that's a wrap

What flexible accountablity might look like and 5 other things we learned at the state board meeting

While the State Board of Education retreated on testing waivers and making changes to parent consent to a health survey this week, members also waded into new area of assessment and accountability flexibility and data privacy. They also failed to find common ground on graduation requirements.

Here’s a look at what we learned on Wednesday and Thursday:

1. The board is in favor of experimenting with new accountability systems but there are plenty of ‘buts’ to work through.

Several conversations on Wednesday and Thursday gravitated toward testing and accountability, even if the official agenda item had nothing to do with the topic.

However, two presentations on Thursday centered specifically on these issues.

First, a coalition of rural school districts presented an alternative to the state’s accountability system, which relies heavily on data from standardized tests. Here is that group’s presentation. Every board member voiced his or her support for the work the group had done, and encouraged the coalition to work closely with the board and state department to identify and remove any sort of bureaucratic barriers that would stop implementation.

However, board member Angelika Schroeder warned of deviating too far from the state’s model.

“Schools are different, kids are different, but we also need comparability,” she said.

Her fear is that holding small and rural districts accountable to a different system than larger urban districts would raise questions  about whether rural students are receiving an education  “as good as” their urban counterparts.

Elliott Asp, special assistant to the commissioner, also presented an overview of what a new assessment system blending state assessments like the PARCC test and local assessments could look like.

The pilot would be made possible by the testing bill approved by the General Assembly earlier this month. It would require the U.S. Department of Education’s stamp of approval. But the system Asp pitched, which is far from being fully fleshed out, relies heavily on work done in New Hampshire.

That state’s flexible assessment system was approved by the feds, but only after a few years of double-assessing students.

Board member Debora Scheffel, a Republican, warned there is no appetite for more tests.

“In some ways [it looks like] we’ve created a lot more work and we have not uncoupled from PARCC,” she said. “I want to make sure we’re not asking for more [assessments].”

2. On data privacy, board members want to act now.

A data privacy bill failed to make it through the legislature. But state board members want to take matters into their own hands and update contract language with vendors that reflect the most agreed upon apsects of the privacy bill.

“I believe we can accomplish by contract virtually everything that was in legislation and could set that as a model for school districts,” said board member Steve Durham, a Republican

3. The state’s accountability clock is in limbo after a testing bill is passed.

During a lengthy discussion on the testing bill passed by the General Assembly between the board and its lobbyist, Scheffel asked what the bill meant for those schools and school districts on the state’s accountability watch list.

Schools and districts that fall below state expectations have five years to improve or face sanctions.

Keith Owen, deputy commissioner, told the board his team was still reviewing what the bill meant for those schools. On first read, however, Owen said some academically-struggling schools might get an extra year to improve before the state can step in. However, he said, the final word on how the education department plans to proceed would likely come later this month.

4. Schools and districts with high opt-out numbers will likely face federal, but not state, sanctions.

We already told you that the federal government is not interested in holding harmless those schools and districts that failed to meet the 95 percent testing requirement.

However, CDE staff told the board there could be a compromise under which schools that saw a large number of student skip state standardized tests face federal sanctions but get to keep their state accountability rating.

Under federal law, schools that don’t meet the 95 percent testing level could be required to send home letters that label the school as failing, could lose some federal funds, or be required to use those dollars for certain programs like tutoring.

Under state law, if a school does not meet the testing threshold it could be earn a lower accreditation rating — even if the students who take the test do well.

5. The board will hire a search firm to find the state’s next education commissioner.

Board members agreed Thursday to put the logistical portions of finding the next education chief in the hands of a search firm.

“We don’t have anyone to manage the process,” said chairwoman Marcia Neal “And we need someone to do that.”

The board also agreed to zero in on and likely appoint an interim commissioner at its June meeting. All board members said it’s urgent to find a person to replace education Commissioner Robert Hammond, who announced his retirement in April.

Hammond’s last day is June 24.

6. The split among the board is as wide as ever and Marcia Neal is not happy.

Despite retreating on several controversial topics (like the cut scores and the health survey) the board is still divided primarily along philosophical differences about what its role is.

“We’re a regulatory agency,” said vice chair Schroder who has mostly aligned herself with fellow Democrat Jane Goff and chairwoman Neal, a moderate Republican. Her comments came during a break after a heated conversation about graduation requirements during which board member Durham made a motion to strip the state of any graduation guidelines.

He eventually dropped his motion after members agreed to table the discussion. The board is required to adopt new graduation guidelines under state law.

Other board members volleyed back and forth during breaks about their actions and reputation.

Several times, Neal shared her frustration about the board’s behavior Wednesday and Thursday. At one point Thursday she said she had never had a more frustrating two days in her six years on the state board. Most of her frustration was pointed toward Durham. Neal accused him of trying to unravel six years of education reform policy.

