Admissions Debate

More than 70 Manhattan parents pen letter to local officials supporting de Blasio’s specialized high schools plan

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Attendees of a District 2 Community Education Council meeting listen as people speak out against a city plan to scrap the admissions test for specialized high schools.

A Manhattan parents meeting earlier this month turned raucous as parents protested the city’s plan to integrate the eight most elite high schools by scrapping the admissions test. Now, a group of parents from the same district are voicing strong support for the plan.

Seventy-seven parents from District 2 sent a letter Wednesday to the Community Education Council, state lawmakers, and City Council members supporting Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal, which would grant admission to the schools to the top 7 percent of middle schoolers using metrics such as GPA and state test scores.

Specifically, the letter writers oppose a resolution that some CEC members introduced the night of the meeting, which was sharply critical of de Blasio’s proposal and asked the city education department to pull its support to allow more community engagement. The resolution didn’t pass after a 5-5 tie vote.

“Any conversation about the SHSAT and New York City’s Specialized High Schools must begin by recognizing (as the CEC’s resolution notably does not recognize) that New York has some of the most racially segregated public schools in the United States,” the parents’ letter says.

The letter notes some of the common defenses for de Blasio’s plan, such as low-income families not having the resources to prepare their children for the high-stakes admissions exam. It also says that schools are so segregated, they are effectively part of an “apartheid system” and blames school-choice policies on contributing to segregation.

“While the CEC’s resolution raises some important questions (for example, about how the loss of honors programs contributed to a fall in SHS diversity in the 1990s), for the most part it draws on a series of arguments that conservatives have long used against efforts to improve racial justice and diversity in school admissions—for example, the contention that Black and Latinx students simply won’t be able to “perform” at the Specialized High Schools if they didn’t score within the few top percentage points of the SHSAT,” the letter says.

De Blasio’s plan has caused a firestorm of controversy across the city. Supporters note that black or Hispanic students make up 10 percent of the enrollment at the city’s specialized high schools but represent almost 70 percent of students citywide.

Families who oppose his plan — many of them white and Asian — argue that the SHSAT is race blind and is the fairest way to preserve the elite status of these schools. Asian-American parents and community advocates filed a federal lawsuit last week seeking to halt part of de Blasio’s plan.Asian students make up 62 percent of the student bodies at specialized high schools, while they make up 16 percent of city schools as a whole.

District 2, which stretches from the Upper East Side and through Soho to Tribeca, enrolls 8 percent of the city’s eighth graders but accounts for almost 13 percent of admissions to specialized high schools.

Some opponents acknowledge how segregated the system is but say they prefer a solution that better prepares students in elementary and middle school, so that they’re ready to take the exam when it’s time.

The admissions test is mandated by state law, so state lawmakers must approve any changes. It’s still unclear how the issue will shake out when the 2019 session starts in January because support of the proposal doesn’t fall neatly along party lines.

Democratic State Sen.-elect John Liu, a longtime city politician, who will head up the New York City subcommittee on education, is opposed to de Blasio’s plan but plans on a “comprehensive” discussion and hearings over the issue.

We were concerned that the initial pushback from the CEC and parents might scare legislators away from voting for bold initiatives to desegregate our schools,” said Anne Hager, one of the parents who signed the letter, in an email to Chalkbeat. “The hope is that hearing support for these initiatives from constituents will remove some of that fear of backlash. It’s so important for those of us in more affluent and largely white districts to be vocal about the unfairness of the current situation, even though many of us benefit from the inequity.”

Read the letter below.


Frustrations over principal turnover flare up at IPS School 43

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 43

It began with a tame slideshow presentation about hiring a new principal at School 43. But the Wednesday night meeting soon spiraled into a venting session — as parents and teachers pleaded with Indianapolis Public Schools to send in more staff.

Bakari Posey, the principal of School 43, departed for another job last week in the latest upheaval at the school, which is also known as James Whitcomb Riley. The assistant principal, Endia Ellison, has taken over in an interim capacity, as the district searches for a new leader for the school, which has faced significant turnover in recent years.

“This school needs help,” said Natasha Milam, who has three children at School 43, which serves about 450 students in prekindergarten to eighth-grade. “We need you all to listen. And we need you all to hear us.”

Milam, who volunteers at the school, said that because the building does not have enough staff to handle behavior problems, students are suspended far too often — meaning students are at home doing chores or getting into trouble, instead of in class learning.

Many in the neighborhood had hoped Posey, who is from the community, would be able to turn the school around after the previous two school leaders left their posts just months into the job. But under Posey’s leadership, the school continued to struggle on state tests, with just 7 percent of students passing both the math and English exams last year.

And after two-and-a-half years on the job, Posey left and began working this week as assistant principal at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township. In an email Thursday, Posey said that he left because he thought the position in Lawrence would help him grow professionally and it was closer to his home.

