By Robert Pondiscio
The New York State Board of Regents this week refused to approve early renewals recommended by their authorizer for ten Success Academy charter schools. Among the ten were two National Blue Ribbon schools that placed among the top five in the entire state on last year’s annual math test. The lowest performing of the ten brought 75 percent of its students to proficiency or above on last year’s state reading test.
No matter. The Regents, “striking a firm tone when it comes to charter school oversight,” according to Chalkbeat reporter Monica Disare, kicked the early renewals back to SUNY as “premature.” This, mind you, was the considered judgment of the very same body that last month voted to make teaching a “literacy optional” profession in New York.
Is there any place in the nation where education reform has left the rails as quickly and completely as New York? Once a bright spot on the national reform landscape and a magnet for talent and innovation, New York has, with bewildering and humbling speed, become nearly the opposite. Stellar results posted by high-performing charters are dismissed, while New York City mayor Bill de Blasio invests hundreds of millions of dollars in his signature “renewal schools” model largely without success. Meanwhile a new report from the Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden indicates that school climate, order, and student discipline has “deteriorated substantially” during de Blasio’s term, almost certainly a result of shifting philosophies about school discipline, and a reluctance to suspend students—itself a response to the “no excuses” brand of schooling closely associated with high-performing charter schools. The bad old days are back.
The wreckage that is education reform in New York City and the state at large is a cautionary tale of too much reform all at once, political overreach, and a parental immune response aided and abetted by teachers unions, all of which combined to bring the entire edifice of reform, decades in the making, to a thundering crash. A collection of strong charter schools remain, but even these must engage in perpetual fights with teachers unions and the mayor for space and funding parity, despite waiting lists numbering in the tens of thousands.
How did things go so wrong, so quickly? Veteran reformers and city and state education officials, past and present, express bitterness. Many point to the decision to “put the pedal to the metal” on teacher evaluation at the same time the state’s school districts and teachers were grappling with Common Core and the changes in practice the higher standards demanded. The backlash it engendered fueled the growth of the opt out movement in New York’s politically powerful suburbs, creating strong headwinds from which reform efforts have never recovered.
Under New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and his schools chancellor Joel Klein, New York City threw out the welcome mat for charter schools. In 2002, the city was home to seventeen charters serving about 3,200 students. The number of charters increased nearly ten-fold by the time Bloomberg left office, with 70,000 of the City’s 1.1 million students in charter schools, including many run by some of the nation’s most highly regarded CMOs: KIPP, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, and Success Academy.
What New York City incubated spread state-wide. “Going forward, standards, accountability and innovation will be the watchwords of this board and the state Education Department,” promised Merryl Tisch when she was named Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents in 2009. “I will insist that we continue to raise standards for all of our children and hold every school district accountable for their results, while providing the support necessary to get that done.”
Political battles with the state’s teachers unions were fought and won, ultimately resulting in New York receiving a $700 million federal Race to the Top grant, which at the insistence of then-state commissioner David Steiner, funded the creation of EngageNY, a vast collection of PreK–12 Common Core-aligned teaching resources in ELA and math, which has become even more popular outside of New York than within it: 57 percent of elementary school and 47 percent of secondary teachers report using either Eureka Math or the version of the curriculum developed for EngageNY.
Things went sour, then south. Test scores plummeted when new, tougher Common Core aligned exams hit in 2013, as predicted by proponents of the higher standards and tougher tests. Long-simmering battles flared up between Albany, New York City, and the unions over teacher evaluation. There was broad agreement that something had to be done to improve teacher quality, but the value-added measurement tools favored by reformers were technical, unstable, and inscrutable to parents, whose opinions were largely shaped by howls of protest from their children’s teachers. Governor Cuomo, overriding the advice of state education officials and reformers pressed forward, sending a blistering letter to Tisch and State Education Commissioner John King, announcing his intention to pursue an “aggressive legislative package to improve public education,” and continuing to hammer at teacher evaluation systems that judged only one percent of state teachers to be ineffective, even as fewer than one-third of students were deemed effective in math and reading on state tests.
