let's review

What happened in New York City education this year — and what to expect in 2019

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

It was a dramatic year for New York City schools. Parents either panned or applauded middle school integration plans in two districts. A proposal to diversify specialized high schools stirred up protests across the five boroughs. Even the selection of a new chancellor proved to be a nail-biter.

Here’s our look back at the headline-grabbing moments of 2018 — and what parents, students, and educators should watch out for in the new year.

The city welcomes a new chancellor

After a rocky search process, Mayor Bill de Blasio tapped former Houston schools chief Richard A. Carranza to be New York City’s next chancellor in March. In his first eight months, Carranza  has shaken up the schools leadership structure, taken on a busing controversy, and has promoted efforts to desegregate city schools in ways his predecessor didn’t. But while advocates for integration have been heartened by Carranza’s blunt talk, he faces steep odds. As the specialized high school debate has shown, changes to the system are met with great resistance.

Educators and families will also look to see how the department rolls out other promises Carranza made early in his tenure, such as improving education for English language learners, addressing suspension lengths, and implementing the feedback he hears from parents and educators.

An uncertain future for the SHSAT

Undoubtedly, the most controversial education news in the city was the June announcement of de Blasio’s two-fold proposal to diversify the most elite high schools. First, the plan would scrap the specialized high schools admissions test, or the SHSAT, and second, it would expand and modify the city’s Discovery program, which grants admission to students who have scored just below the test’s cutoff. The plan has sparked a lawsuit from Asian parents and community organizations, and it has drawn both support and harsh blowback from different segments within the city school system — particularly white and Asian families who are likely to benefit from the current test and believe it’s the most unbiased method of admissions.

De Blasio needs approval from state lawmakers to get rid of the test in favor of admitting the city’s top 7 percent of middle school students. As the new legislative session starts in January, it will be important to watch how the legislature tackles this issue, which doesn’t fall neatly along party lines. In theory, de Blasio would have the political support he needs, but the debate over specialized high schools has sparked opposition from people in his own party, like longtime New York City politician John C. Liu, now a newly elected senator and the new head of the Senate’s subcommittee on New York City education.

Integration plans get put to the test

Middle school integration plans were approved in two districts this year — District 3, which spans Manhattan’s Upper West Side and part of Harlem, and District 15, which includes Park Slope and Sunset Park in Brooklyn. In 2019, we should receive the first clues as to whether those plans are working as their supporters hoped.

The integration efforts could also lend momentum to other districts that are brainstorming how to spur more school diversity. These include District 2, which spans Lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side. But parents there have also been harshly critical of integration plans (while others have lent their support.) Will parent and education leaders be able to forge consensus? Will the education department approve changes even in the face of public backlash?

Charters face a cap

Democrats rode a mini blue wave in November and took control of the state Senate for the first time since 2010, signaling a bleak future for the expansion of charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately managed. Because of a cap on how many charter schools can open in New York, less than ten spots are available in New York City.

Charter advocates have pushed to expand the cap, but their lobbying could fall on deaf ears with new progressive Democrats who have campaigned against charter school expansion and favor boosting traditional public-school resources.

In addition to deciding the fate of charters, lawmakers will also decide in 2019 on extending de Blasio’s control over New York City’s school system. With a Democratic majority, lawmakers will likely grant him another extension without severe political bargaining, but how long and the structure of mayoral control could be up for debate.

Big questions for school turnaround efforts

The next year could bring answers to looming questions about the city’s approach to school improvement.

Come January, the city is expected to announce a round of proposed school closures, and schools in de Blasio’s signature Renewal program are likely on the chopping block. Renewal is the $750 million effort to turn around struggling schools by infusing them with extra resources. But after achieving mixed results, at best, the city is expected to wind down the program at the end of this school year. City leaders haven’t shed much light on what (if anything) they expect to replace Renewal with, or how still struggling schools might yet improve. (Officials have said schools will continue to receive extra funding and social service supports that have been part of the program.)

Ambitious early childhood education plans

In 2019, the city will begin a massive shift in its early childhood education programs, bringing oversight of the care of children as young as 6 weeks old under the purview of the education department. Currently, many of those programs are overseen by the city’s child welfare agency. We’ll be watching to see whether the transition helps streamline an often disjointed system, and whether the changes create problems for providers who often operate on thin margins.

The transition is happening while the city rushes to expand 3-K, free preschool for 3-year-olds. The next school year will also be high stakes for the mayor’s much-lauded push to make pre-K available to all 4-year-olds: The first class of students to benefit from Pre-K for All will take state tests, and many observers will be weighing the results to judge how effective the city’s program has been.

High stakes for the teachers union

The city and the United Federation of Teachers hashed out a contract that would provide extra pay for teachers at hard-to-staff schools. The incentive is part of a larger effort to lift schools in the Bronx (and elsewhere) by also giving teachers a more formal role in school decision-making. But the city has undertaken similar efforts before. Will they be more effective this time?

Looking ahead, the union faces a tough test in 2019. The Supreme Court recently ruled that staff who aren’t union members can’t be forced to pay fees to cover the cost of collective bargaining. Now that there’s a financial incentive to opt-out of the union, will educators stick with the United Federation of Teachers?  

upheaval

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.”