No School Is “Doomed.” Continuous Improvement, Not School Closure, Must Be the Goal

I have read Eliza Shapiro’s reporting in POLITICO for years and I respect her as a reporter, but her story in Friday’s NY Times baffles me: New York Knew Some Schools In Its $773 Million Plan Were Doomed, They Kept Children in Them Anyway. The story raises a thousand questions and answers none of them. It fails to consider realities, which Shapiro surely knows, affect any child’s experience at school.

In Shapiro’s piece last Friday, we learn that the future of NYC’s Renewal Schools plan is in jeopardy.  And we learn that one of the interventions made in these, NYC’s lowest performing schools, as part of the Renewal Schools plan was their transformation into full-service, wraparound Community Schools. We are not told, however, what other interventions have been tried or how widely any intervention has been taken across the schools.  Over the weekend, in the blog of her organization, Class Size Matters, Leonie Haimson explains that one improvement which would have been likely to support students was not tried.  Children were still assigned to classes of over 30 students. Shapiro tells us that the Renewal Schools program has cost $773 million but not how the money was spent.

Here is how Shapiro begins last week’s report on the failure of Mayor Bill de Blasio and then-Chancellor Carmen Farina’s Renewal Schools program: “Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to ‘shake the foundations of New York City education’ in 2014 with a new program called Renewal, a signature effort to improve the city’s 94 poorest-performing schools by showering them with millions of dollars in social services and teacher training.  A year later, aides raised a confidential alarm: about a third of those schools were likely to fail. The schools were not meeting goals that the city set for higher test scores, increased graduation rates and other academic measures—and probably never would… ‘In order for these schools to reach their targets for 2017, the interventions would need to produce truly exceptional improvements,’ read the December 2015 memo, a copy of which was obtained by the New York Times. ‘Historically, it has been quite rare for schools to improve that much in two years.’  Mr. de Blasio kept most of the schools open.  Now, after sending thousands of children into classrooms that staff members suspected were doomed from the start, the administration appears ready to give up on Renewal.  Its cost: $773 million by the end of this school year.”

The headline and the school district’s 2015 memo that Shapiro quotes describe the Renewal Schools program as “doomed” from the start because the district’s promise quickly to improve graduation rates and test score metrics would be unprecedented if achieved.  That kind of proclamation of an impossible, aspirational goal— “doomed from the start”—is surely also exemplified by No Child Left Behind’s promise to make all children in America proficient, as measured by standardized tests, by 2014.  And exemplified by the Race to the Top program, in which no school or school district raced to the top.

Here are presumably some of the realities faced by many of the students in New York City’s lowest-performing schools. Two weeks ago Shapiro herself reported that one out of ten students in the New York City Public Schools is homeless—114,659 students.  NYC is a segregated city, racially and economically, and Shapiro’s own reporting confirms that many homeless children are concentrated in particular schools: “District 10 in the Bronx served the most homeless children of any of the city’s 32 school districts last year. The district includes Kingsbridge International High School, where about 44 percent of students who attended school over the last four years were homeless.”  We know that homeless students drop out or delay graduation at higher rates than their more privileged peers and, in the aggregate, their test scores lag.

The NY Times‘, Elizabeth Harris reported last April: “The upheaval of homelessness means those children are often anxious and traumatized, and that their parents are as well.  Many of them travel long distances from where they sleep to school in the morning, leaving them exhausted before the day begins.  Drained and frightened, they bring all of that with them to school… “(H)omeless students accounted for 13 percent of all suspensions, relatively flat when compared to the previous year.”

And of course, we know that homelessness represents only the most desperate marker of poverty and that many additional students in NYC’s public schools face economic challenges, which have been correlated for decades in the research literature with diminished standardized test scores and lower graduation rates.

My biggest fear as I read Shapiro’s story—which leaves a lot unanswered—is that school-reformers in the mold of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg will push for the return to an earlier era.  Based on the philosophy of corporate, test-based accountability, Mayor Bloomberg brought so-called “portfolio school reform” to NYC. The think tank that promotes portfolio school reform is the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). Under portfolio school reform, a school district manages traditional neighborhood schools and charter schools like a stock portfolio—opening new schools all the time and closing so-called “failing” schools. CRPE says that portfolio school reform is a “problem solving framework” that operates as a cycle: “give families choice; give schools autonomy; assess school performance; schools improve or get intervention; and expand or replace schools.” School closure is the ultimate fate of so-called “failing” schools in a portfolio framework.

Portfolio school reform theory—operating across a network of America’s big cities and resulting ultimately in school closure—contrasts with the idea of continuous improvement as the goal for any human institution. What concrete steps can we take to help a public school better serve its students and families? And how can we correct as we go along to ensure that we keep on doing better?

Mayor de Blasio and Carmen Farina tried a  strategy very different from Bloomberg’s portfolio plan.  One intervention Shapiro’s article acknowledges they tried was  expanding investment in wrap-around, full service Community Schools as a way to support the students as well as overwhelmed and overworked staff at New York City’s poorest schools. Perhaps leaders in the school district hoped this investment would “cure” these schools, but I don’t believe advocates for Community Schools have never claimed that locating medical, dental, mental health, social service, Head Start, after-school and summer programs at a school will immediately turn around test scores and graduation rates.  Community Schools are designed to support families and children and thereby ensure that the school’s students are able to be more engaged in the school’s academic program.  Here are the pillars of a full-service Community School: relevant rigorous and engaging curriculum; supports for quality teaching and collaborative leadership; appropriate wrap-around supports for every child; student-centered school climate; and transformative parent and community engagement. One Community School I visited several years ago in NYC is a model developed by the Children’s Aid Society. It is a school where the principal of the school works in partnership with the community school director to coordinate the work of a strong academic staff with a staff of social and medical service providers and to engage the parents and children in a wealth of wraparound supports and enrichments.