“You seem to blame this on staff,” Neal said. “Staff is doing what they’re legally bound to do. Obviously you want to take that apart. You very well might be able to do that. … But you can’t take it all apart in a couple of weeks.”

Charter schism

Independent charter schools look to raise their profile, apart from networks and Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: Coalition of Community Charter Schools
Veter education journalist John Merrow moderates a panel at the Independent Charter School Symposium.

Stand-alone charter schools say they’re often overlooked in favor of big-name networks like KIPP — while at the same time being unfairly tied to Betsy DeVos’s agenda.

At a symposium last week, a number of school leaders agreed to try to change that by launching a new national organization dedicated to independent, or “mom-and-pop,” charters.

“When people think of charters, they do not think of us,” said Steve Zimmerman, an organizer of the conference and founder of two independent charter schools.

In a hotel conference room in Queens, leaders from nearly 200 schools across 20 states unanimously called for the group’s creation. They also adopted a progressive manifesto that tried to separate the members from the Trump administration and common criticisms of the charter schools.

It marks yet another fissure in the nation’s charter school movement, which has seen political and philosophical divides open up in the wake of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s appointment.

And while the loose group of independent charters does not yet have a name or a clear funding plan, its leaders believe they can provide a louder, more democratic voice for their concerns than existing charter advocacy groups, which they say are too focused on expanding networks.

“The National Alliance [for Public Charter Schools] truly believes they act in the interest of all charter schools. And to some degree they do,” said Zimmerman, referring to the country’s top national charter advocacy group. “The truth is, though, that they can’t really represent the real interests of independent charter schools because their funders really believe in the network model.”

National Alliance spokeswoman Vanessa Descalzi said the group supports independent charters.

“Advocating for independent, community-based schools is in the National Alliance’s DNA,” she said. “Where folks feel we could do more, we look forward to continued discussion and seeking solutions together.”

A response to testing, and to Trump

Zimmerman is the co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, an organization for independent charters based in New York City that co-sponsored last week’s conference. That symposium, he said, came out of a desire to shift the discussion around measuring schools away from just test scores.

“We felt that there was too much thinking of outcomes as being the bottom line of the enterprise … and that was keeping our schools from being innovative,” he said. “It felt like a zero sum pissing game of comparing test scores all the time.”

When the Trump administration took office, a new set of concerns arose for many leaders of schools like his. In Zimmerman’s telling, there was “too much coziness between major players in the charter world and the incoming administration.”

He declined to offer specifics. But Eva Moskowitz, the head of the Success Academy network in New York, met with Trump soon after he was elected, and the National Alliance initially praised a Trump budget proposal featuring deep cuts to education spending but an increase for charter schools. Both have since distanced themselves further from the administration.

“To have in any way the charter world associated with that felt that it was really going to hurt our message,” Zimmerman said.

A distinct approach to judging charter schools

The manifesto adopted at the conference emphasizes a community-oriented vision for charter schooling — and a response to many common criticisms of charter schools.

Charters should be “laboratories of innovation” that seek to collaborate with districts, it says. Charter schools should serve “students who reflect our communities and neighborhoods, particularly students with the greatest educational needs,” and their leaders should create workplaces that are “collaborative, not adversarial” for teachers.

And while the group calls for schools to be held accountable for results, the mission statement says “real accountability must be rooted in the development of the whole child and the needs of society.” That’s a different emphasis from advocates who promote charter schools because they are more effective, as measured by test score gains.

In some ways that philosophy is more aligned with that of more conservative charter school supporters, including DeVos, who have argued for more innovation and less emphasis on test results.

“Some of these folks really feel like [charter] authorization has gotten too strict and has cut back innovation,” Zimmerman said. “And I believe so too.”

But Zimmerman distanced the group from a free-market approach. He is strongly opposed to private school vouchers, though said that’s not a stance the new organization has codified in its manifesto.

Zimmerman also points to issues with the Trump administration more broadly. The new group’s manifesto offers thinly veiled criticism: “We embrace our diverse communities, which include immigrants, people of color, children with disabilities, the homeless, English language learners, people of all faiths, and the LGBTQ community.”

A spokesperson for DeVos did not respond to a request for comment.

There is evidence that nonprofit charter networks do a slightly better job, on average, boosting test scores than independent charter schools. Those findings may explain, in part, why independent charter school leaders bristle at focusing on those metrics.

Zimmerman offered raised specific concerns about the National Alliance, which is funded by philanthropies including the Arnold, Broad, Gates, and Walton foundations. (Chalkbeat is also supported by the Gates and Walton foundations.) Those funders are focused on the replication of networks with high test scores, making the Alliance limited in its ability to represent independent schools, he said.

