renewed questions

Mayor de Blasio says fate of 50 turnaround schools will be decided this year

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

Mayor Bill de Blasio offered new clues Wednesday about the future of dozens of struggling schools that remain in the city’s Renewal turnaround program, saying the schools will learn their fate this school year.

Now in the fourth year of what was originally billed as a three-year effort, the Renewal program has been a pillar of the mayor’s education agenda. It aimed to rapidly turn around 94 long-struggling schools by adding extra social services and academic supports and will have cost the city over $750 million by the end of this school year.

Of the 50 schools that remain in the program, “We expect a lot of those schools to graduate out,” de Blasio said at a morning press conference at P.S. 377 in Queens,but ultimately this is the year to decide what happens with all of them.”

City officials have been reluctant to offer definitive answers about how long the program will continue and what benchmarks schools need to reach to no longer be considered in need of extra support and oversight. De Blasio’s comments on Wednesday offer a new timeline for answering some of those questions and suggests the city may be looking to make significant changes this school year.

“We gave an extra year because we thought it was worth it,” de Blasio said. “We thought the additional investment would make a big difference for a lot of them.”

The city has always acted as if the Renewal program would extend beyond the three-year mark, but just days after starting as the city’s new schools chancellor in April, Richard Carranza expressed concerns about the program, saying it didn’t appear to have a clear “theory of action” (though he has since backed off that stance).

Questions remained on Wednesday as schools opened for the year about how the program is being supervised and what the city’s goals are for each school.

Despite hiring a round of new senior officials, Carranza has not replaced the Renewal program’s superintendent, who stepped down in March. The education department has also not publicly released any of the goals the schools are expected to reach this year, which typically include metrics like test scores, attendance, and graduation rates. (And unlike previous years, neither the mayor nor chancellor visited any Renewal schools on the first day of school.)

“The goal posts have never been very clear — either in terms of specific outcomes that would guide hard decisions or timelines,” said Aaron Pallas a professor at Teachers College who has studied the Renewal program.

A spokesman for the mayor’s office referred questions about de Blasio’s comments to the education department. Will Mantell, a department spokesman, said the city expects to “share an update this fall” about the city’s plans for the program but did not offer details or explain the city’s targets for each school.

“We’re continuing to provide Renewal Schools with unprecedented supports under First Deputy Chancellor [Cheryl] Watson-Harris’s leadership,” Mantell said in a statement.

The program, pitched as an alternative to large rounds of school closures under the Bloomberg administration, has offered additional supports such as extending the school day, providing academic coaching for teachers, adding social services like mental health counseling and dental clinics, and partnering with community organizations.

The initiative has prompted fierce debate about whether this approach is the best way to turn around the city’s lowest-performing schools. While the city argues the program is making a difference and some school leaders have appreciated the extra assistance, researchers have found that the program has not generated significant academic improvements measured by test scores and graduation rates.

Of the 94 original schools, 14 have been closed, nine have left the program after being merged with other schools, and city officials said 21 have shown enough progress to slowly ease out of the program. No schools have been added to the program since it began in 2014.

On Wednesday, Carranza suggested some of the responsibilities for overseeing school turnaround efforts would fall to nine recently-created “executive superintendents” who Carranza said he vetted partly for their “experience in turning around schools and supporting academic growth in schools.” And he said Renewal schools would not lose the extra support they have been given — similar to the help a wider group of “community schools” receive — even as the program may evolve.

“If you invested those kinds of resources in building a community school network and approach around a school, then as a school gets better why in the world would you ever pull that away?” Carranza said.

devos watch

Obama-era discipline rules should be scrapped, Trump school safety commission says

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Trump administration officials say it’s time to reverse Obama-era guidelines meant to curb suspensions and expulsions, especially for students of color.

The federal school safety commission recommends the move in a report released Tuesday, saying that efforts to address racial disparities in discipline may have made America’s schools less safe. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is expected to rescind the guidance soon, notching a victory for the conservative campaign to link school discipline reforms with unsafe schools — a connection that remains questionable.

“One of the things that the commission was concerned with was the recurring narrative that teachers in the classroom or students in the hallway and on campus were afraid because individuals who had a history of anti-social or in some instances, aggressive, trending toward violent, behavior were left unpunished or were left unchecked,” a senior Trump administration official told reporters Tuesday. “So that is the first move that the report makes, to correct for that problem.”

The school safety commission’s 177-page report also recommends:

  • More access to mental health services for students
  • Various approaches to school safety, which could include considering “arming some specially selected and trained school personnel”
  • More training around how to prepare for an active shooter

Those conclusions come from a commission formed after a school shooter in Parkland, Florida left 17 dead in February. Chaired by DeVos and composed of just four members of President Trump’s cabinet, the commission has hosted a series of hearings and courted controversy by avoiding discussion of gun control measures.

While the report lauded states and schools using techniques such as positive behavioral interventions and supports to tackle student misbehavior, the commission stopped short of calling for more federal funding for such initiatives.

Scrapping the school discipline guidance is a particularly notable move. That guidance was issued in January 2014 by the Obama education and justice departments, and it told school leaders to seek out alternatives to suspension and other penalties that take students out of the classroom.

It also noted that black and Hispanic students were suspended much more often than other students, and that suspensions were correlated with higher dropout rates and lower academic achievement. Significant, unexplained racial disparities in discipline rates could trigger a federal review into whether a district had violated civil rights law, it warned.