Here are some questions Shapiro’s article raises:

  • With the size of the NYC Public Schools (1.1 million students) and the scale of family poverty in NYC, what would it take adequately to support the principals and teachers in schools serving masses of children who struggle with poverty and homelessness? Why is our society unwilling to consider the scale of investment that would be necessary to make a dent in child poverty? Two weeks ago in her report on NYC’s alarming family homelessness, Shapiro explained that the city has invested million of dollars in new services for homeless students—to achieve, for example, a ratio of one social worker for every 1,660 homeless students and to provide school bus transportation for children who previously were trying to navigate bus and subway rides from a succession of shelters to their home school which may now be in a distant borough. But it clearly isn’t enough.  In her new report, Shapiro quotes Mayor de Blasio’s spokesperson: “The Renewal school program wasn’t a silver bullet, but it sure made a big difference in the lives of kids and parents at improved schools that would have been closed by prior administrations. The mayor views the program as a foundation, not the endgame.”
  • Will policy makers in NYC eventually fall back on now-discredited interventions like school closure? Decades of research correlate metrics like test scores and graduation rates with family and neighborhood economic conditions and conclude that schools alone cannot be expected to overcome our society’s exploding inequality.  Lacking the dollars and sometimes the expertise for continuous improvement in a so-called “failing” school, Portfolio School Reformers are likely to prescribe school closure as a solution. But having watched Chicago’s experiment with school closure five years ago, we now know about the tragedy that is likely to follow school closure. Sociologists confirm that even struggling schools—the schools that are unable quickly to raise test scores—are important institutions anchoring neighborhoods and serving families in myriad unnamed ways. The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research published research earlier this year documenting widespread community mourning after the Chicago Public Schools’ closure of 50 schools in 2013.  And just last month, Eve Ewing, a sociologist at the University of Chicago published Ghosts in the Schoolyard, a book tracing the impact of the 2013 Chicago school closures, with many of the closed institutions concentrated in the African American, Bronzeville neighborhood. Ewing considers the technocratic point of view of Barbara Byrd Bennett, then Chicago Public Schools’ CEO, and contrasts Byrd Bennett’s reasoning with the voices of the children who were enrolled, their parents and their teachers who together explain the meaning of their schools. This book is essential reading for anyone who cares about urban public schools.

In New York City, if the Renewal Schools plan is floundering, the school district’s leaders must seek to better serve the students. Surely nobody wants the city’s poorest schools to fail. One hopes, however, that the future will feature continuous improvement, not school closure.

Harvard’s Daniel Koretz explains the tragic mistake of test-based, portfolio school reform theory in his essential book, The Testing Charade. High stakes, test-based accountability blames and punishes schools that face overwhelming challenges:  “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130)

Politico NY Sells Ads to Pro-Charter Advocacy Group but Fails to Label Them As Paid Ads

Even though I live in Ohio, every morning in my e-mail in-box, I receive and scan an update on news about education from Politico New York. I read it as a summary of public education issues surfacing in the state of New York and because its authors—Eliza Shapiro, Keshia Clukey and Conor Skelding—select and recommend a list of national stories about education.  As a blogger, I use a lot of tools to find current news.

Imagine my surprise when in yesterday’s morning e-mail newsletter from Politico NY, I found the following in a section called “TRACKING EDUCATION” as the second of several blurbs :

** A message from Families for Excellent Schools: New York City’s schools are divided into two separate and unequal systems – one for white, affluent children, and another for low-income children of color. But we can change that. Visit DontStealPossible.org today to take a stand for school equality. **

Then at the end of the newsletter, I discovered a similar message:

** A message from Families for Excellent Schools: 478,000 New York City children — almost all black and Hispanic — are stuck in a network of failing public schools. That’s more children than the entire Chicago Public Schools, and they’re trapped in a separate and unequal education system. Our leaders must do better – especially Mayor de Blasio. It’s time for bold action, not more of the same.

That’s why New Yorkers from every borough are coming together to take a stand for school equality. If you believe EVERY child in New York City deserves a quality education, join Team Possible today: Join us at DontStealPossible.org **

Both of these pieces are highly political.  Both condemn the New York City public schools and identify “Team Possible,” known to be affiliated with charter schools, as a fine alternative to the problems of public education. (I paste these sections into this post, because I cannot provide links; I cannot locate on Politico NY‘s website a cache of its daily e-newsletters.)

A lot of readers would skim such a publication without careful and detailed reading.  I checked my “delete” file and discovered that these very messages have been appearing in my e-mail newsletters all this week, but I hadn’t noticed them until yesterday, when it took me a minute to register what I was skimming over.  My eye caught precisely the same wording as the script in the television advertisements a group called Families for Excellent Schools has been running in New York City to denounce Mayor Bill de Blasio and the improvements that he and his chancellor Carmen Farina have been making in New York’s traditional public schools and also to lavish praise on the city’s charter schools, most particularly Success Academy Charter Schools, the charter school chain led by Eva Moskowitz.

Families for Excellent Schools, the sponsor of the television advertising campaign, claims to be a non-political, educational not-for-profit, though it continues to be very much involved in New York state education politics.  It appears that, besides paying for its television campaign, Families for Excellent Schools is also buying space in my morning e-newsletter, though you’d hardly guess these were ads unless you thought about it.  The newsletter is made up of bullets of information in the news about education; these ads are different from the other blurbs only because they begin and end with a series of stars.  There is no formal notation that they are paid advertising.

