Greg Linton, an 8th grade humanities teacher at M.S. 266, takes notes on his school's literacy data.
Nearly a year after beginning their search for an exceptional middle school to lead a push to boost literacy in struggling schools, city officials have concluded that no school is good enough.
After the city launched its Middle School Quality Initiative last year, it selected two dozen underperforming schools to receive special training and thousands of dollars in program funding. Then it picked more successful schools to be "anchors" that would teach them. Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School became a model for teacher collaboration, and schools were sent to M.S. 244 to learn about using data to detect signs that students are at-risk.
The city also wanted to push the 23 schools on literacy, where their students especially lagged. But officials said they could find no middle school strong enough to use as the emblem of the literacy initiative.
"There isn't an anchor we could turn to to say, 'Show us the magic of how it's all done together,'" said Nancy Gannon, the department official overseeing MSQI.
Nonetheless, as MSQI expanded from 24 schools at first (six with only partial funding) to 49 this year, the department also expanded the initiative’s literacy program. The schools are getting extra funds and monthly trainings focused exclusively on literacy, in a program that officials consider it the most significant part of the citywide initiative.
Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky briefed reporters on the new progress report cards this morning.
Almost twice as many elementary and middle schools are eligible for closure under the Department of Education’s longstanding rules this year, according to the schools’ 2011-2012 progress reports.
Since 2007, the city has given schools a letter grade each year based largely on calculations of their students’ test scores. Schools that receive an F, D, or three consecutive C’s or worse can be closed.
Last year, 120 schools fell into that category, and the department ultimately moved to close 10 of them. But this year, 217 schools received those grades, suggesting that this year’s closure toll could be greater than in the past.
The most dramatic change was a jump in schools receiving their third straight grade of C or below — from just five last year to 114 this year.
The striking jump is a late-onset effect of the state’s 2010 decision to raise the proficiency bar on its state tests. In 2009, just two schools had received F’s and 84 percent earned A’s. But that year, most schools saw their test scores fall, and nearly 70 percent of schools saw their progress report grades drop, too. The progress reports released today were the third since the change.
Caught in the metrics were some popular schools, such as Central Park East I and the Earth School in Manhattan, as well as 16 of Staten Island’s 52 elementary and middle schools.
For the first time since introducing school progress reports in 2007, the Department of Education has reduced the weight of state test scores in determining middle schools' scores on their state test scores.
The change is slight, allocating just 5 percent of the calculation toward the grades schools hand out, but it reflects a significant shift within the Department of Education. After years of saying that the state's current tests are not the ideal measure of students' abilities, the department is — to a limited extent — putting its metrics where its mouth is.
Until now, 85 percent of elementary and middle schools' scores have come from crunching the scores in different ways. But on the 2011-2012 progress reports, which are coming out today, that proportion has dropped slightly for middle schools, to 80 percent. The difference will be made up by schools' course passage rates in the core subjects of English, math, science, and social studies.
The change, which the department promised a year ago, makes year-to-year progress report score comparisons hard to make yet is unlikely to dramatically alter schools' scores on its own. Still, it signals that the city is projecting onto middle schools growing concerns about the mismatch between how city students perform on some high-stakes accountability metrics and how well prepared they are to take on more challenging work.
Mayor Bloomberg, flanked by Chancellor Walcott and principals, discussed the city's school creation efforts during a press conference in April about the opening of 54 new schools.
If the Bloomberg administration has executed any education policy promises with fidelity, it has been around opening new schools. But its record on the trickier task of improving existing schools has been more mixed.
That trend continued last year, according to our analysis of the city's progress toward fulfilling the education commitments it made during between September 2011 and August 2012. We found that Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Dennis Walcott are on track to meet most of their school creation goals, but when it comes to improving ones that already exist, their success is less clear. (Each promise is in bold, followed by an explanation of how far the city has come toward meeting it.)
The city did better at fulfilling its school creation and improvement goals than it did at keeping its promises about boosting teacher quality, which we examined earlier this week. In the final part of this series, we will look at whether city officials have kept their word about taking new approaches to handling high-need students and engaging parents.
