the chorus (updated)

Shock, suggestions, and silver linings in test score reactions

Just as soon as the state’s new test scores were released — and even before, in the case of mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio — reactions started flying about the sobering news about student achievement in New York.

The reactions ranged from shocked (in the case of an advocate for English language learners) to constructive (AFT chief Randi Weingarten, who offered a takeaway for other states) to pleased (charter school operator Eva Moskowitz, whose schools posted high scores on the new exams).

Below, I’ve compiled the complete set of reactions that dropped into my inbox today. I’ll add to the list as more reactions roll in.

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center:

The results confirm what educators across New York City have known for some time—the majority of our students aren’t on track for success in college and beyond. This is clear proof that we need continued reform of the system – we must move forward not backwards. We should applaud the impressive scores of highly successful charters, including the Success, Icahn, Achievement First, and Uncommon Schools networks, independent schools including South Bronx Classical Charter School and Bronx Charter School for Excellence, as well as those traditional district schools that are beating the odds. If there was ever a time to learn from our best schools, whether charter or district, it’s today.

Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition:

Today’s shocking results show what we already knew to be true – that despite their vast potential and unique language skills, English language learners are being left far behind by our education system, from declining ELL graduation rates, single-digit college-and-career preparedness levels, and the growing achievement gap. New York State and New York City must take urgent action to ensure equality for all students. We are ready to work with the state and city to provide better instruction and better schools that highlight ELLs’ unique strengths and challenges, assessments that better measure their abilities, and increased parent engagement that makes immigrant parents a true stakeholder in their children’s education.

AFT President Randi Weingarten:

After months of inoculating warnings that the first results of the Common Core testing would be disappointing, no one should be surprised. These results are the consequence of years of intense fixation on test prep and rote memorization instead of developing the critical-thinking and problem-solving skills our kids need. They are the consequence of simply telling teachers, “Here are new standards—just do it,” without providing the adequate supports and preparation. They are the consequence of putting testing before teaching and learning, and rolling out tests before teachers and students even have the tools, curriculum and material to bring the Common Core into the classroom.

The low scores will be used by some as an excuse to throw out the Common Core or denigrate public education; those are the wrong lessons. But it does show the impact of having an accountability system based on teaching to the test instead of developing the skills kids need. …

These results should serve as a warning siren for states and districts across the country rushing to make the Common Core about tests and not about ensuring that the necessary shifts in instruction have occurred—especially to state education chiefs in states like New Mexico and Rhode Island who are being offered additional time to get this transition right but are refusing to take it.

Ocynthia Williams of the Coalition for Educational Justice:

Today is a sad day for NYC, as parents find out for the second time in three years that their children are not doing as well as the DOE has said, and not on track for academic success. In the city’s most struggling districts, 90% of students are not meeting state reading and writing standards. CEJ has always been for high standards with a plan to help schools and students meet them. CEJ calls on the mayoral candidates to make this sad day into a turning point, by committing that under their watch, NYC students will finally get a rich, challenging and diverse curriculum, supports and training for teachers, social-emotional services and real engagement of families and communities.

Ernest Logan, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Principals, which represents administrators:

The decrease in state test scores is no surprise considering that the new tougher tests were introduced before a comprehensive curriculum was rolled out for the Common Core and before adequate professional development was provided to our teachers and administrators.  We don’t want these scores to end up undermining the success of the Comm on Core, placing  the blame on educators and decimating the self-esteem of children. We trust that education officials will stick to their word not to punish schools for low scores and we can look forward to core standards that will gradually elevate our children’s critical thinking skills and broaden their perspective on life and learning.

Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota:

We must do better in educating our children and preparing them for the rigors of competing in a global 21st Century. The release of today’s Common Core math and English test scores will undoubtedly illicit varying opinions about their meaning and efficacy in assessing student’s learning. But it’s important to look at the entire picture, rather than isolated facts. Test scores are lower, but for the first time, students were tested on new, more demanding material.

Education reform continues to be one of my top priorities and a Lhota Administration will remain committed to helping our children excel in these new requirements. We have already begun to transform New York City’s public education system under mayoral control and the expansion of charter schools. Our objective must be to set the highest standards possible, while giving our educators and students the resources they need to help them achieve their goals. We must not allow politics or special interests to come between the success of our children.

Jonathan Schleifer of the teacher advocacy group Educators 4 Excellence:

The scores released today are a wake up call to all education stakeholders in New York. This is a teachable moment, not a political one. Although disappointing, the results are not a failure of students or a failure of teachers, but they are an indication that the system needs to do better. E4E teachers see the Common Core State Standards as the best tool available to prepare their students for college and careers, because it is designed to teach our children how to think for themselves. In addition these scores show us that we need to continue to give teachers more meaningful support and feedback through the City’s new evaluation system, Advance.

Moving forward, teachers must be a part of the conversation. Officials should solicit feedback from educators on the quality of tests and their preparation. The goal must be ensuring that we’re providing teachers and administrators with the proper training and professional development to fulfill the aspirations of the Common Core. New Yorkers, and especially New York City’s teachers, don’t shy away from hard work – but we do demand the tools we need to succeed to help serve our students.

Eva Moskowitz, CEO of the Success Academies Charter Schools network:

For years, we and other educators have asked for more rigorous tests which would go beyond filling in bubbles to measure whether kids are learning at the level they need to succeed in life. These new tests are much closer to the mark. Parents finally know if their kids are ready for college. Our results are a reflection of our commitment to critical thinking, high standards, and lots and lots of hard work by our students, teachers and families.