Christopher Norwood, who runs Florida’s independent charter school group, agreed that the networks exert outsized influence. He pointed to his state, where a recently passed bill to support the creation of new charters in areas where traditional public schools are struggling was limited to networks already operating at least three schools.

“There’s no charter management association of America because their interests are being promoted through the charter associations,” said Norwood, who along with Zimmerman, emphasized that he is not opposed to networks of charters.

Descalzi disputed that characterization of the Alliance.

“The National Alliance represents all public charter schools — including those which belong to a network or function as independent single sites — and we appreciate when any of our constituents take proactive steps to identify areas of need and provide resources to their communities,” she said.

Challenges await a new national organization

The top challenge for any nonprofit getting started is garnering funding. That will be amplified for the independent charters seeking to offer an alternative to charter school establishment — and the groups that financially supported them.

“It’s a huge hurdle,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said the Walton Family Foundation, one of the charter sector’s largest benefactors turned down requests to sponsor last week’s conference. “They don’t necessarily see how we fit into their strategic vision, but I’m hoping they will,” he said.

Marc Sternberg, the Walton Foundation’s education program director, disputed the idea that the philanthropy is focused on replicating existing schools, saying they support “all types of schools,” including both “proven charter management organizations” and single schools. In the past eight years, nearly half of the schools funded by Walton’s charter start-up grant program were independent charters, according to the foundation.

Norwood says the new group for independent charters will look into funding itself through membership dues and from sponsorships. (The symposium was supported by a number of businesses that work with charters.)

It’s also unclear how much interest there truly is among the diffuse independent charters across the country for an alternative membership group. The conference brought together a few hundred leaders of the many thousands of such schools.

For now, the organization is its infancy, and Zimmerman says the next step will be creating a national advisory committee to craft a strategic plan.

The work is necessary, he said, if independent charters want to sidestep the problems of the broader sector, which has seen its popularity drop.

“They win battles but they’re losing the war, if the war is hearts and minds of people,”  Zimmerman said, referring to existing charter school advocacy groups and their funders. “We really have to separate ourselves from them as a matter of definition.”

college knowledge

‘This levels the playing field’: How New York City is trying to get more high school students to apply to college

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke with Bryant Ramirez about his college plans at Pace High School on Monday.

Bryant Ramirez hunched over a worksheet Monday listing the private colleges where he plans to apply and, next to each one, whether he thinks he has a good shot of getting in.

It wasn’t long before the senior had written out his top choice — the Pratt Institute, a private college in Brooklyn — and fired up a school laptop to begin filling out an electronic application.

“I feel confident,” Ramirez said of his chances of landing a spot at one of his preferred schools. “But you never know.”

On Monday, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña visited Ramirez and more than 20 of his peers at Manhattan’s Pace High School to showcase a growing citywide program designed to give schools more time and resources to help students through the college application process.

The program, called “College Access for All,” is meant to address the gap between students whose families already understand the application process and can help give them a leg up, and those who might be first-generation college students or who might not apply at all. This year, the education department expanded the program to include roughly 274 of the city’s high schools, or more than half of the total.

Participating schools help students craft post-graduation plans for specific careers or colleges, and ease the application process through school-sponsored college visits and additional counseling.

“More students are saying ‘I want to go to college,’” Fariña said. “This levels the playing field.”

At Pace, which is part of the program, students begin conversations about college in their advisory groups junior year, and later take college counseling classes where they are given time to fill out applications, financial aid forms, and learn about the college application process. The school also offers the SAT during a school day (instead of the weekend, when some students might not make it), and takes juniors and seniors on college visits — trips that school leaders are planning to extend to ninth and tenth graders.

Lancia Burke, the school’s college counselor, said some of those initiatives didn’t exist when she started at Pace 11 years ago and tried to cram as much information as possible into a single workshop with the entire senior class. (She also met with students individually.)

At one point, she felt overwhelmed as she tried helping students craft their college essays, so she approached the English department.

“‘Hey, I can’t handle going through all these personal essays,’” Burke recalled saying. After that, the department added college essay writing into their curriculum, she said.

The College Access for All program is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Equity and Excellence” agenda, which aims to get 80 percent of students to graduate high school on time and two-thirds of graduates college-ready by the year 2026.

About 51 percent of New York City’s graduates were considered college ready in 2016, meaning they could enroll at a CUNY school without having to take remedial classes, a 4 percentage point increase since 2014. The proportion of students who enroll in college or a work-training program within six months of graduating has also ticked up to 55 percent, also 4 percentage point increase since 2014.

Fariña said she hopes the program boosts the number of students who apply to college. But simply applying to college isn’t enough, she added.

“We always want to see the numbers going up in terms of applying,” Fariña said. “But once you get there, do you stay there?”