On creating new schools:
The city will open 100 new schools before the end of 2013, including 50 charter schools. (Bloomberg's State of the City address, January 2012)
The city is so far on track to hit this goal. Fifty-four new schools are opening this fall, bringing the total number of schools that have opened under the Bloomberg administration to 589. Of the newest crop of schools, 24 are charter schools.
Fifty new middle schools will open by 2013, of which 25 will be charter schools. (Walcott's middle schools speech, September 2011)
The city also chipped away mightily at this number, and depending on the method of counting might be more than on track to hit the total. This year, 18 of the 54 new schools opened with middle school grades, including seven charter schools. Another eight of the new schools, all charter schools, opened with elementary grades but plan to serve middle school students once they are at full enrollment in several years.
The city will help high-performing charter networks grow faster. (State of the City)
When Bloomberg made this promise, he specifically name-checked Success Academies and KIPP as two networks whose strong performance he would like to see replicated. This year, three new Success Academy charter schools and one new KIPP school opened in the city. All of them had sought to open since long before Bloomberg made the commitment. At least five other local charter schools also replicated this year.
The city will bring in charter school operators that run successful schools elsewhere. (State of the City)
The city has so far struck out here: Except for KIPP, which has long run New York City schools, none of this year's new charter schools are part of national networks. One operator that Bloomberg specifically mentioned, Rocketship Education, opened two new charter schools in its native California but so far has not opened or even proposed a school for New York. Its CEO has said dozens of districts have recruited the network but he is wary of operating under different regulations in different places.
The state released the results of this year's third through eighth grade tests yesterday, and officials from City Hall to the charter sector lept to celebrate students' gains.
Some changes were the focal point of the Department of Education's Tuesday afternoon press conference—like the drop among English Language Learners and the boosts charter schools saw. But they avoided nuances in the results for the city's new schools, which have been at the center of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's education reform policies. Beyond first impressions, here are seven interesting takeaways we parsed from the trove of data:
Like last year, English Language Learners took a step back. Students who are identified as English Language Learners improved slightly in math, but took another step back from the statistical gains they made on the literacy test (ELA) earlier in the decade, before the state made the exams tougher in 2010. While just under half of the city’s non-ELL students met the state’s ELA standards, just 11.6 percent of ELL students did so. But in math, the percentage of ELL students scoring proficient rose by 2.5 points, to 37 percent.
But students in other categories that typically struggle showed improvements. The percentage of students with disabilities who are proficient in math and literacy went up again this year, to 30.2 percent in math and 15.8 percent in English. And although Black and Hispanic students are still lagging behind their white peers by close to thirty percentage points in literacy and math, they also saw small bumps in both subjects. Officials said that new initiatives targeting struggling students, particularly students of color, contributed to the gains.
More than half of teachers in city middle schools left their schools within three years, and most left teaching altogether, according to a new study that offers little insight about how to stem the exodus.
The study was presented yesterday at the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management's fall meeting, as part of a panel on teacher turnover. Will Marinell, a member of the Research Alliance, the independent body of researchers given access to city Department of Education data, and Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas conducted the analysis.
Mining data about teachers and their paths within the school system, the researchers found that 55 percent of middle school teachers leave their school within three years, higher than in elementary and high schools. They also found that their decision to leave was likely influenced more by their individual characteristics, such as their commute time and race, than by anything about their school.
According to the analysis, teachers are more likely to stay in their schools when students disproportionately share their race. In Manhattan, two-thirds of middle school teachers left within three years, the highest exit rate of any borough. Middle school teachers are more likely to consider leaving their school when they have a long commute or are required to teach a new subject. And teachers in schools that suspend many students are more likely to consider finding a new job.
"These rates of turnover are likely to make it challenging for middle school principals, and the teachers who remain in their schools, to establish organizational norms and a shared vision for their schools' teaching and learning environment," the study concludes.