Posey also disputed the picture of School 43 as a campus in crisis. He said this school year, there hasn’t been “turmoil in the school in regards to student behavior,” suspensions were down, and the campus has been “very calm.” (Suspension numbers could not immediately be verified.) He also said that Indianapolis Public Schools provided “great support” to school staff.

Nonetheless, parents and teachers’ at the meeting Wednesday said the school has serious problems.

Ryesha Jackson, a 4th-grade teacher who has been at the school a little over a year, said there are not enough staff to help with student discipline problems. That makes it hard for educators to teach, she said.

“We have fights almost every day,” Jackson said. “I guess my question is, ‘What are we doing right now to support teachers?’”

School 43 is a neighborhood school, on the north side of the district. More than 75 percent of students there are black, and almost 70 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals — about the district average.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said district and school leaders would work together to develop a plan to address the urgent problems at School 43.

“But what I can’t give you right now is the plan for that help,” she said. “That takes time and coordination with the school staff.”

The district is gathering input about what school community members are looking for in a principal before posting a listing, officials said. Finalists will be interviewed by committees of parents, community members, and school and district staff. The goal is to name a new principal by April.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting was a small contingent from the IPS Community Coalition, a group that is often critical of the Indianapolis Public Schools administration, particularly the district’s partnerships with charter schools.

Michele Lorbieski, a resident from the north side who ran unsuccessfully for the Indianapolis Public Board with the support of the coalition last year, said the district cannot just rely on the next principal to fix the school.

“What I’d hoped to hear tonight was what the school district was doing to put things in place to stop this revolving door of principals,” she said.

District officials did not directly address why turnover has been so high among principals at School 43. But Brynn Kardash, a district official who recently began working with the school, said that the central office is doing more to support it this year.

School 43 was added this year to the transformation zone — an effort to help troubled schools that includes dedicated support and regular visits from a team at the central office, said Kardash, the district’s executive director of schools for the zone. Educators in the zone get additional training, extra planning time, and help analyzing student data, she said.

“The goal is to really support Ms. Ellison in work that she’s doing,” Kardash said, “which then leads to, hopefully, teachers feeling that support in the classroom.”

technical difficulties

This personalized learning program was supposed to boost math scores. It didn’t, new study finds

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A student at I.S. 228 in Brooklyn does online work through Teach to One, a program that grew out of the iZone.

A program that Bill Gates once called “the future of math” didn’t improve state test scores at schools that adopted it, according to a new study.

The research examines Teach to One, a “personalized learning” program used in schools across 11 states and which has drawn support from a number of major funders, including the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings. (Gates and CZI are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

At five schools in Elizabeth, New Jersey, students who used Teach to One didn’t improve any faster than similar students who didn’t use the program, even after three years. The results underscore the limited evidence for claims that such technology programs can dramatically improve student learning, even as they have become magnets for philanthropic dollars.

“The original aspirations, that Teach to One programs were going to have huge positive effects on math scores — we can rule that out with these studies,” said Jonah Rockoff, a Columbia professor who studied an earlier iteration of the program.

Teach to One says its approach is designed to help students steadily learn math skills, regardless of how unprepared or advanced they are. Students spend time on a computer as well as with a teacher and working in small groups. Students receive individualized schedules each day based on their progress, and a computer program adapts the curriculum to students’ strengths and weaknesses in the form of a “playlist.”

New Classrooms, the organization behind Teach To One, suggests that the Elizabeth results aren’t the full story.

It points to a separate analysis released this week that looks at a broader group of schools — 14, from several districts — that used the program. That study shows Teach to One students making above-average gains on a test known as the MAP, which is taken on a computer with questions changing as students answer correctly or incorrectly.

New Classrooms co-founder Joel Rose suggested in a statement that those computer-adaptive tests capture something that state tests can miss: students’ progress.

“What seems to be emerging is a real tension in math between approaches focused on long-term academic growth and state accountability systems,” he said.

Rockoff said there might be something to New Classroom’s argument that the study using adaptive test is better able to showcase students’ gains. “If [students] are at a grade four level but they’re in grade six, teaching them grade four material is going to hurt them on the state test,” he said.

But the author of the second study, Jesse Margolis, and a number of other researchers who spoke to Chalkbeat note that it cannot show whether Teach to One caused any of the students’ gains, though — a major limitation.

“While this study cannot establish causality, it is encouraging,” Margolis wrote. (The New Jersey study is better able to establish cause and effect, but it also has limitations and does not rely on random assignment.)

The New Jersey study isn’t the first to show that Teach to One didn’t improve test scores: so did Rockoff’s 2015 report on three New York City middle schools that looked at both state and MAP tests.

One possible explanation is that Teach to One is helpful to students in some places but not others. Margolis said his study examined the same five Elizabeth schools as the Columbia study and also found minimal gains there, but that schools elsewhere seemed to see larger improvements.

Researcher John Pane of RAND, a leader in studying personalized learning, says the results are important to understanding a field with limited research to date.

“Because we have so little evidence on personalized learning,” he said, “every data point can be helpful for us to start triangulating and piecing together what works and what doesn’t work.”