aint over til its over

More than a day after ‘framework’ agreement, questions remain on education issues

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Speaker Carl Heastie on the Assembly floor.

State lawmakers left work on Wednesday night without finalizing a legislative deal involving New York City education issues.

Legislative leaders announced Tuesday that they had resolved their differences on the most contentious parts of negotiations that had dragged on for more than a week past their original ending date. That deal included a one-year extension of mayoral control, a modest increase to the number of new charters that can open in New York City, and a $250 million consolation prize for private and parochial schools whose push for tuition tax credits were dropped.

But there are still a host of unresolved issues standing in the way of final deal. Chief among those for Assembly Democrats is the strengthening of rent regulations, although changes to the charter-school law were also being discussed.

“There’s nothing closed down. Everything is still open,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said after emerging from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office on Wednesday evening.

Here are the other questions remaining about New York City education issues.

1. Will other changes be made to the charter-school law?

The framework deal clears the way for 25 additional new charter schools to open in New York City and gives the State University of New York more latitude to approve the schools.

On Wednesday morning, the ongoing talks included additional changes. Assembly Democrats said they sought measures to ensure that charter schools serve a more equitable share of high-needs students. A source familiar with the negotiations said one proposal would have required charter schools to serve comparable shares of special education students with more severe disabilities. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans wanted to increase the maximum number of uncertified teachers that a school can employ from 5 teacher to up to 30 percent of an entire staff.

But talks slowed on Wednesday, the source said, who said the most recent discussions involved changing “just the cap and nothing else.”

2. Will anything happen to the hotly contested teacher evaluation law?

After the governor pushed the new law earlier this year, some lawmakers were hoping to slow down the tight timeline in which districts have to negotiate and implement new plans. But nothing in Tuesday’s “framework” announcement suggested that gripes with the new law had factored into the deal — a loss for the state teachers union, which made evaluation changes a priority in end-of-session negotiations.

“We probably didn’t go as far as I hoped,” said Patricia Fahy, a member of the Assembly’s education committee, adding that she also sought to minimize the use of student testing for evaluations. “I’m a little disappointed about that, quite frankly.”

The only tweak announced so far appears to be aimed to appease critics without making substantive changes to evaluations. A law dubbed the “Parental Empowerment Act” will require “a review of growth model,” according to the press release announcing the legislative deal, referring the methodology through which students’ test score gains factor into their teacher’s evaluation.

The press release did say that the act would “require the disclosure of state exam questions and answers,” which a spokesman for the Senate said would be accompanied with $8.4 million in funding for the State Education Department. The state published only about half of questions last year, citing test security and cost concerns amid sharp criticism of the state’s testing program.

3. Will the mayoral-control legislation include any other changes to how New York City’s schools are run?

“It ain’t over ‘til it’s over in Albany,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a press conference on Wednesday when asked for his reaction to the one-year extension of mayoral control — a particularly harsh blow after de Blasio lobbied for a permanent renewal earlier this year.

But despite the mayor’s deference to the ongoing negotiations, his allies in the legislature said they were mostly ambivalent about fighting to lengthen the extension.

“I think there were a lot of things that we were fighting for or against and this was part of the discussion, but we didn’t focus on it,” said Linda Rosenthal, an Upper West Side Assembly Member. “There was much more talk about rent and 421-a and all of those” housing issues that have been the focus this year, she said.

The renewal offers lawmakers a chance to make changes to the governance structure. When mayoral control was last renewed in 2009, the legislature extended it for six years but required the city to hold public hearings and study the impact of school closures or space-sharing agreements prior to approving them. That provision became a legal issue one year later, and ended up derailing the Bloomberg administration’s agenda for a year.

But there aren’t any other big changes expected to be included in the one-year renewal.

Kathryn Wylde, CEO of the Partnership for New York City, said a statement that the coalition of business leaders she represents was mostly relieved that legislative agreement “reflects an undiluted extension of mayoral control.”

teacher prep

Tennessee’s mediocre teacher training programs prompt ‘interventions’ with university presidents

PHOTO: Austin Peay
Austin Peay State University in Clarksville is among four Tennessee schools that have undergone "interventions" with state officials over the quality of their teacher training programs.

Armed with sobering data about the performance of teacher training programs in Tennessee, state officials are holding meetings with top brass at universities where they say programs have grown out of touch with the needs of K-12 classrooms.

About 40 programs in Tennessee feed the state’s teacher pipeline with about 4,000 new teachers annually. The largest are based at colleges and universities.

But those same traditional programs generally aren’t attracting enough high-quality candidates or producing enough effective or diverse teachers. Not a single public university in Tennessee scored in the top fifth of teacher training programs under a state report card issued in 2016. And the outlook isn’t expected to improve much under the 2017 report card being released early next month, officials say.

“This data is sobering. It tells us that higher education must do better,” said Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. “I worry our higher education faculty in colleges of education get disconnected from what a K-12 classroom looks like.”

Krause outlined the challenges to state lawmakers during a presentation on Tuesday with Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education.

Their first “intervention meetings” were with the presidents and education deans at four universities: Austin Peay, Tennessee-Chattanooga, Tennessee-Martin, and Tennessee Tech. Similar meetings are scheduled this spring with leadership of private colleges and universities across the state.

Krause described the first meetings as “very productive” — and illuminating. “In many cases, the presidents just didn’t know” about their programs’ shortcomings, he said.

Teacher quality is considered a driving factor in students’ success, making the quality of teacher preparation programs a front-burner issue in Tennessee.  A 2016 report said only a handful of the state’s programs are consistently preparing teachers to improve student achievement based on Tennessee’s TVAAS measure. The State Board’s new grading system also highlighted weaknesses based on racial diversity, candidates’ ACT scores, and whether they are producing teachers for high-need areas such as special education.

Reading instruction is another big challenge. In a state where only a third of students are considered proficient in reading, new teachers are arriving in classrooms ill-prepared to instruct students on Tennessee’s new reading standards. The state is working with higher education institutions so their faculty can take the same professional development on literacy that working teachers are taking.

But for the most part, the State Board has limited levers for improving the quality of teacher prep. The biggest hammer comes every seven years when each program undergoes a comprehensive review for licensure. (In 2014, the state raised its standards and revised its measures for effectiveness to include data such as placement, retention and employer satisfaction.)

Chancellor Keith Carver

Tennessee-Martin Chancellor Keith Carver said his school took its last state report card to heart. As a result of its overall score of 2 out of a possible 4, the university hired an assessment coordinator to help guide decisions based on data. “It’s a really good baseline for improving,” he said of the report card. “We’ve got some work to do in our diversity profile.”

Tennessee’s teacher candidates are overwhelmingly white and female. Of those who completed Tennessee’s programs in 2016, only 14 percent identified themselves as non-white, compared with 36 percent of the state’s student population.

“Colleges of education will not stumble into diversity. There has to be a very intentional effort,” Krause said.

View the full presentation from Tuesday’s legislative hearing below.

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.