In his first major policy speech, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott called for major changes to the ctiy's worst middle schools.
To shake middle schools from mediocrity, the city is turning to school reform strategies it considers tried and true.
In the next two years, the Department of Education will close low-performing middle schools, open brand-new ones, add more charter schools, and push more teachers and principals through in-house leadership programs, Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced today in a 30-minute policy speech, the first of his six-month tenure.
For 10 schools, the city will ask for $30 million in federal funds to try a new reform strategy set out by the federal government, “turnaround,” in which at least half of staff members are replaced, Walcott said.
The efforts — which the city plans to pay for with a mixture of state and federal funds — are meant to boost middle school scores that are low and, in the case of reading, actually falling.
"People have tried and struggled with the complicated nature of middle schools for decades," he said. "But the plan I've laid out is bolder and more focused than anything we've tried here in New York City before."
Experts and advocates who helped engineer the last major effort to overhaul middle schools, a City Council task force that produced recommendations but short-lived changes at the DOE in 2007, disputed Walcott's characterization. They said Walcott's announcement reflects a change in style but not substance.
"Much of what he said is not new," said Carol Boyd, a parent leader with the Coalition for Educational Justice, which has long urged more attention for middle schools. "There is a definite party line, except Joel [Klein] wasn’t able to deliver it with the same believability that Chancellor Walcott does," she said. Boyd sat on the task force.
“There’s nothing new [or] interesting about this plan," said Pedro Noguera, the New York University professor who chaired the council's task force and has spoken out against school closures. "It sounds like more of what they’ve been doing, shutting down failing schools."
Houston may not be alone in seeing an increase in schools using International Baccalaureate programs. New York's Blueprint for Middle School Success, which identifies "key elements" of successful middle school programs, briefly mentions International Baccalaureate (IB), along with America's Choice and Project Grad, as "protocols, programs, and/or school reform models" that school leaders should consider when developing a college prep curriculum.
According to the IB website, few city schools use IB at the moment — Mott Hall Bronx High School, Manhattan's Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change, Staten Island's Curtis High School, and Queens' Baccalaureate School for Global Education — and only Thurgood Marshall and the Baccalaureate School have the IB Middle Years Program.
Central themes unite 8 subject areas in the Middle Years Program curriculum.
What stands out about the Middle Years Program is not the range of subjects taught nor the five themes which unite the student's learning experience, as shown in the diagram above, but the personal project, an in-depth study undertaken by each child, and other innovative approaches to assessment. Teachers develop their own course assignments and assessments, ranging from projects to exams and including opportunities for self-assessment and peer-assessment. Final assessments are not standardized tests or even standardized projects. Rather,
teachers administer appropriate sets of assessment tasks and rigorously apply the prescribed assessment criteria defined for each subject group. The type of assessment tools available to teachers include all forms of oral work, written work, and practical work.
A school can request that the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) validate students' grades, a review process in which external moderators apply IB standards to samples of student work and compare their grades to the teachers' grades, which helps maintain standards from school to school.
It's been a big year for the DOE. In September, it won the Broad Prize, given each year to an urban school district that has improved its poor and minority students' test scores. This spring, students continued on their upward trajectory, at least according to the state math and reading scores that were released yesterday. But the biggest coup may have happened this past weekend, when the DOE, in partnership with the agency Droga5, snagged a prestigious international advertising award given each year to the “most innovative and ground-breaking idea” in advertising.
The DOE took home the Cannes Lion Titanium Award for the "Million" Motivation Campaign, which aims to increase students’ engagement with school through the use of cell phones. Through a partnership with Verizon and Samsung, the DOE gave cell phones to 2,500 students in seven middle schools. The number of minutes available to each student depended on their performance in school; a child who successfully completed all of his work, therefore, would have more minutes to use than a lackluster student. When the program launched last fall, the DOE planned to use the phones to deliver motivational text and voice messages, sometimes from celebrities such as Jay-Z; it’s not clear whether that portion of the campaign has been rolled out yet.