Everything was in play all at once: charter caps, raising cut scores, Common Core, new curriculum and shifts in pedagogy, and tough new teacher accountability measures. New York was trying to hit a three-run homer with one man on base. The opt out movement, which started as a trickle, became a flood by 2015, with one in five test-takers refusing to sit for state tests, and nearly half in suburban Long Island. Soon Tisch was gone, and King decamped to Washington. By the end of 2015, a state education task force was recommending retreat from Cuomo’s promised—or threatened—reforms, and delivering what the Buffalo News described as “a huge victory for the state teachers union.” The era of high standards and accountability for schools, teachers, and those who train them—an era that never entirely gained traction in New York—was over.
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The Board of Regents vote this week kicking Success Academy’s early renewals back to SUNY, their authorizer, is largely symbolic. There is no real danger they will not be renewed ultimately. But a reform- and achievement-minded state would hold such schools up as exemplars, not view them with suspicion and recommend waiting for more proof. More troubling is the Regents’ decision last month to drop as discriminatory the Academic Literacy Skills Test (ALST) as a requirement for teacher certification. About two-thirds of prospective white teachers passed the exam; but less than half of Hispanic and black candidates did.
The decision exasperated many who have fought for years to raise the bar of entry into New York classrooms. “This is not some spurious test designed to torture would-be teachers that has no relationship with what we’re asking our students to do,” fumes one former senior New York State education official, “quite the opposite. The test was designed to mirror what the Common Core requires of our students on the exams.” With a logic that can only be called Kafkaesque, it is now entirely likely that New York will certify teachers who are unable to demonstrate competence in the very literacy skills they are required to teach. Care to predict which schools, students, and communities will be most likely to get the teachers who can't pass the ALST? Filling out your March Madness bracket should be so easy.
It’s difficult to overstate the extent of the collapse or calculate the damage to future generations of low-income children in New York. While there remain dozens of strong charter schools in New York City and demand for their seats remains robust among parents, they are viewed with suspicion if not outright contempt by New York City’s mayor. At the state level, the opt-out movement may have lost momentum this spring. But the damage is done. When Betty Rosa was named the new chancellor of the Board of Regents last year, she struck a tone that could not be more different than her predecessor, calling for the board to “move away from so-called reform.” If she was a parent and not the head of the Board of Regents, Rosa said, she herself would opt out of state tests.
“New York is not the place to be anymore. It’s a shame, and it’s our fault,” says another veteran reform figure. “Virtually everything has been rolled back. And it was entirely predictable.”
“Structural” education reformers—the kind who worry about school governance, choice, standards, accountability, ESSA, universal pre-K, graduation rates, collective bargaining, etc.—have long been faulted by “inside the classroom” educators for neglecting pedagogy and curriculum. When Hoover’s Koret Task Force was active, for example, Don Hirsch and (the former) Diane Ravitch regularly noted that fellow members such as Paul Hill, Paul Peterson, Rick Hanushek, and myself were obsessed with policy and structure and all but oblivious to what really matters in the education of children, namely what and how they are taught.
I was only 90 percent guilty, as I’ve been a Hirsch fan since the early 80’s, an admirer of his Core Knowledge curriculum and—more recently—a board member of his foundation. Diane and I co-authored a book in 1987 (What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?) that was primarily a plea for greater content knowledge, and I co-authored a 1999 book with Bill Bennett and John Cribb (The Educated Child) that brimmed with Core Knowledge-style content, as well as skills. In other words, I’m a true believer in the centrality of a first-rate, content-rich curriculum—and it’s topmost in what I look for as I help our kids navigate their kids’ schooling options.
The problem is that it’s one thing to believe in curriculum and seek it for oneself, quite another to make it happen at scale. There’s not even a widely accepted definition of “curriculum” and the line between “standards” and “curriculum” resembles the pavement on Copacabana Beach. No two people describe it the same way.
