highlight reel

Beyond pre-K: Here’s what you need to know about de Blasio’s education record this election day

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Mayor Bill de Blasio stopped by a computer science class at Curtis High School on Staten Island during the first day of school.

If asked to describe Mayor Bill de Blasio’s education agenda, most New Yorkers would likely give a two-syllable answer: pre-K.

As voters head to the polls Tuesday, when de Blasio is widely expected to sail into a second term, the mayor is surely pleased with that answer. His expansion of free pre-kindergarten to 50,000 additional four-year-olds has proven to be his clearest victory as mayor, earning praise from advocates, researchers, parents — even Hillary Clinton.

In fact, universal pre-K and its unexpectedly smooth rollout have proven so popular that de Blasio recently announced plans to launch a parallel program for three-year-olds.

“Our obligation is to come up with new solutions,” he said at a breakfast talk Monday with business and political leaders. “And so, we did that with pre-K and we look forward, with everyone’s help here, to doing that with 3-K.”

Pre-K hasn’t just provided de Blasio a happy talking point — it’s also helped him steer the discussion away from more controversial education issues, from charter schools to school segregation to his expensive support program from struggling schools, which has so far achieved mixed results.

“In many respects,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College, pre-K has “overshadowed virtually all other features of the education agenda.”

But another reason education has been a marginal issue in this year’s sleepy mayoral election — it didn’t come up at all during the first debate — is that, even apart from pre-K, de Blasio has overseen a period of relative stability and incremental process for the nation’s largest school system. Two of the most closely watched indicators of the system’s health — the high-school graduation rate and grade 3-8 test scores — have edged up.

The school system, Pallas added, “does seem to be generally moving in the right direction.”

Below, we recap de Blasio’s education record beyond pre-K and tell you what to watch for in his (expected) second term.

A grab bag of initiatives meant to strengthen schools

Defining de Blasio’s vision for the city’s schools hasn’t always been easy.

Besides pre-K, much of his agenda has been a repudiation of the policies of his predecessor, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who closed dozens of low-performing schools, encouraged the growth of charter schools, and clashed constantly with the teachers union.

De Blasio has mostly halted school closures, instead flooding troubled schools with extra social services and academic supports. He’s been lukewarm about charters, drawing criticism that his administration has been slow to provide them space. And he revived City Hall’s relationship with the teachers union — which endorsed his reelection bid — agreeing to a significant pay bump in the new contract he negotiated.

In another union-backed effort, he’s funded over 215 “community schools,” which have embedded social-service providers, extended school days, and teams devoted to combating chronic absenteeism.

He’s also rolled out an assortment of initiatives called “Equity and Excellence for All” which, among other things, includes promises to make Advanced Placement classes available to all high-school students by 2021 and to provide computer-science courses to all students by 2025.

Besides some raised eyebrows about the long timeline, the plans mostly enjoyed a warm reception. They also fit within de Blasio’s education philosophy: If Bloomberg’s view was that the city school system was fundamentally broken and needed to be rebuilt from the ground up, de Blasio’s approach is to strengthen a system he says is in overall good shape.

The “Equity and Excellence” plans “were kind of presented as add-ons, instead of turning the whole system upside down,” said Clara Hemphill, director of education policy and Insideschools at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.

De Blasio said as much in his annual “State of the City” speech this February, when he touted the city’s record-high graduation rate, the new AP classes, and — of course — pre-K.

“The state of our schools,” he declared, “is stronger than many of us ever could have imagined.”

Setbacks and crises force adjustments to the agenda

As much as de Blasio prefers basking in the strengths of the school system and his efforts to enhance them, some dark spots have proven inescapable.

Having vowed not to shutter troubled schools — but under state pressure to overhaul them — de Blasio was forced to come up with a turnaround program during his first year in office. He called the program “School Renewal,” and promised “fast and intense improvement” in the 94 bottom-ranked schools that would receive extra money and resources.

Three years later, the $582 million program has achieved mixed results — providing fodder for critics who say the effort is “mired in failure.”

Evan Stone, co-founder of Educators for Excellence, a teacher advocacy group, said he welcomed the investments de Blasio has made in Renewal schools but added: “The success has not been there.”

Some of the Renewal program’s critics — many of them charter-school backers who argue that charters are a better alternative to “failing” district schools — have also pounced on de Blasio’s school-discipline reforms.

De Blasio has made it harder for schools to suspend students, instead pushing schools to adopt  “restorative” practices where students reflect on their misdeeds and make amends. The new policies have continued to drive down the number of suspensions, but critics say they’ve made some schools less safe and orderly.

Those concerns flared up in September when a Bronx high-school student stabbed two other teenagers during class, according to police, leaving one dead.

City officials point to better attendance and academic performance at some schools in the Renewal program, and a record-low number of major crimes across the school system. And in the wake of the school stabbing, de Blasio’s schools chief, Carmen Fariña, unveiled a suite of new anti-bullying initiatives.

The stabbing wasn’t the only school crisis that forced de Blasio into action.

The number of homeless children has swelled during his tenure, with one in ten students residing in temporary housing at some point last school year — a grim new milestone that has left the de Blasio administration scrambling to help homeless students make it to school while trying to create more affordable housing for their families.

Meanwhile, since de Blasio rode into office in 2014 with promises to end the growing inequality that he called New York’s “tale of two cities,” advocates have pressed him to attack the city’s severe school segregation. After repeatedly insisting that the problem was a relic of historic housing policies largely beyond his control, he finally gave into the pressure and released a “school diversity” plan this June — which left many advocates underwhelmed.

“I hope that without the prospect of reelection,” Stone said, referring to de Blasio’s likely second term, “the mayor can be much more bold on desegregation.”

What’s next?

If de Blasio’s first term has been about unveiling “transformative” education plans, his second term will hinge on executing and expanding those efforts.

That will include building out the new “3-K” preschool program, which the mayor has said will be even more challenging than the pre-K expansion.

He’ll continue to grapple with struggling schools in the Renewal program, which was billed as a three-year intervention and is now approaching its third birthday. De Blasio has said additional schools will close or be merged, while others might graduate out of the program, though the exit strategy for those schools isn’t yet clear.

And integration advocates are unlikely to let up. Even as they hold de Blasio to the goals laid out in his diversity plan, they also have signaled a desire to push him further — for instance, to revamp the high-school admissions process or invest in diversity-related teacher trainings and classroom materials.

It remains to be seen whether de Blasio will announce any major new education initiatives in the coming years — or a new chancellor to oversee them.

Among education insiders, there has long been speculation that Fariña — who was plucked out of retirement three years ago — will not stay on for a second term. If she does leave, her replacement could push the mayor in new directions, observers say.

“A new chancellor coming in could conceivably be more creative or bold,” said Pallas, the Teachers College professor, pitching ideas to the mayor “that are different from just, ‘Stay the course.’”

In a statement, a City Hall spokeswoman pointed to the higher graduation rate and test scores, lower dropout rate, and growth of free pre-K during de Blasio’s first term.

“The facts here are clear,” said spokeswoman Olivia Lapeyrolerie, “New York City public schools are the strongest they’ve ever been.”

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.