To civil rights leaders, this was an effort to address racism in schools. To conservatives, it represented government overreach. In schools where suspensions were reduced without alternatives, the guidance encouraged misbehavior to go unchecked, they argued.

That argument is expanded in the safety commission’s report.

“When school leaders focus on aggregate school discipline numbers rather than the specific circumstances and conduct that underlie each matter, schools become less safe,” the report says. It cites a survey from the AASA, The School Superintendents Association, with comments like, “There is a feeling that by keeping some students in school, we are risking the safety of students.”

(AASA’s advocacy director, who praised some aspects of the report, says those comments represented a minority view.)

There’s limited research evidence that cutting back on suspensions made schools less safe, though teachers in multiple districts have reported that they have been hamstrung by new restrictions. One study in Chicago found that when the district modestly cut down on suspensions, student test scores and attendance actually rose as a result. There’s also not much known about how effective alternatives, like restorative justice, have been either.

The report also argues that guidance rests on shaky legal ground by relying on the concept of “disparate impact” — meaning policies that are neutral on their face but have varying effects on different races can be considered discriminatory.

Meanwhile, the report says, disparities in discipline rates may not have to do with discrimination at all, but “may be due to societal factors other than race.” It also says “local circumstances” may play a role in behavior differences “if students come from distressed communities and face significant trauma.”

“When there is evidence beyond a mere statistical disparity that educational programs and policies may violate the federal prohibition on racial discrimination, this Administration will act swiftly and decisively to investigate and remedy any discrimination,” it says.

The Obama-era guidance didn’t require schools to adopt specific policies, and rescinding it won’t require districts to make changes, either. But a change could influence school districts’ decisionmaking.

That’s likely to harm students of color and students with disabilities, former Obama education secretaries Arne Duncan and John King said in a statement.

“Today’s recommendation to roll back guidance that would protect students from unfair, systemic school discipline practices is beyond disheartening,” they said.

Read the entire report here:



Matt Barnum contributed reporting.

funding battle

Defiant, Cuomo invites ire resisting more New York State funding for schools

PHOTO: Philip Kamrass/Office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo during his 2018 State of the State address.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo once again laid the responsibility of equitable school funding on local districts Monday, earning the nickname “Ebenezer Scrooge” from an advocacy group and kicking off what could be a contentious fight over education spending.

In a speech to the New York City Bar Association, Cuomo released his legislative priorities for the first 100 days of his new term as governor. He devoted a small portion of his comments to education, immediately sparking anger from his critics.

Cuomo directly placed responsibility for funding schools on local districts, saying the money is “not fairly distributed by them.” He pointed to a law he pushed to pass last year that required school districts to compile a report on how state funding is distributed among schools.

“The truth is the poorest schools do not receive any more funding than the richer schools from their local districts,” Cuomo said. “And that, my friend, is a critical injustice because the poorer schools have a great need that needs to be funded.

Then, Cuomo called the foundation aid program — designed to send extra dollars to high-needs school districts — and the 1993 lawsuit filed by New York City parents that laid the groundwork for foundation aid as “ghosts of the past” and part of “a political game.”

“The question is the local distribution of aid,” Cuomo said. “That’s what we have to focus on if we’re actually going to move from political pandering to progressive policy. It’s a question of math and theory, not philosophy and political posturing.”

Advocates say the state still owes the education department about $4 billion in foundation aid funding. The state halted funding under the formula during the recession. In 2017, Cuomo proposed changing it to a level that advocates described as a “repeal.” But Cuomo’s proposal could not overcome these advocates’ opposition and failed to pass.

“Cuomo is the Ebenezer Scrooge of public schools, starving children of much needed resources and state funding,” said Jasmine Gripper, legislative director for the union-backed advocacy group Alliance for Quality Education, in a statement after Cuomo’s speech.

The problem, Gripper said, is that under Cuomo, the “state doesn’t provide enough funding to meet the growing needs that result from growing poverty and increased numbers of English language learners.”

A Chalkbeat analysis of New York City’s school funding data found there are funding disparities, which can amount to thousands of dollars per pupil, between schools, largely because of the Fair Student Funding Formula that sends more dollars to schools with hard-to-serve students, like those with disabilities or those from low-income families.

Some educators, including school principals, argue this formula does not go far enough to address school inequities — holes often filled by rich PTAs.

In the past, some scholars have questioned whether spending more money on schools necessarily results in sufficiently better outcomes for students. But a new review of the research suggests that additional money can play a role in student academic performance. But how that money is spent also likely matters.

The state Department of Education recently proposed a $2.1 billion increase in school funding, most of it tied to boosting foundation aid dollars. The state teachers union and Alliance for Quality Education lauded the Board of Regents’ proposal.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Teachers Federation, said it’s “time to take the politics out of state resources for education,” adding that low-income students have been “shortchanged for years” by the state formula.

As they have in the past, state education policymakers also endorsed a $4.9 billion, three-year phase-in of the money many argue is still owed under foundation aid.

“As we said when we released our proposal last week, all children should have access to a high-quality education regardless of their race, where they live or where they go to school,” said Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. “We look forward to working with the legislature and the executive to achieve this for all New York’s children.”

With more progressive Democrats in the Senate who campaigned on boosting education spending, Cuomo’s comments could signal a contentious budget fight ahead. Lawmakers must hash out a budget pan by April 1, and Cuomo’s budget proposal is expected in January.

Lawmakers don’t typically grant the full funding request from state policymakers. Last year, for example, legislators approved $1 billion in more funding for education, which was still more than half a billion dollars less than what the Board of Regents asked for.