In a news story, Politico NY (the online news outlet that also sends around the morning e-newsletter) quite recently posted a report on its website about Families for Excellent Schools and its ad campaign.  The story declared: “Charter school advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools is attacking Mayor Bill de Blasio in a television ad for the second time in just a few weeks, this time by targeting his K-12 education agenda.  The new ad, called ‘Reality,’ started airing on Friday and attempts to rebut the educational policies de Blasio announced during a recent speech… FES, which is closely aligned with Success Academy and its CEO, Eva Moskowitz, has been one of de Blasio’s most relentless antagonists over the last two years.”  So what does it mean when Politico NY‘s e-newsletter appears to promote Families for Excellent Schools?

This blog recently covered the very same television advertising campaign in a post, Plutocrats in NYC Wielding Power, Buying the Airwaves, and Trashing Public Schools Again, which explains: “Here is what Families for Excellent Schools is attacking in its new ad.  In a recent major address, De Blasio committed to extending school improvement well beyond his vast expansion of pre-school over the past year.  Well over 65,000 children in New York City are now enrolled in pre-K programs, including many low income children, even children living in shelters for homeless families.  The district is also engaged in the ongoing transformation of New York City’s lowest-achieving schools into full-service, wraparound Community Schools.  In the recent address de Blasio promised to ensure reading specialists across the city’s second grades and access to algebra for all students by ninth grade.  He also promised that all of the small high schools created by Mayor Bloomberg will offer courses in advanced sciences and math.  Many of these schools that have offered a more personalized education have not, until now, provided a curriculum with enough courses for students to earn a Regents diploma.”

I urge you to read the entire blog post that explains how Families for Excellent Schools has been able to shield its donors to ensure that people watching (or reading) its ads do not know who is sponsoring them. The organization is closely affiliated with wealthy hedge fund managers, and has, to avoid naming its contributors and the limitations that might be imposed on their political giving, skirted the law that distinguishes nonprofit educational organizations from political advocacy groups.

This blog’s recent post suggested that readers reflect on the Families for Excellent Schools’ television ad campaign and, “Consider what it would be like to live in New York City these days with a bunch of wealthy plutocrats sponsoring political ads designed to trash your community’s public schools.  Mayor de Blasio has committed to making significant improvements in the way the city’s public schools serve over 90 percent of the city’s young people. What are a few rich friends committed to helping Eva Moskowitz grow her charter network doing undermining the public interest?”  This blog also recently covered Eva Moskowitz and her charter school empire so closely tied to Families for Excellent Schools in this post: Moskowitz and Petrilli Push Education Model Designed to Serve Strivers and Shed the Rest.

It would be easy for a reader of Politico New York‘s morning e-newsblast mistakenly to assume that Politico NY is somehow endorsing Families for Excellent Schools’ cause and that Politico NY is recommending that readers follow the link to the anti-deBlasio ads—just as readers are expected to follow the links to the news stories collected each morning.

I challenge Politico NY to re-format the publication for the purpose of distinguishing clearly and without ambiguity the blurbs designed to inform from the blurbs designed to advertise. Ads ought to be labeled as “paid advertising.”  And I wonder, frankly, whether a publication devoted to coverage of what has become a highly politicized policy war in New York, shouldn’t stop selling ads to the proponents of one side in that battle.

Has America Decided to Educate Promising Children and Leave the Rest Behind?

In what seems to me the most chilling moment in The Prize, Dale Russakoff’s new book (discussed in yesterday’s post here) about the catastrophic five-year school reform experiment imposed by Mayor Cory Booker, Governor Chris Christie, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg on Newark, New Jersey’s schools—the moment when teachers at a charter school co-located in the same building as a traditional public school ask Mayor Cory Booker how he plans to help and support the neighborhood school also operating in their building—Booker replies, “I’ll be very frank…. I want you to expand as fast as you can.  But when schools are failing, I don’t think pouring new wine into old skins is the way.  We need to close them and start new ones.'” (p. 132)

This is the same book in which a school administrator admits that charters cream the most able children of striving parents and tells Russakoff that 60 percent of Newark’s children are likely to remain in traditional public schools. What Mayor Booker, Governor Christie and philanthropist Zuckerberg are selling is school reform for the purpose of saving some children and leaving many of the most vulnerable behind. Such a school reform philosophy tacitly accepts the idea that our society is incapable of educating all of our children, and because we can’t save all children, we’ll at least try to educate those most likely to succeed.

While there is considerable research pointing to social and educational programs likely to expand opportunity for a mass of our society’s children, a lot of people can’t think beyond limited programs aimed to lift up promising children.  Others cynically doubt school leaders who outline expensive ideas that are far more ambitious.  I worry about the dearth of leaders willing to ask us to find the will to leave no child behind, and I worry more about broad skepticism when strong leaders do propose promising plans.  Have we as a society lost the belief that we can educate all children?

Skepticism persists about Mayor Bill deBlasio’s education plans, despite the successful launch of a major expansion of pre-kindergarten in New York City. Last week the New York Daily News reported, “DeBlasio boosted the Big Apple’s pre-K capacity from 19,000 seats in 2013 to more than 80,000 seats in 2015 by expanding existing programs and funding a slew of new ones.” “Kids from areas with median incomes that are below the city average of $51,865 account for 62% of registrants in the free, full-day programs that kicked off Wednesday.”  Many have urged DeBlasio and Farina to slow down on plans announced earlier this year for the NYC schools significantly to increase the number of full-service Community Schools that set out to support families with services located right at school that can include medical, dental, and mental health clinics; after-school programs; Head Start and Early Head Start; summer enrichment, and parental job training.

