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Rosa, new head of New York education policy: As a parent, ‘I would opt out’

PHOTO: Creative Commons/timlewisnm

The newly elected head of New York state’s education policymaking body said if she were a parent, she would likely opt her child out of the state tests — and would not say if she hopes the boycotts shrink in number this year.

Instead, Betty Rosa spoke about the need to retool the tests to rebuild trust with parents, and said that families have the right to choose what is best for their children.

“If I was a parent and I was not on the Board of Regents, I would opt out at this time,” Rosa told reporters Monday, shortly after she was elected chancellor of the Board of Regents.

Rosa’s statements underscore the striking nature of Monday’s leadership shift. Former Chancellor Merryl Tisch was a staunch defender of the exams, which grew more difficult to pass under her leadership as they incorporated the Common Core standards. Last year, frustrations about testing led to one in five eligible students not taking the tests statewide.

[Read more about Rosa’s selection here.]

The statements also illustrate the somewhat precarious position Rosa now occupies as a critic of state education policy. As chancellor, she oversees the State Education Department — which administers the state tests — and whose leader, Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, has been campaigning to minimize the opt-out movement’s growth.

Rosa chose her words carefully Monday. In response to a question about whether she would like to see the number of opt-outs decrease this year, Rosa talked about restoring trust between the State Education Department and parents.

“I want us to get to a place where we comfortably take and examine the current tests and move forward in a way that parents have a sense of full trust,” Rosa said.

But as the chancellor-elect, she stopped short of telling parents they should have their children take the tests.

“My recommendation is that parents should be informed and that parents should make their own personal decisions,” Rosa said.

That was a positive sign to opt-out leaders like Lisa Rudley, a parent and founder of New York State Allies for Public Education, the group that endorsed Rosa. “Dr. Betty Rosa recognizes the rights and responsibility of parents to protect their children while the changes to these inappropriately flawed tests and standards are being discussed and planned,” she said.

Stephen Sigmund, the executive director of High Achievement New York, a coalition of organizations that advocate for learning standards like the Common Core, said he was troubled.

“It’s concerning to us that she wasn’t more definitive about that, and that she said she would opt her own children out,” he said. “But we’re hopeful that, as she said, as the tests continue to improve that her point of view will change.”

New York’s opt-out movement has been expanding its political influence in recent months as it tries to gain a lasting foothold in state politics. Its leaders distributed surveys to candidates for open Regents seats in recent months, endorsed candidates for those seats and voiced support for Rosa’s bid for the chancellorship.

“They are going to think that this is a big win for their movement,” Regent Roger Tilles said this month, of Rosa’s selection and the opt-out movement.

During the press conference, Commissioner Elia underscored the changes she has made to the state tests this year to make them more palatable for students and parents, including shortening the exams, granting students unlimited time to complete them, and involving more educators in revamping the tests.

And the new vice chancellor-elect, Regent Andrew Brown, was clear that he would like to see fewer opt-outs in the coming years.

“Hopefully we will see less, but certainly we want to continue to move in the direction where we are seeing less over time,” Brown said.

Want more New York City education news? Try Chalkbeat’s morning newsletter

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: