Q and A

Suspensions, evaluations and the Absent Teacher Reserve: What a new union boss has on his mind

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Mark Cannizzaro

Mark Cannizzaro thinks New York City principals have a nearly impossible job. Now, it’s up to him to help them get it done.

This September, Cannizzaro will become president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the union that represents more than 6,000 school principals, assistant principals and other education administrators.

“Nothing is more challenging than leading a school or being in school leadership,” Cannizzaro told Chalkbeat.

After a decade of leadership, Ernest Logan recently announced his retirement. Cannizzaro, who has served as executive vice president, will take the helm until at least 2018, when the next election will be held.

The union’s relationship with City Hall has been relatively smooth under Mayor Bill de Blasio. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be clashes. The CSA has been outspoken about its concerns over changes to school discipline policies and about the Renewal program, the city’s expensive turnaround strategy for struggling schools.

Principals themselves have also criticized what they see as a loss of autonomy under the current administration — a far cry from when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein described principals as the CEOs of their schools. For example, the education department recently announced it would place unassigned educators from the Absent Teacher Reserve into schools that have vacancies, even potentially over principals’ objections.

In an interview with Chalkbeat just before taking on his new role, Cannizzaro, a former Staten Island principal, suggested he would take a quieter approach to getting things done.

He also seemed to tone down his predecessor’s criticism of Renewal, saying there have been tangible gains in some schools.

Here’s what else he had to say about principal evaluations, working with schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and the bane of school administrators everywhere: mountains of paperwork.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s the single most pressing problem facing principals today?

Let me talk about the problem the system faces with our folks right now. It’s a retention and recruitment problem.

The job is virtually, by the numbers, undoable. The amount of things that you have to know and be able to do — from the size of the chancellor’s regulations to standard operating procedure, the manuals, the paperwork, all of the work and the compliance issues — the workload is tremendous. And the seasoned principal finds the shortcuts to get the job done. A new person coming in doesn’t know right away what things they can work around, which becomes overwhelming.

I think between the paperwork and the workload, budgets are always a challenge. Too many people spend their summers fighting for the basic minimum when they should be spending their summers planning curriculum and setting up their schools.

These have been ongoing issues. I was a principal under the prior administration and I had the issues of paperwork and budget concerns then, also.

Under de Blasio, the school system was reorganized in such a way that principals had to answer to superintendents again. What do you think of that change?

I was a proponent of superintendents being brought back into the districts and empowered, mainly because I always felt it was important to have someone who knew my school well to also be the person who was evaluating me, rating me and hopefully providing support to me.

In the former structure, it’s not that I felt that there was a lack of support. I felt the support was OK. But mainly, the evaluation was based on statistics that came out and the person who was evaluating didn’t always have such an intimate relationship to have context around those numbers.

Should student test scores count in principal evaluations?

I think it’s difficult to get around test scores being used at all, but right now they count for about 50 percent of an evaluation, which is way too much. We’re talking about test scores, really, in math and English. … Our school leaders feel that they are responsible for so many things other than just math and English.

What changes under this administration have been the most helpful for principals?

I mean, look, we have an educator, which I think is a huge plus because we’re able to speak to the chancellor. She’s been there. She’s walked in those shoes.

Now, have we had — and I’m not going to share specifics with you — but have we had concerns where we felt that, “Hey, don’t forget us. We’re here leading this system, making this system work”? Of course. But we had those concerns also with the other administration from time to time.

Have there been any other changes under this current administration that were particularly positive or negative for your members?

I think what’s been most helpful is, it’s very, very easy to pick up the phone to have conversations. Carmen has been very open. She comes here often, she comes to our chancellor’s consultations — which is a change. And I think that’s a positive change.

We meet once a month with a team of the chancellor’s representatives. And we just talk about issues. She comes herself to that — almost all of them. She’s here and she is listening.

Some principals have told us that the restructuring of the system has led to more micromanagement on the ground. Is that a fair perception?

I don’t know if micromanagement is the term, but in some areas, our folks feel that their discretion or their ability to make the decisions — it’s not what it should be.

Can you give an example?

The changes in the discipline code. The decision whether to suspend a child shouldn’t be on anyone else’s plate other than the principal of the school. They need to make the decision because they’re closest. They know the effects on the community. They know what’s best for the child, as well as the other children.

When a child’s behavior is unacceptable, we understand that doesn’t mean the child needs to be cast aside. We need to also be mindful of the fact that there is still a child there that now needs to be welcomed back when he or she comes back. So there are a heck of a lot of things that we need to do to make sure that we respond to student behavior more appropriately, but taking the decision away from the principal is a bad thing.

But wasn’t the restriction on K-2 suspensions enacted because suspensions were being overused?

You can’t jump to suspension. Suspension is not the first answer to most things, unless something was so egregious. And there were probably areas and pockets where it maybe was being overused. But in a system this large, those are the areas where you need to address and do a little digging and find out what it is, and what’s the reason and how come this is happening here? And let’s address how come it’s happening here.

You’ve been pretty measured so far in talking about the city’s decision to place educators from the Absent Teacher Reserve into schools. Isn’t this a reversal of the chancellor’s promise not to use forced placement?

If I’ve been measured, it’s because we haven’t seen the implementation yet, and there’s no reason to not be measured until we see the implementation. And we’ve had a very consistent, ongoing and open dialogue with the DOE [Department of Education] on being able to work together to make sure that schools ultimately benefit and no one is harmed here.

Obviously it’s a change in the way they’ve been doing things. But if you go back, there was a time when every excessed person was placed. Then there was this change in policy — which listen, for school leaders, it was great. You didn’t have someone placed in your building.