As reported by Chalkbeat NY, in a major address last Wednesday, DeBlasio announced more plans for broad improvements in NYC’s public schools, including expanding the number of second-grade reading specialists across the district and ensuring that children in all high schools have access to algebra by ninth grade and advanced courses in science.  Such reforms are urgently needed in New York, for while NYC’s  previous mayor Michael Bloomberg emphasized small high schools with more personalized services, a July, 2015 report from the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs exposed shocking deficiencies in many of those small schools: “Today, 39 percent of the city’s high schools do not offer a standard college-prep curriculum in math and science, that is, algebra 2, physics and chemistry.  More than half the schools do not offer a single Advanced Placement course in math and about half do not offer a single Advanced Placement course in science…  Students at schools that don’t offer the full complement of college-prep sciences meet the (graduation) requirement by taking one of these sciences, usually biology—or as it’s known in New York schools, ‘living environment’—and supplementing that with courses such as forensics or general science.  The result is an intense bifurcation of the city’s public high school system, one that parents frantic to get their children into top high schools are acutely attuned to.”

Chalkbeat’s article about the new initiatives DeBlasio proposed last week printed a laudatory comment on deBlasio’s announcement from Zakiyah Ansari, an influential parent advocate, but the reporter wonders about the cost—a projected $186 million, and asks: “Will the city be able to pull off the new programs, which will require extensive teacher hiring and training along with philanthropic funding?  And even if the efforts go as planned, will they guarantee that students read proficiently and graduate high school in record numbers? ‘Those are lovely goals,’ said New York University research professor Leslie Santee Siskin, ‘but it would take a lot of work and reconfiguring of practice to make them reachable.'”

Interestingly, Mayor deBlasio and Carmen Farina’s priorities mirror the recommendations of Professor Jennifer King Rice of the University of Maryland, in a brief published last week by the National Education Policy Center. King Rice’s brief seeks a way to restore the mission of public education articulated by Horace Mann, “the 19th century champion of publicly funded universal education,” who “persuasively reasoned that education is the ‘balance wheel’ of the social structure.  He argued that education should be ‘universal, non-sectarian, free, and that its aims should be social efficiency, civic virtue, and character, rather than mere learning or the advancement of sectarian ends.’ While much progress has been made in establishing a universal education system since Mann spoke those words over 150 years ago, substantial disparities in educational resources, opportunities, and outcomes continue to undermine his vision—and ultimately our society… Grounded in the erroneous assumption that schools alone can close the achievement gap, NCLB and the policies in its wake have emphasized high stakes test-based accountability, school choice, school reconstitution, and other largely punitive strategies to prompt school improvement.”

To restore Mann’s vision and close gaps in opportunity, King Rice cites research grounding four recommendations:

  • “Policymakers and the general public should recognize the broad goals of education including civic responsibility, democratic values, economic self-sufficiency, cultural competency and awareness, and social and economic opportunity.  Student achievement, while important, is a single narrow indicator…
  • “Policymakers should ensure that all schools have the fundamental educational resources they need to promote student success: effective teachers and principals, appropriate class size, challenging and culturally relevant curriculum and supportive instructional resources, sufficient quality time for learning and development, and up-to-date facilities and a safe environment…
  • “Policymakers should expand the scope of schools in high-poverty neighborhoods to provide wrap around services including nutritional supports, health clinics, parental education, extended learning time, recreational programs, and other services needed to meet the social, physical, cognitive, and economic needs of both students and families.  Expanding the services and resources offered by schools has the potential to dramatically increase their impact…
  • “Policymakers should promote a policy context that is supportive of equal opportunity: use achievement testing for formative rather than high-stakes purposes, avoid policies that allow for school resegregation, and renew the commitment to public education.”

In a piece headlined, DeBlasio’s Plan to Lift Poor Schools Comes with High Costs and Big Political Risks, Kate Taylor of the NY Times points out that Mayor deBlasio framed his education address last week as a moral imperative: “There is a tale of two cities in our schools….  Each and every child, in each and every classroom deserves a future that isn’t limited by their ZIP code.”  In words I will always remember, I heard the Rev. Jesse Jackson say the same thing several years ago: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run.  But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

Have we become so cynical in America that our default response is to scoff at DeBlasio’s vision as naive and too expensive?  Have we become so unwilling to tax those who can well afford to support public education that we are afraid even to aim for such a vision?

Doing Things Differently These Days in NYC

While New York governor Andrew Cuomo is busy condemning teachers as incompetent and raging against “government monopoly” schools, New York City’s school chancellor, Carmen Farina, who has been on the job for only thirteen months, has been methodically instituting policies that, she insists, will improve the schools that struggle hardest and at the same time enhance the school day for all of the district’s 1.1 million students.  While critics say she may be trying to do too much too fast, Farina must be congratulated for substituting a school improvement philosophy for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s long and intense test-and-punish, close-struggling-schools philosophy.

Farina has recently announced a new administrative accountability network, a plan for addressing child poverty right at school through new community schools, and major new strategies to enhance academics.  The challenge will be for Farina to coordinate and harmonize all of the changes and ensure that school achievement rises, dropout rates decline, and services support all children in the huge and potentially unwieldy New York City system.

A recent NY Times report summarizes: “In the little more than a year since Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed her to lead the city’s Education Department, Ms. Farina has presided over a methodical dismantling of the policies of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s first and last chancellors, Joel I. Klein and Dennis M. Walcott. She inherited a department that tracked data closely and used it do decide schools’ fates, rating schools annually from A to F.  Principals, many of whom during Mr. Bloomberg’s tenure were drawn from the ranks of novice teachers and given managerial training, were given as much freedom as possible.  If their schools did not score high enough on an array of data points—graduation rates, attendance, the number of students passing classes and going to college—they were subject to being closed.  In 12 years, the Bloomberg administration either shut down or began to phase out 157 schools and opened 656 new, smaller schools.”