Many shun curriculum because content choices are often culture-war battles writ small and because government-mandated curriculum smacks of totalitarian regimes and brainwashing of kids. Talk of a “national curriculum” is taboo and, when states venture into these waters, it’s almost as controversial. The results usually end up being “recommended,” “voluntary,” and “optional.” (Just observe the politics around statewide textbook adoptions.)
Curriculum, therefore, is generally left to districts, which frequently leave it to individual schools and often to individual teachers or departments within them. When that classroom door closes, Ms. Smith and Ms. Gonzalez can teach pretty much whatever they want, using pretty much whatever materials they want, subject only to budgetary constraints, what’s in the “bookroom,” how fast are their internet connections, and what’s apt to be on their pupils’ end-of-year state test, which of course doesn’t exist for many subjects and high school courses.
In other words, however much importance an education reformer or public official may place on curriculum, in America it’s hard to find and grasp any levers that enable one to do anything about it. (That’s not true in many other advanced lands, where mandated curricula are often common.)
The other problem has been the paucity and near-invisibility of solid research on curriculum. Whereas social scientists have bent themselves out of shape studying the effects of, say, test-based accountability, charter schools, and other “structural” reforms—and have produced some reasonably solid findings about what works for whom under what circumstances—curriculum is relatively little studied and what’s learned almost never makes the New York Times (or even Education Week). We’re all so busy fighting over vouchers and the like. It also needs to be said that curriculum is notably hard for researchers to get hold of—partly because it’s so variable, so subjective, so entangled with teacher competence and pedagogical method and therefore hard to isolate, and partly because it’s just so nebulous, even secretive.
All that’s by way of saying that the two brand-new papers from StandardsWork, the Knowledge Matters Campaign, and Johns Hopkins are like manna for the desert-stranded hungry. (Yes, Passover is almost upon us.) The shorter of them, single-authored by David Steiner, essentially summarizes the findings of the longer “working paper” and advances a handful of useful—and mostly actionable—next steps. Several of those steps involve much-needed future research, but the first two findings (much amplified in the long paper) are seminal:
- “Rigorous research confirms that curricular choices matter.” Steiner and his colleagues reviewed pretty much every extant study that meets rigorous methodological criteria and found “substantial learning impacts from the adoption of specific curricula.” Steiner adds that the cumulative impact of a well-formulated curriculum over several years can be very large indeed.
- “Changes in curriculum are relatively cost-neutral.” In other words, this is a low-budget reform. A powerful curriculum isn’t more expensive than a weak one.
Tons more research is needed, to be sure—and kudos to the Hopkins team for pointing the way in some detail. Implementation challenges remain immense, as do political hesitations over “imposing” curriculum on classroom teachers. The instructors are themselves of two minds on this matter, many of them taking professional pride and pedagogical satisfaction in developing and adapting their own curricula, even as others yearn for someone to please supply them with quality instructional materials that are aligned with the standards and assessments that their states have mandated.
Still and all, reformers and officials in other states should take note of the key role that curriculum played in the “Massachusetts miracle” and, more recently, in Louisiana’s remarkable achievement gains. Notable, too, is the positive attention paid to—and adoption elsewhere of—New York State’s pioneering efforts to supply its teachers with curricula aligned to the Empire State’s (Common Core) academic standards. At a more micro level, some of the most forward-looking reformers who began as “structuralists”—the leaders of such CMO’s as KIPP and Achievement First, for example—have grasped the necessity of a solid, coherent, well-structured curriculum, have worked to develop the requisite materials, expertise, and staff training, and are systematically operationalizing the results throughout their networks.
It’s too soon to declare that curriculum has made its way solidly into the ed-reform arsenal, but the evidence is mounting that it’s entering. Hats off to StandardsWork and the Knowledge Matters Campaign (and the deep-digging Hopkins analysts) for showing why it needs to be there.
American high schools don't seem to be working in the real world. As a dad, I'm part of the problem. I remember what it was like when I went to high school, and now that I have kids in high school, I'm looking for something that resembles what I experienced. I’m guessing I’m not alone. But this approach is actually misguided.