But then the practical issues came in. The media and the public were saying, “Look at all of this money that is being spent.” So everybody wanted to solve it their own way. But remember the way that this came up was through collective bargaining.

The United Federation of Teachers did the bargaining. But your members are also affected by the change.

Don’t get me wrong, every principal would want their ability to simply pick whomever they want whenever they want. But there’s a reality here and we’re going to work very closely to make sure this is done well.

Your predecessor was pretty outspoken about the rollout of the Renewal program. He once called it a “recipe for disaster.” What do you think about it?

The rollout had some real issues. We’ve since gotten a lot better.

In an effort to improve the Renewal schools, there were so many people going in to evaluate and probably not enough people going in to support one vision. So you had a group come in and say, “OK, let’s do this.” And another group would come in and maybe they hadn’t communicated the way they should have.

[Now] I think there’s just better communication between the school, who’s supporting and who’s evaluating.

The principal is the one at the center of this. The principal is the one who is ultimately responsible. The principal is the one who is being held accountable. The support has to come around what the principal needs.

We recently reported that schools in the program aren’t showing significant gains compared to schools not in the program.

There are some schools making some tremendous gains, and there are schools that need more resources. The other thing is, how old is the Renewal program? Do some research and find out how long it normally takes for school turnaround to show results in the scores.

But the mayor was the one who promised “fast and intense” improvements in these schools.

Everybody is in a rush, and I understand why everybody is in a rush. What it means is, let’s go back to the superintendent relationship. I want to know from the superintendent, who is back in the schools, how does this school look today compared to the way it looked when it started. If there’s improvement, the scores will follow.

How will your leadership be different from Logan’s?

I’m going to build on some of the great things that Ernie has done.

You probably won’t necessarily know about all of my issues unless I feel like I need you to know about my issues. If I can get something done quietly, that’s probably the most effective way to accomplish something.

But I also have a habit of telling the truth. And sometimes people will agree, and sometimes people won’t agree — but I like to engage people in the debate, then.

We have 6,300 or 6,400 active members. Many, many of them go about their jobs every day and do a great job. We don’t hear from them that much and they don’t hear from us as much as they probably should. This is their union. We need to get that mantra out there.

'rigorous and realistic'

Some struggling New York City schools can lose ground and still hit performance targets

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

Despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious promise to transform struggling schools, some of New York City’s bottom-ranked schools can backslide this year and still hit new goals that the city has set for them.

For the first time, the city has told schools in its $582 million “Renewal” program to aim for test scores, graduation rates, or attendance rates that fall within a certain range, rather than hit a specific target. But some ranges include goals that are below the schools’ current levels.

For instance, Bronx Collegiate Academy posted a 67 percent graduation rate last year. This year, its city-issued goal is to land between 63.6 and 81.9 percent — meaning its graduation rate can go down and still fall within its target range.

At the Bronx’s J.H.S. 123, the goal is for students to earn an average score on the state English tests of between 2.3 and 2.45 — despite already achieving a 2.42 average last year. (Students must earn a 3 or higher on the 4-point scale to be considered proficient.)

The latest round of goals continues a pattern of modest targets for schools in de Blasio’s signature school-turnaround program, even as the city loads them with extra social services, extended hours, and bigger budgets. Some experts say the goals are appropriate for schools that started so far behind, and note that school turnaround can take years. But others say the goals set a low bar, and question whether they are designed to make it easier for the de Blasio administration to claim its pricey program was a success.

What’s more, the new goal ranges have created some confusion among school leaders about what they are expected to achieve and what will happen if they don’t.

“If [the goals] really are supposed to be guiding stars and shaping what schools are doing on a day-to-day basis,” said Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas, “fuzzy ranges with unclear accountability consequences is not the way to do it.”

The goals are one of the factors officials consider when deciding whether schools in the Renewal program have made sufficient progress or should instead be closed or merged with other schools.

But if they are meant to provide low-performing schools with clear targets and a sense of urgency, the new ranges have instead created some confusion. The city offered online trainings on the goals, but some school leaders remain unsure of what’s expected of them.

“What we’ve been told is: ‘You need to reach for the upper range of your benchmark,’ said an administrator at a Brooklyn Renewal school, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It’s not a fixed number, so what’s good enough and what isn’t?”

Eric Ashton, the education department’s executive director for accountability, acknowledged that the new goal ranges had left some people confused.

Still, he defended them as “rigorous and realistic,” and said schools are expected to aim for the upper end of the range. The ranges are meant to encourage schools to focus on making progress rather than fixating on a single number, he added

“If you just have one number as a target then it’s all or nothing,” Ashton said. “We don’t want it to be all or nothing.”

The tweaks partially reflect the political dilemma the education department faces when assigning goals to the city’s lowest-performing schools: Overly modest goals could invite criticism that such small gains do not justify the program’s hefty price tag, while overly ambitious goals could set the program up for failure.

Yet despite their caution, officials have fallen into both traps.

Early goals they set for Renewal schools required such slight improvements that a top state official called them “ridiculous.” Still, many schools have failed to meet those goals, providing ammunition to some critics who say the program has been a costly disappointment.

Some schools have made strides, including a group of 21 “Rise” schools that officials say have made enough progress to begin transitioning out of the Renewal program. Pallas, the Teachers College professor, said that officials may have assigned achievable goals to the program’s remaining schools as a way to ease even more out — raising questions about the city’s long-term plans for the program.

“Setting low targets could allow the department to shift more of the schools to the Rise category, which is the declaring-victory category,” he said. “I think we’re all still wondering what the future of this program is going to be.”

hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

While that A-F proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

Read: Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Find more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.