaign to make her New York City schools chief. Erika Soto Lamb is Democrats for Education Reform’s new national director for strategic communications.

DeVos watch

At an event held by a conservative legal group last week, DeVos was asked what she would do to promote the teaching of evolution in schools, presumably as opposed to creationism. “I’m not an advocate of any kind of national curriculum,” she said in response. “I continue to encourage the most local level to be able to have the kind of flexibility to meet individual students’ needs.”

The portfolio push

In Indianapolis, where the central school district is a darling of portfolio model advocates, nearly 4,000 students used a unified enrollment system for district and charter schools — the system’s first test. The state also released new data this week showing that only 55 percent of students who live in the Indianapolis Public School boundaries attend district schools.

Denver Public Schools has faced criticism from from national portfolio advocates and local charter leaders for not calling for new schools or expansion of charters this year. Our reporter Melanie Asmar breaks down the debate with responses from charter schools and the district.

The Memphis Education Fund — a member of a network of groups known as Education Cities, which supports the portfolio model — is working on principal training, teacher recruitment, helping single-site charter schools, and boosting reading skills among the city’s youngest students.

What we’re reading

  • Teen pregnancy has plunged, but students who have kids of their own still struggle to graduate. Hechinger Report
  • The school board in Evanston, Illinois, is hiring a “director of black student success.” Daily Northwestern
  • Bullied students may soon be eligible for private-school vouchers in Florida. Tampa Bay Times
  • A leader of the Democracy Prep charter network is in a public debate with students about the importance of “standard English.” Democracy Prep
  • San Antonio is set to allow Democracy Prep to take over a low-performing district school. Folo Media
  • Nearly 12,000 students are scrambling after the closure of online charter school Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. WOSU
  • KIPP is headed to Miami, even as one of its charter schools elsewhere in Florida has struggled. WLRN
  • A helpful (and wonky) overview of research on race and school discipline. Brookings
  • The head of the National Council for Teacher Quality says education reformers should keep the focus on improving schools, rather than addressing poverty or racism. NCTQ
  • Los Angeles’s school board may aim for a compromise pick for new schools head. EdSource

parting ways

No fireworks in Houston as school board bids farewell to Carranza

PHOTO: Houston Independent School District
Houston school board members and elected officials discussed the departure of their superintendent Richard Carranza, who will be New York City's next schools chief.

Houston’s school board didn’t put up a fight Tuesday while ironing out the details of superintendent Richard Carranza’s departure to become New York City schools chancellor.

The Houston Independent School District board will have to negotiate the terms of Carranza’s leave since his contract runs through August 2019. But the board’s response to his move lacked the theatrics of last week’s Miami-Dade County school board emergency meeting to discuss the city’s first pick for chancellor, Alberto Carvalho.

That emergency meeting stretched on for hours with tearful pleas from students and board members who begged Carvalho to stay. In the end, Carvalho rejected the New York City job on live television.

At a press conference, Houston leaders put up no such fight for Carranza, who has only been in office there less than two years. Board trustee Sergio Lira said he expects the negotiations to end Carranza’s contract will go smoothly.

“We’re going to release him from his contract with the least harm,” Lira told Chalkbeat.  “We want to wish him the best and don’t want to impede his departure.”

On Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that Carranza would replace retiring Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who is expected to step down at the end of March. The mayor’s pick came as a surprise in both New York City and Houston, as Carranza’s name had not surfaced publicly during the months-long search for a successor.

At Tuesday’s press conference, the president of Houston’s board of trustees, Rhonda Skillern-Jones, said Carranza had given his two weeks notice — “give or take.” He is expected to continue working during that time, rather than take leave.

Houston appears stoic, even though Carrzanza’s abrupt departures adds to an already long list of challenges. The school system faces a $115 million budget gap, the threat of state takeover and ongoing recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.

“We are aware of our challenges and we each have our own responsibility in solving our challenges,” Skillern-Jones said at the press conference.

Peppered with questions about how Carranza’s departure could add to the list of difficulties, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner interjected:

“Enough on Carranza. I wish him well,” Turner said. “But now the focus is on the 215,000 kids who are still here, depending on the rest of us to come together.”

Monica Disare contribute reporting.

next steps

Five critical questions facing New York City after Carvalho’s rejection of chancellor job

PHOTO: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio, at a drawing board.

New York City’s education world was left spinning Thursday, after Miami superintendent Alberto Carvalho announced he wouldn’t be taking the helm of the country’s largest school district — despite already agreeing to do so.