According to the NY Times‘ analysis, “Ms Farina, in contrast, believes that principals need both more experience and more supervision than they had during the Bloomberg years.  She increased the requirements for new principals’ teaching experience to seven years from three… And last month she re-established the importance of the system’s superintendents, whose role in overseeing principals had diminished during the Bloomberg years.  Rather than closing struggling schools, she has said she will support them with more guidance and an infusion of social services, from family counseling to optometry.  Shutting schools is to be a last resort.”

Earlier this year, Farnia eliminated Bloomberg’s A-F grades for schools. In a major policy address on January 22, Farina announced a new system for district-wide administrative accountability.  Farina has put in place 45 area superintendents with at least 10 years of teaching experience, including three years as a principal. “They will be my eyes and ears… Going forward, there will be consistency across and within the system.”  Farina announced she will eliminate 55 offices called Children First Networks, set up under Bloomberg’s school chancellors to support school improvement.  Farina explains: “Superintendents had the authority to rate and fire principals but they didn’t have the tools they needed to help principals improve.  Instead, that responsibility fell to 55 Children First Networks, which had access to resources designed to help schools improve.”  The Networks had long been criticized as ineffective.  Farina continues, “The leaders of these networks had the inverse of the problem facing the superintendents—despite working closely with principals, they had no authority to rate or fire them.”  Moving forward, Farina announced she will create seven geographically located Borough Field Support Centers that will, among other improvements, help coordinate and articulate programming across elementary, middle and high schools in particular areas of the city.

In her address, Farina described six characteristics that mark quality schools and schools moving toward improvement: rigorous instruction; collaborative teachers; a safe, orderly and respectful school climate; strong ties to family and community; effective leadership; and a climate of trusting relationships among administrators, teachers, and families.  These characteristics were identified by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which has developed a survey tool by which schools and school districts can measure qualitative improvement in these six areas.  Farina said she is instituting use of the surveys as a way to track progress.  “We will be evaluating every school in terms of the six measures. We will target support to areas where a school is weak, and we will hold the school accountable for demonstrating improvement.”

In her address Farina announced plans to flood the district’s lowest achieving schools—94 schools Farina is calling Renewal Schools—with support.  All 94 Renewal Schools will become full service community schools that surround students—right at school—with health clinics, social services and parent support.  Community schools are formed through formal contractual  arrangements with the city’s organizations that currently provide medical and social services; the Community School becomes the central site for the massing of the services families need.  Some have criticized this aspect of Farina’s plan as overly ambitious.  Patrick Wall, writing for Chalkbeat New York, worries that the formal school-social service-medical partnerships are being undertaken in too many schools all at once:  “The turnaround plan, dubbed ‘school renewal’ will connect the schools with agencies that will bring in physical and mental health services for students, after-school programs, tutoring, and perhaps job training or housing assistance for parents.” “Unlike a smaller program de Blasio launched earlier this year that asked eager principals to apply for money to create community schools, the turnaround plan compels leaders of struggling schools to adopt that approach regardless of whether they appear willing or able.”

In her address, Farnia described additional academic changes at the district’s 94 struggling Renewal Schools.  Renewal Schools are being paired for collaboration with schools that are currently thriving. Each school will add an hour of extra instruction every day. Renewal Schools will receive extra support for more seats in the district’s expanded after school program.  Teachers in these schools will have added training with intensive coaching from experts.  Summer programs will be targeted to these schools.  School achievement at Renewal Schools will be tracked closely.  Schools whose test scores fail to rise over three years will, according to Wall, “face leadership changes or even closure.”

Major program changes have been underway all year.  In her recent address Farina reported that 53,000 four-year-olds are now enrolled in quality, full-day, pre-kindergarten.  The school district has broadly expanded after school programming for students in middle school.  Farina is asking Renewal schools to return to “balanced literacy” reading instruction which incorporates time at school for children to read for enjoyment books they choose and write  about their personal experiences.  “I think it was a misinterpretation that all reading has to have an end-goal that is a test,” said Farina recently about reading instruction that she believes focused far too much on close reading of short expository passages and writing responses to the prompts in the state’s standardized tests.  Farina is also launching 40 dual-language bilingual education programs that use New York City’s diversity and size to advantage.  “A vast majority of the programs will be in Spanish, but there will also be some in Japanese, Hebrew, Chinese, French and Haitian-Creole.”

Lots of people are watching to see if Farina and the New York City Schools will fail.  Are expectations too high and too fast?  I am going to be looking for the successes instead.  Bloomberg’s strategy—founded in competition by schools to raise their aggregate test scores— punished principals and teachers and created incentives for pushing struggling students to the schools that struggled themselves—ensuring that those schools would score lower and lower until they were closed.

I am going to assume it is possible to improve public schools by building accountability through a strong network of experienced superintendents and principals, creating geographically based support services, making medical care available for children and social services accessible for families right in school buildings, intensively training teachers, and adding after school programs, preschools, and new and enriched academics.  I’ll be looking for some exciting developments.

In NYC, Farina Replaces “Test-and-Punish” with “Support-and-Improve.” Wow!

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign slogan last fall described New York as a tale of two cities.  He was referring to alarming income inequality exacerbated by the policies of former mayor Michael Bloomberg.  The metaphor of two cities also captures the contrast in philosophy between the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations, a contrast that has never been exposed more plainly than it was this week.

On Wednesday, New York City schools chancellor, Carmen Farina, went to  P.S. 503/P.S. 506 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn to deliver her second major policy address.  She announced a new philosophy of school improvement and the abandonment of letter grade ratings for public schools.

Then on Thursday, charter school diva Eva Moskowitz closed her Success Academy charter schools and led students, parents, and teachers at a rally in support of charter schools, a rally that was coordinated with a huge TV ad buy that cost nearly half a million dollars.  The ads—that ran most of the week—malign the public schools and promote school choice.