Nathalie Elivert, StudentsFirstNY’s director of educator outreach:

If we aspire to provide children with a meaningful public education that will expand their range of opportunities, we must invest our energy in an honest dialogue about what these results mean, one that is not about scoring political points. The possibility presented, in this moment, will be squandered if we approach the assessment of standards based learning with fear and accusation.

Mayoral candidate and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio:

This is a major wake-up call. We can’t keep working at the margins and focusing on a handful of niche schools. We need a game-changer to raise outcomes for kids across the board. Comprehensive early education is the only way to achieve it. That’s why I’ve laid out a plan to raise taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers to fund truly universal pre-k for every child in New York City, and to expand after-school programs. Investing in an early start and keeping kids on grade level through those early years is the only way to overcome crippling educational disparities.

Helen Rosenthal, City Council candidate from the Upper West Side:

For years, Mayor Bloomberg has tried to stymie public criticism of his war on teachers by claiming that his education reforms were working. He’s misled the public all along. The test scores announced today were released in typical Tweed fashion—without parental engagement or teacher involvement, and from behind closed doors—all to pit teachers, schools and parents against one another.

Adding insult to injury, the mayor has again displayed his contempt for parents’ role in the education system by withholding individual test scores for another two weeks. As a City Council member, I’ll work to reverse this dangerous trend and bring parents, advocates, and other stakeholders into the process to result in better educational outcome for students on the Upper West Side and across the city. In the meantime, the mayor must pledge not to use these scores in any high-stakes decisions that affect the future of our schools.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew:

This is a man-made disaster. It should not have been. The Common Core standards are something teachers fully embrace and support. They are harder, but when used properly will teach reasoning, critical thinking skills, things that children need to move forward.

The scores would have dropped this year, but they should not have dropped to this level.  We knew three years ago that this state was moving to the Common Core tests. We have been asking for curriculum based on the new standards since that point.  This mayor chose to ignore all of our pleas.  Many teachers still don’t have a curriculum to develop the lesson plans they need for their classes.

But there’s a larger issue.  For years the Mayor has focused the schools on prepping for previous state tests that had to be thrown out because they were unreliable, on closing schools, ignoring parents and demonizing teachers.  Instead, the administration could have been working with all parties to anticipate the Common Core, creating the city’s own rigorous curriculum, instructional materials and teacher professional development that would have raised the real standard of learning in New York City schools. With mayoral control, the mayor could have made these changes before the state pushed Common Core. We could have been ahead of everyone.

It didn’t happen, and our children are suffering for it.

Northeast Charter Schools Network President Bill Phillips:

These new baseline scores are bracing. Despite better relative performance in math and English when compared to host districts, the hard reality is most charter schools are challenged by low proficiency rates. Fortunately, charters are known for being flexible and accountable for performance, because we all have a lot of work to do.

SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, CUNY Interim Chancellor William Kelly, and Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities President Laura Anglin:

We are proud that New York State is leading the country in embracing the high standards represented by the Common Core. As leaders of the higher education systems in New York, we applaud the State Education Department for its leadership and commend New York State school leaders, teachers and staff who have devoted their time and expertise to implementation. …

This challenge will not be met in one day or one year. Achieving college readiness is a cumulative process, requiring ongoing determination. We look forward to the day when high school graduates in pursuit of a college education have had the full benefit of the new standards. Over time, higher standards will significantly benefit our students, and our state’s competitiveness. Rigorous preparation must remain a statewide priority.

We will continue to work with our state’s elementary and secondary school colleagues and partners in their ongoing efforts to achieve these important goals.

Nancy Cauthen, parent member of Change the Stakes:

Many parents and educators  reject official explanations that “tougher standards” and “harder tests” account for the plunge in this year’s test scores. What about the fact that the state rushed ahead to test children on material they hadn’t been taught? What about the fact that the test themselves were horribly flawed? Teachers and students reported that the instructions were confusing, questions were poorly worded and many appeared to have more than one correct answer. Also, the exams (particularly the ELA) were far too long, leaving too many children to run out of time. What about reports from teachers who scored the tests that many children lost points simply because they didn’t understand the question?

Despite widespread calls for full disclosure of the tests and transparency regarding how the tests were scored and proficiency levels determined, SED and DOE have all but ignored the criticisms. Although the state belatedly decided to release selected questions, we can’t help but wonder if the purpose was to get reporters to move off of stories about the scores themselves. In any case, this token gesture toward transparency will not put to rest suspicions that this year’s widespread “failure” was planned and politically-motivated. “Test-based accountability” has lost all credibility. New York’s latest fiasco will serve only to fuel the rebellion against high-stakes testing. Standardized tests never should have been used to hold children back, evaluate teachers and close schools. We will fight until the practice ends.

Rosalie Friend, NYC information coordinator of Save Our Schools:

To understand the drop in scores on the New York State tests, realize that because there is no standard unit of measurement, tests of school achievement can be easily manipulated. When you measure a child’s height, an inch is always an inch.  When you try to measure school learning, there is no set standard for what children should learn or how they can show that they learned it.  This is why standardized tests can be manipulated by politicians. We should return to hiring only licensed teachers whose preparation includes assessment.  We should trust them to evaluate the child’s work in every medium over the full year of classes.  A portfolio of student work can be used to support the teacher’s judgement of what the child has achieved.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr.:

… In this case, the alarmingly low passage rates seem to validate all along, that for 12 years, the DOE has been promoting a policy of teaching to the test.  If real learning and skill development were happening in our schools, wouldn’t more of that educational attainment have been reflected in the new tests? …

We should incorporate, and place greater emphasis, on other and better pedagogical metrics to ascertain academic growth and achievement.  It’s inconsistent to celebrate Common Core for implementing critical thinking testing on students, when we as educators invest such incredible blind faith in the infallibility of standardized tests.

This post was updated with additional reactions.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.