The about-face stunned onlookers in Miami and New York, including Mayor Bill de Blasio’s spokesman, who tweeted his shock in real time. De Blasio is expected to speak at a press conference later today, but the sudden turn of events means we have more questions than answers.

Here are the critical ones we’re working to answer. We’ve updated this with some answers the the mayor’s office offered on Thursday, and we will continue to add information as we learn more.

1. Will current Chancellor Carmen Fariña be convinced to stick around any longer?

This one we have an answer to: At a press conference Thursday afternoon, de Blasio says Fariña would “be continuing her role until the end of March.”

That means de Blasio is on a tight timeline if he wants to meet the goal he set when he initially announced her retirement in December: for Fariña to continue in her post until the city found a replacement. The 52-year education department veteran has been on a farewell tour over the last few weeks, conducting exit interviews and penning what seemed like her final op-eds.

2. Will the city turn to an interim schools chief?

The circumstances may force it. Speculation had already been mounting that the mayor might have to appoint one as the search process dragged on for months. A city official told Chalkbeat earlier this week that City Hall was prepared to name an interim for a very short transition period — but only after a permanent appointment was announced.

One obvious choice for an interim is Senior Deputy Chancellor Dorita Gibson. Gibson is the education department’s second in command and has held many positions in the city’s school system, including principal and superintendent. But she has also kept a relatively low profile, which raises questions about whether she will be chosen to fill such a public position even temporarily.

“We’re going to have a new chancellor soon,” de Blasio said Thursday. “That’s all I want to say about it.”

3. Who’s next on City Hall’s chancellor candidate list?

That’s the million-dollar question. Barbara Jenkins, the superintendent of Orange County Public Schools in Florida, has been floated as a potential candidate. But questions have also been raised about whether she wanted the job and was criticized by Randi Weingarten, the leader of the American Federation of Teachers.

Other names in the mix include Kelvin Adams, the superintendent of the St. Louis public schools, whom Weingarten said she supported.

Regent Kathleen Cashin, a former superintendent in New York City, and State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia have also been mentioned in conversations about Fariña’s successor. However, both seem unlikely choices and do not fulfill the de Blasio administration’s desire to find someone outside of New York

4. Will anyone want the job now, and what will they demand to be paid?

De Blasio attempted to project confidence on Thursday. “There has been a huge amount of interest. There are a lot of great candidates,” he said.

But Carvalho’s stunning announcement will undoubtedly make the next phase of the search process challenging. It will be clear to the next batch of candidates that they were not the top choice. The media circus Thursday will attract more attention to the pick, and may not inspire confidence in the de Blasio’s administration’s ability to sell the job or retain top leadership.  

On top of that, the mayor might have to pay the new candidate more than he otherwise would have.

The $353,000 salary New York City publicly offered Carvalho — and what any chancellor candidate will now likely demand — would put New York City on the competitive side of other urban districts. New York City has historically paid its chancellors less, with Fariña’s base salary coming in at $234,569. (She made far more in total thanks to her pension.)

That higher salary makes New York more competitive with the second-largest school district in the country, Los Angeles Unified, which is also looking for a new leader and paid its previous superintendent $350,000.

On Carvalho’s salary, de Blasio said, it was “perfectly legitimate for people to say, hey, wait a minute, I’m being better compensate for a much smaller school system – what’s wrong with this picture?”

“In this case, his request was for us to consider a matching current salary, we thought that was fair.”

5. Does this change how de Blasio will conduct the search?

It doesn’t appear likely. 

From the beginning, de Blasio committed to conducting a search behind closed doors. While he argued the secrecy is important to keep personnel decisions above the fray of politics, many parents and advocates have expressed frustration about the lack of public input. Now, that his initial behind-the-scenes deal has combusted, some are hoping the mayor will choose a more transparent path as he recruits the next candidate.

Some advocates are already jumping at the chance to call for a new open process.

“After this disappointment, Mayor de Blasio has an obligation to lead boldly with a transparent, inclusive process,” said Evan Stone, co-founder of the teacher advocacy group Educators for Excellence in a statement. “He can begin that process today.”

Mark Treyger, chairman of city council’s education committee, said that City Hall had not briefed him ahead of time about Carvalho. After this morning’s news broke, he sent what appeared to be a warning shot that de Blasio should embrace a more open process now.

“In order to make well-informed decisions, you have to involve critical stakeholders,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to being a part of the conversation regarding who will eventually accept the position of Chancellor of the largest school system in the country.”

Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting