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Q&A: The Independent Budget Office's new education watchdog

sta_05253Before voting to renew Mayor Bloomberg’s control of the city’s schools last summer, New York’s legislature demanded that an expert be brought in to sift through the Department of Education’s data.

Critics of his administration felt the city had juked its school stats. To address their concerns, money was set aside for the Independent Budget Office to hire a DOE data watchdog. Nearly a year later, Raymond Domanico has arrived as the IBO’s Director of Education Research. Prior to  joining the IBO, Domanico worked for 11 years as the Senior Education Advisor to the Industrial Areas Foundation – Metro NY, a network of community organizations.

What about being the IBO’s director of education research appealed to you?

Back in July, I was hosting a group of people from Germany, from Berlin, who had come to visit our schools. At the close of dinner they said to me, “Ray, if you were in charge, what would you do with the school system?” And I gave them the same answer I’ve been giving a lot of people over the last year and a half. I said, “You know, there’s been so much change in the New York City schools and it’s happened so quickly, and we really don’t have a very deep sense of what worked and what has not worked.”

And so I found myself unable to answer the question as to what we should do going forward. It seems to me that given the amount of change that’s gone on, this is the appropriate time to step back and to do some in-depth analysis.

How will this job compare to your data analysis work for the Board of Education in the 1980s?

The world has changed a lot. In those days we never evaluated schools; we only evaluated programs. The whole concept of talking about good schools or low achieving schools was not even on the radar. Towards the end of my tenure in the mid-to-late 1980s was the first time we started putting together indicators of school performance. So this is sort of a return to where I started in some ways.

I authored the first cohort report on the graduation and drop out rate before I left. Prior to the release of that report, as is the case today, there was a big argument over whether the Board of Ed  is overstating the graduation rate. When we looked at the data, there was a third factor that hadn’t been discussed before and that was simply that some students, many students, were not resolved after four years. They were coming back for a sixth or seventh year. And that’s really the first time we were able to shed light on that.

State officials recently admitted that, over the past several years, the state tests have gotten easier and students’ scores have become inflated. Do you think this is true of other data points — graduation rates, for example?

I think all data points are worthy of in depth and fair analysis. We know what some of the issues are around the graduation rate, a lot of it we read in GothamSchools. We have an analyst beginning to look at those questions. Some of the questions about the current graduation rate we’ll be able to answer quickly, I think. Others are going to require really delving into the data the Department of Ed, in the last couple of weeks, has started to provide us on individual students.

So for example, on the issue of credit recovery, it’s not clear what the best indicator is of what’s actually going on. As far as we know, there’s not an indication in the automated record that the child was given credit because of credit recovery. So the question of the impact of credit recovery on the graduation rate is something we’ll really have to roll up our sleeves and get into. There’s not going to be a quick answer to that.

What data are you the most interested in beginning to look at? Are graduation rates first on your list?

No, that just happens to be a part that was under way before I got here. I should say that prior to my arrival, the senior staff at the IBO had engaged in a rather extensive listening tour, talking to many different people about what they think some of the issues are. I’m going to continue that work, I think it’s very important that as the director of this effort, that I be keeping my ear to the ground as to what are the issues of concern that people in both government circles and in the larger public want answers to.

What issues have people told you they want you to look into?

I think if we went year-to-year, there are always hot button issues. So last year, the big issues seemed to be the closing of those high schools and certainly the attendant issue of ATRs and whatnot. I think a lot of people are interested in having us look at the means by which the DOE evaluates schools and comes up with those decisions. And also to look at some of the total costs and benefits of closing schools.

I think that two issues I’d like to investigate are: what is the impact of what we now know about the state testing program and the way the Department of Ed uses that data to come up with the progress reports? And secondly, the definitions and cutoffs have changed from year to year, and so I think in any weighting system or assessment system —whether it’s in education or in the financial world — you want to see consistency from year to year.

You’ve supported some of the chancellor’s initiatives in the past (e.g. fair student funding). Is it going to be difficult to convince people that you’re impartial?

Well, I don’t know that I’ve publicly supported a lot. Certainly fair student funding is an issue that we were concerned about, before it was called that, and before even Joel Klein came to the job. We worried a lot about the allocation of senior teachers in the school system. Klein picked up on this on his own, this thing called fair student funding emerged.

But the story of fair student funding has gotten real, real complicated. I’m not sure at this point whether or not it fulfilled its promise. I would have no problem reporting, if the data says this, that hey, it’s not working the way that we had hoped. I don’t think I’d have any problem being impartial about that.

Newsroom

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Spokane, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.