Farina’s policy address, filled with the kind of intangibles that must be the heart of any real school improvement, was described by the press primarily for its promise that the New York Public Schools will abandon a rating system that assigns public schools grades of A-F and instead publish School Quality Snapshots.  The Chancellor says the new Snapshots will, “provide the first balanced picture of a school’s quality—and reflect our promise to stop judging students and schools based on a single, summative grade…  The Snapshot will provide rich details about the life of the school by capturing successes, challenges, and strategies for improvement.  This is a totally new approach.  We are no longer penalizing a school for its weaknesses.”

It is important to stop for a second and think about what we are really reading here.  The New York City School District is abandoning a philosophy of test-and-punish and adopting a philosophy of support-and-improve.

Anyone who has been reading the literature about turning around the schools maligned by the federal testing law No Child Left Behind as “failing” or “in need of improvement” knows that New York City under Mayor Bloomberg was a leader in experiments that closed so-called “failing” schools and emphasized school choice by expanding privatized charters.  And anyone who has been following this conversation over the past dozen years knows that one of the best alternatives to the wave of punitive school reform is described in a book from the University of Chicago: Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, by Anthony Bryk and his colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Sadly Rahm Emanuel has not followed the advice of the Consortium on Chicago School Research.  Carmen Farina just announced that New York City will adopt this plan.

Bryk is a sociologist, and Organizing Schools for Improvement is about shaping the cultural dynamics of a public school to support professional educators—thus enabling them to nurture children.  Farina describes what she calls “six essential elements that have driven continual school improvement and moved students to the next level… rigorous instruction, a supportive environment, collaborative teachers, effective leadership, strong family-community ties, and a culture of continuous learning and trust.”  She explains, “We are looking beyond test scores and focusing on making sure that each school has what it needs for sustained and continuous growth.  And we have developed a framework that mirrors the essential elements we see in schools that continually improve… We built our framework around an established body of research conducted by Anthony Bryk and his colleagues from the University of Chicago.”

According to Bryk and his colleagues—and to Farina—the building of relational trust among the professionals in a public school is key.  Bryk and his colleagues describe school improvement as akin to baking a cake:  “Taking this analogy further, four of the organizational supports—parent-community ties, professional capacity, student-centered learning climate, and the instructional guidance system—can be conceived as a list of essential ingredients. Should a core ingredient be absent, it is just not a cake….   We can think of relational trust as the oven heat that transforms the blended ingredients into a full, rich cake. Finally, standing behind all of this is the head chef, in our case, this is the school principal, who orchestrates the collaborative processes of school transformation.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, p. 203)

In her address, Farina lists major changes instituted or launched since she took over the schools last winter:  pre-kindergarten for more than 50,000 students, major expansion of after school programming for students in middle school, the addition of 40 minutes each week (right in the union contract) for teachers to involve families in creative ways, the development of more than 40 new full-service community schools with wrap-around services that may include health clinics and parent support services, new staff development for counselors and school social workers, enhanced programs and support for English language learners, expansion of arts education, enhancement of career and technical education, enhanced professional learning opportunities for teachers and time (again set aside in the contract) for such activities, and collaboration among public schools for support and improvement.  Farina succinctly summarizes what’s changing in New York’s public schools: “We are no longer forcing change on people, we’re creating change with people.”

Of course, there has already been complaining that this is all intangible.  How can anyone measure it?  How can parents digest the information that will be released, when the letter grades were so simple and clear?  And of course the first person to leap in with criticism is Eva Moskowitz, the $500,000-per-year CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools whose supporters raised what Capital New York reports is $479,200 for a TV ad buy.  Many board members of Moskowitz’s  Success Academy charter schools also serve as the leaders of the ads’ sponsor, Families for Excellent Schools.  The spots, Don’t Steal Possible, malign the public schools, which are depicted as stealing opportunity from children.  According to Capital New York, Eva Moskowitz declared, “Our school system is stealing possibilities from New York’s children.”  We are reminded that Families for Excellent Schools also “sponsored a multimillion dollar ad buy earlier this year attacking de Blasio after he initially blocked three of Moskowitz’s charters from moving into existing public schools and sharing the space. He lost that political battle, in part because of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s strong and public support of Moskowitz… Cuomo also denied de Blasio his plan to charge wealthier charters rent.”

If they are given time, Farina’s policies to strengthen school organizations to support teachers and to connect schools with the children’s families are likely to expand what’s possible for children in New York City.  Farina explains: “One size does not fit all… Likewise, schools have unique qualities that cannot be captured in a letter grade.  They are not restaurants…  One way we will support schools is to evaluate their performance based on multiple measures….  This is no longer a competition.”

The question is whether New York’s citizens and the rest of our culture—that worships competition and invests hope in numerical ranking and rating—will risk trying something new.  Do we any longer even understand the importance of supporting human relationship and building community? Will we give New York City’s new learning philosophy a chance to improve the educational experience of over a million children in the public schools?

Co-Location of Schools in NYC Denies Services to Students

In New York City, due to school “reforms” undertaken during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s three terms, all high school students now participate in school choice; there are no longer comprehensive high schools with attendance zones. Many smaller high schools and elementary schools were opened, and many are now co-located, which means that several schools share space in what were once larger public schools.  While the mass of small high schools created under Mayor Bloomberg have received largely positive press, a new study demonstrates serious problems with many of the schools.

Even academic researchers have viewed Bloomberg’s policies as a help for struggling students.  For example, Greg Duncan, professor of education at the University of California at Irvine and Richard Murnane, economist in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, endorse the creation of New York’s small high schools.  In Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge for American Education, Duncan and Murnane accurately identify the educational implications of rising economic inequality in America’s metropolitan areas—accompanied by growing residential income segregation.  These authors then devote several chapters to what they consider promising educational responses.  One of the reforms they endorse is New York City’s “systemic initiative that has made it possible for tens of thousands of low-income New York City youth to obtain a higher-quality secondary education.” (p. 85)  However, despite supporting the “personalized attention, academic rigor and relevance, and abundant learning opportunities” (p. 106) available in the small high schools they examine, they note that “even the ambitious effort to create a system of effective small high schools left one in four disadvantaged New York City youth without a high school diploma.” (p, 107)

The new report released last week by the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University, The Effects of Co-Location on New York City’s Ability to Provide All Students a Sound Basic Education, graphically explains why New York City’s small schools—many crowded together in shared space in what were once larger public schools—are not working as well as they were supposed to.  The researchers warn: “We do not claim that all small and co-located schools have these deficiencies, but the deficiencies that we have found in the high-need schools we studied are substantial, and evidence that students’ educational rights are being violated in any school must be taken seriously… We are encouraged that Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina has convened a task force to study co-location and another to discuss the utilization report upon which school-building utilization decisions are made.”

“In 2013,” report the Teachers College researchers, “1,150 (63%) of the city’s 1,818 schools were co-located.  Charter schools made up 10% of co-located schools (115); the other 90% were traditional public schools.”  The researchers estimate that formulas used to allocate space in the city’s public school buildings seriously underestimate needed space for reasonable class size, for the operation of sufficient services for all children, and for required programming for students with special needs.  “NYC DOE policy for allocating resources to co-located schools in the years of our study did not provide these schools sufficient space or staffing to afford students the full range of resources to which they are entitled and that they need in order to succeed.”  Here are some of the reported violations:

Violations in Access to Facilities:  When schools are co-located, many students lack access to a shared library, a shared auditorium, and a shared gymnasium.  Sometimes the physical education facilities are inappropriate for the age and size of the students in each of the small schools sharing a building. “In some schools as a result of co-location, specialized physical-education spaces—such as swimming pools, dance studios and weight rooms—were off limits to students in their own school buildings.  Some schools lacked adequate access to their building’s shared yard.” Special education students and English language learners were being taught in closets and storage spaces. “Schools also lacked adequate and appropriate space for student-support services like counseling, speech therapy, and health services…. In one school, the guidance counselor met with students in the stairwell landing.”

Oversized Classes: The physical capacity of shared spaces has left large numbers of students in classes well above the contractual maximum class size and without the capacity for required small group supplemental instructional support.

Violations in Access to Curriculum: “Some small, co-located schools lacked a sufficient number of teachers and classrooms to teach even the basic required curriculum, curtailing access to social studies, science, and physical education…. Many schools were unable to provide the full Regents-required curriculum.”  “In middle and high schools, as a result of a lack of space and personnel, some schools were unable to provide even the minimum required instructional time and course offerings in math, social studies, and science.”  Some high schools lack basic chemistry and physics classes and provide only limited instruction in foreign languages.  Many middle schools and high schools lack art and music programs.  Many of the small schools lack sufficient guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists.

Violations in the Provision of Special Education Services: “Most egregiously, for lack of adequate staff, space, and other resources, schools adjusted the individualized education programs (IEPs) of some students with special needs in order to fit the available resources in the school, rather than the needs of children.”

Diversion of Scarce Resources: “The creation of small schools requires that the system hire more principals and other administrative staff…. One building housing a number of small, co-located schools had 28 administrators making six figure salaries.” “Office space for principals and other administrative staff reduces the number of available classrooms and spaces for student-support services.”

The researchers challenge New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio and the new schools chancellor, Carmen Farina to investigate these shortfalls in the services to which all students are entitled: “It is incumbent upon city and state education officials to assess the extent to which all students in small and co-located schools are being afforded the educational rights and opportunities to which they are entitled.”

NYC Chancellor Carmen Farina Brings Expertise and Good Sense to 1.1 Million Student District

Carmen Farina, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recently appointed chancellor for the New York City Public Schools, has been on the job only since January.  She is, however, a lifetime educator, teacher, principal, and former district administrator who came out of retirement to serve.

This week we have begun to observe pivots from the school policies in place under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who regularly appointed non-educators to run the school district—most notoriously Cathleen Black, the publisher of Cosmopolitan Magazine.  Farina’s recent moves bode well for education and for children.

According to a press release from the New York City Schools (also covered by the NY Times), in a new policy announced this week, New York City will no longer use one standardized test score to determine whether a child is promoted to the next grade.  “We have listened and worked closely with families, teachers and principals to establish a new promotion policy that complies with State law and empowers educators, takes the temperature down around testing, and keeps rigorous standards in place.  This new way forward maintains accountability, but mitigates the unintended consequences of relying solely on a single test.  Through a comprehensive evaluation of student work using multiple measures, our new policy is a step forward for students, parents, and schools.”  The New York state legislature has recently passed legislation to support the use of multiple measures to determine promotion.

Students who lag will still be required to attend summer school, but they will not take another test (with enormously high stakes) in August to see whether they can move to the next grade.  Their summer school performance will be represented by work added to the “promotion portfolios” that will now be maintained for all children in danger of being held back.  School personnel who know a child will consider the test score as one piece of evidence as they decide on a plan to enable that student to thrive.  The NY Times quotes Genevieve Stanislaus, principle of Life Sciences Secondary School in Manhattan: “The decision should be based on if the child could really benefit from repeating the grade.  It shouldn’t be for any reason other than that.”

Earlier this week, Chancellor Farina also launched a new program to improve schools that struggle.  While the federal School Improvement Grant program has emphasized hiring often expensive outside consultants and threatening to close schools whose scores lag, Farina’s program pairs struggling schools with other NYC schools that model innovation and rigor.  This program is expected to be ongoing after its initial activities this spring.