The world has changed so much over the past thirty-six years. Fax machines have come and gone. The internet has exploded. And we are now on seventh series of the iPhone. Nonetheless, most high schools look nearly the same as when I graduated in 1981. Sure, they dress themselves up with Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and honors classes, as well as STEM and dual credit college courses, but most of them still look and operate mostly the same.
Things need to change.
Most urgently, from what I can see, we need to change our approach to dual credit. Many high schools say they offer it, and they do. But they often don’t push it. And its rarely done in a way that will produce the results we want.
Many schools offer “dual credit-lite.” They have dual credit classes on their own campuses and anticipate that students will earn three to six credits by the time they graduate from high school. This approach limits the “college experience” to what happens in a high school classroom, supplies no college-campus or college-life experience, and usually does not result in students earning many college credits while in high school. To be sure, some schools allow students to take courses on college campuses, but the student is often responsible for arranging for transportation and paying for the textbooks—and sometimes for the credits, as well. This limits participation.
At 21st Century Charter School in Gary, Indiana, which the GEO Foundation (of which I am president and founder) manages, we do dual credit on steroids. We provide our students college experience while in high school because, unlike children of many middle class families, most of the kids we serve don't come from households with parents who hold college degrees. So we seek to furnish more of what’s otherwise missing. We use state tuition support funds to pay for our students to take college classes on college campuses. For instance, one of our students is receiving her bachelor’s degree in May from Purdue University, where she took fifteen credit hours per semester, and our school wrote a check for $3,500 each term to cover her tuition at Purdue. Other students took three credits at Ivy Tech Community College, for which we paid roughly $400 per class, per student. For each of these pupils, we also pay for their textbooks and cover the cost of commuting between our school and college. We also provide a small study room on our high school campus and our staff follows up with each student to make sure they are successful in their college pursuits.
We can afford to do this, in part, because we limit our high school class offerings. Colleges offer more courses than we ever could and give our students a true college experience. Why should we have foreign language classes, a Computer Architecture Design (CAD) class, auto mechanics, or any other elective or career/certification class in our own facility when we find the same courses at the postsecondary level? If we do our job right—truly preparing our pupils to excel at the college level—they should be able to do freshman and sophomore college work while still juniors and seniors in our school.
At 21C, we will graduate all forty-three seniors on time in May, and eight have already earned college degrees—seven associate degrees and one bachelor’s degree—while attending our high school. Given that all of our students live below the poverty line, it’s troubling that our approach—and success—isn’t more common. If disadvantaged kids from Gary can graduate with college degrees or with a significant number of college credits, more kids from middle- and upper-income school districts can do the same. Perhaps it’s because most high schools still operate the “old school” way—building a bigger high school campus, offering more high school electives and course choices, hiring more staff, and calling it a day.
It’s time to update America’s high school model. Too many graduates are unprepared for higher education. One way to do this is to follow our lead: Run a leaner high school operation and use the money saved to “voucherize” students’ state tuition support so they can earn college credit and experience before they ever set foot on campus as a college freshman.
Kevin Teasley is president and founder of the Indianapolis-based GEO Foundation.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
On this week's podcast, Kentucky State Senator Mike Wilson joins Mike Petrilli and Alyssa Schwenk to discuss charter schools in the Bluegrass State, which recently passed its first charter law. During the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines efforts to improve content knowledge and comprehension for English language learners.
Amber's Research Minute
This study uses data from the New York City School Survey to explore the relationship between school discipline policy under the Bloomberg and De Blasio administrations and students’ and teachers’ perceptions of school climate.
According to the author, between 2011–12 and 2015–16, the number of suspensions in New York City Schools declined by almost fifty percent, thanks in part to two major discipline reforms: one at the beginning of the 2012–13 school year (under Bloomberg) and one in the middle of the 2014–15 school year (under de Blasio). In the first wave of reform, the Bloomberg administration revised the discipline code so students could no longer be suspended for first-time, low-level offenses. In the second wave, the de Blasio reform went further by requiring that principals obtain written approval from the city Department of Education Office of Safety and Youth Development to suspend a student for “uncooperative/noncompliant” or “disorderly” behavior.
Interestingly, although perceptions of school climate were relatively unchanged during the Bloomberg reforms, they deteriorated sharply as the de Blasio reforms were being implemented, raising the possibility that the later reforms undermined schools’ ability to maintain order. For example, between 2013–14 and 2015–16, three times as many schools reported increases in physical fights, gang activity, and drug use as reported declines in these areas. And this pattern is even starker for schools where at least 90 percent of students were low-income or minority. For example, in approximately half of these schools, the percentage of students reporting that there were physical fights increased.
Notably, when the data are broken down at the school level, a larger decline in suspensions is not associated with a larger increase in reports of disorder, leading the author to speculate that “the number of suspensions may matter less for school climate than the dynamics fostered by a new set of disciplinary rules.” But of course, other interpretations are possible. For example, students’ and teachers’ impressions of school climate may have been affected by contemporary news reports that focused on disorder rather than actual changes in behavior, or the fidelity with which suspensions were officially reported in the wake of the policy change may have varied at the school level.
As the author acknowledges, the study is correlational rather than causal, making it difficult to draw any firm conclusions without more information. Ultimately, linking the results of the climate survey to the contemporary changes in discipline policy requires at least two assumptions: first, that New York schools actually became more disorderly as students and teachers reported; and second, that the changes in discipline policy were the cause of this change.
Obviously, both of these assumptions can be questioned. Still, given the massive push for “alternatives to suspension” that has occurred in recent years, it would be foolish to dismiss the worrisome patterns the study highlights out-of-hand. After all, as the author rightly notes, when it comes to school discipline, “success should not be measured by the number of suspensions, but by the number of schools with an improved school climate.”
SOURCE: Max Eden, “School Discipline Reform and Disorder: Evidence from New York City Public Schools, 2012-16,” Manhattan Institute (March 2017).
The recent addition examines a tutoring intervention developed by Ohio’s Youngstown City Schools and Youngstown State University to help more students meet the test-based promotion requirements of the state’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee.
Called Project PASS, the initiative enlisted almost 300 undergraduate students who weekly tutored second and third graders outside of regular instructional time. Each undergrad committed thirty hours per semester and received course credit and a small monetary award in return. The tutors received training and used a variety of reading strategies. The evaluation includes about 300 students who participated in one or more semesters of PASS from spring 2015 (second grade) to spring 2016 (third grade). The evaluation was not experimental, and the selection of students into PASS limits the ability to draw causal inferences, as the authors note. Nevertheless, the researchers were able to match participants and non-participants based on demographic and prior achievement data (using a second grade diagnostic test given before program launch) to compare test score outcomes.
The results indicate that the tutoring increased their state test scores in third grade reading. PASS participants scored significantly higher than non-participants on the reading part of their spring 2016 third grade ELA exam. The higher scores translated to an increased likelihood of meeting the promotion requirements of the Third Grade Reading Guarantee by 29 percentage points. Interestingly, the positive results were largely driven by participants who had also received tutoring in prior semesters (e.g., fall 2015 and spring 2016). However, for “new” PASS participants—those in the program only that spring—the gains were smaller and not significant.
The analysts conclude, “It may take students time to acclimate to PASS tutoring before they reap rewards in the subsequent semester.” That sounds right. Students who stick with the program—and receive higher dosages of tutoring—stand to benefit the most. Hopefully, the university and school district can also sustain what sounds like a promising partnership. The research again indicates that one-on-one tutoring can benefit students. As Youngstown, Ohio, has done, schools and universities in other locales would do well to team up to help ensure that kids have the opportunity to receive high-quality, individualized tutoring.
SOURCE: Adam Voight and Tamara Coats, “Evaluation of Grades 2 and 3 Reading Tutoring Intervention in Youngstown,” Ohio Education Research Center (2016).