Chalkbeat New York reports, “Officials said the new initiative—which Farina said was so important that she launched it faster than some confidantes advised—is meant to foster ‘collaboration, not competition’ among schools.” “Over the 12 weeks before the end of the school year, the host schools will send teams on ten school visits and host six visits of their own—in addition to carrying out their regular activities.”  Details and arrangements will be provided by the Department of Education.

“We have put this together in basically a month, and the degree of commitment and excitement is just palpable,” announced Farina.  Some of the host schools were once struggling schools that have since turned around.

“We don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel.  We can replicate what works and just refine it.”  “We’re hoping that by June, we’ll bring them all together and say, how do you think your school got better?”

Notice that all this activity is built around encourage-and-improve.  What a refreshing departure from test-and-punish.

 

In NYC, Charters May or May Not “Backfill” Students; Public Schools Take Everybody

Who knew that New York City has a name for what lots of charter schools do or fail to do: accept new students when students drop out.  Backfilling students.  In NYC,  “backfilling students” is a practice that is chosen or rejected by particular charter school operators.

Right now it is also the subject of policy discussions in NYC about what should be expected of charter schools and charter school networks as a condition of their charters.  According to an excellent article that explains all this from Chalkbeat New York: “Charter schools (in NYC) must spell out their enrollment policies when they ask for permission to operate.  But authorizers have been loath to require charters to adopt one backfill policy or another, seeing it as one way in which the schools exercise their autonomy that defines them as a charter school, and so schools frequently include vague language in their charters.”

Chalkbeat New York continues:  “Now, the issue is growing in prominence as school leaders try to anticipate how the mayor will deal with charter schools in the years ahead, and especially how the city might charge charter schools rent to operate in public space.”   There are important considerations of equity as the new mayor, Bill de Blasio and his education chancellor Carmen Farina try to address the privilege and favored status some charter school operators received under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “One charter leader described the potential trade-off this way: The city provides space rent-free if the schools commit to more inclusive enrollment tactics.  Then the choice becomes the operator’s: do we want to go along or stick to our model and pay a penalty for it?”

Some charter school operators in NYC and elsewhere refuse to fill places vacated by children who drop out, because they claim that it is more difficult to bring newcomers fully into the school’s culture or to catch new students up academically.  “Backfilling seats that open up can pose steep challenges for schools.  Students who enter the school midyear or at one of a school’s higher grade levels can have trouble adjusting to the new school and be academically behind.  Midyear entries especially are more likely to have unstable home lives, leading to them leaving the school—meaning that one ‘backfilled’ seat might actually be filled by two or three students over the course of a year.”

This is a common situation for traditional public schools, but Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter Schools, for example, “backfill” only young children in the very early grades—only “through the third grade, and students in all subsequent grades up to high school must have started by that grade.”  It is believed that one reason Moskowitz’s schools and others that refuse to “backfill” are able to post high test scores is because they do not continue to accept new students, as traditional schools are required to do.

In contrast, Chalkbeat New York describes Harlem Link Charter School’s policy of accepting new students to fill vacated seats.  The school’s founder believes the school should continue to accept new students in every grade despite that, “Last year 17 percent of its students cleared the state’s proficiency bar in reading, below the city’s average, and 29 percent did in math, which is at the city average.”

The issue is complicated because some charters are privileged by receiving free rent in district-owned buildings. Public funding for charters in New York is provided on a per-pupil basis.  Schools that are paying rent for their facilities must accept enough students to fill all the seats because each child carries part of the funding that will pay the rent.  The privileged charter chains, Success Academies, for example, can afford not to “backfill students” because they are not faced with the expense of paying rent.

Ironically, there isn’t a name for the historical practice of accepting all children who present themselves at traditional public schools across America. Children come to school and a place is found for them in class.  When a practice is just part of what has always happened for as long as anybody can remember, there is no reason to consider giving that practice a name.  I suppose in a traditional public school it might simply be called the “we take everybody” practice.

NYC Schools Capital Budget Shifts to Prioritize Preschool Classrooms over Charter School Co-Location

A quick Saturday post…

New York City’s new school chancellor has indicated a significant shift in priorities.  Yesterday as she described the school district’s capital improvement budget, she prioritized making sure there are enough preschool classrooms by taking money from the budget line formerly designated to prepare spaces for locating privately managed charters in public buildings.

The NY Times reports:  “The chancellor, Carmen Fariña, in describing the Education Department’s $12.8 billion capital plan, said she would seek to redirect $210 million that had been reserved for classroom space for charter schools and other nonprofit groups. The money, spread out over five years, would instead be used to create thousands of new prekindergarten seats…”

NY Times Writer Explores Farina’s Style and Substance

This morning in the NY Times, without framing her discussion in the values of the corporate reforms of the Bloomberg administration,  Ginia Bellafante examines the educational philosophy, background and style of the new chancellor of the NYC public schools, Carmen Farina.

Yesterday I criticized NY Times coverage as biased toward Mayor Bloomberg’s so-called reforms and suggested reading the NY Daily News for fairer coverage of education issues in New York City.  I am pleased to see today’s objective profile of Farina in the NY Times, though I continue to suggest consulting both papers for education news.

Bellafante describes Farina as “both fierce and dexterous,”  a principal and administrator who practiced kindness, firmness, and doggedness.  Farina “opposes… myopic systems of learning in which real knowledge becomes a casualty of test knowledge, and what she calls ‘the gotcha mentality’ of the Bloomberg years, when teachers and principals were often abandoned instead of being given whatever support they might need to improve.”  She quotes Farina: “Even the worst principals work hard. When we support them, then we can hold them accountable.”

According to Bellafante, Farina believes that “children build reading skill by reading books that they love and that engage them.”

Farina talks about bringing joy back into the schools of New York City.  How delightful.