Talking with...

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.

Time crunch

In victory for teachers union, Newark superintendent scraps longer hours for low-performing schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León at Hawkins Street School, one of the schools that will lose its extended hours.

Newark’s new superintendent is eliminating a program that extended the hours of struggling schools, which the teachers union has long attacked as ineffective and unfair to educators.

Teachers at roughly 30 schools will no longer receive $3,000 annual stipends for the extra hours, a provision written into the current teachers contract, which extends to 2019. Instead, all 64 district schools will get extra funding for before and after-school programs, Superintendent Roger León said in an email to employees on Tuesday.

The changes will go into effect Monday, Sept. 10, resulting in new hours for the affected schools just days after the new school year began. The district is still working to adjust pickup times for students who are bused to school, according to León’s email. A few of the schools will phase out their extended hours later in the year, the email said.

“We will not continue to do the same things as before and be surprised when the results do not change,” León wrote, adding that cutting the extra hours would save the district $5 million.

In an interview with Chalkbeat Thursday, León said the move is intended to create more uniformity among schools and the services they provide. Now, all schools will get additional money to pay for programs outside of the regular school day, which schools can tailor to their individual needs, though students who are struggling academically will continue to receive “intensive” support, he said.

“Ultimately, the idea would be by October having completely different after-school and before-school programming that meets the needs of each respective school,” León said.

The extended time was first included in the teachers contract in 2012 as part of a larger improvement plan for the targeted schools, which was developed by Cami Anderson, Newark’s former state-appointed superintendent. The plan also designated some low-performing schools as “renew” schools, where teachers had to reapply for their positions and work longer hours.

Anderson also closed some schools and gave principals new hiring authority. Both actions left dozens of tenured teachers without positions, so Anderson created a fund to pay those teachers to perform support duties in schools. In 2014, that fund for “employees without placement” cost the district $35 million out of its nearly $1 billion budget, though by last year the fund had shrunk to $8 million for about 100 unassigned teachers, according to officials.

León said in Tuesday’s email that he was also eliminating the fund, which he said would save the district another $6 million. The teachers union president said he believed all the unassigned teachers now have placements, but the district did not respond to a request to confirm that.

León is also removing the “renew” and “turnaround” labels from low-performing schools, citing their “progress and student achievement,” according to the email.

“I applaud everyone’s efforts at renew or turnaround schools and acknowledge what has been accomplished,” he wrote.

Now that León has abolished his predecessors’ school-improvement program, he will be expected to create his own. Many schools remain mired in poor performance, even as the district overall has made strides in recent years.

When the teachers union agreed to the extended hours in its 2012 contract with the district, it was hailed nationally as a major breakthrough in efforts to revamp troubled schools. But even as the union agreed last year to keep the provision in its current contract, union officials have assailed the turnaround effort as a failure.

NTU President John Abeigon told Chalkbeat on Thursday that the program had been a “scam” and “nothing more than extended childcare.” He added that the stipend teachers received amounted to about $7 per hour for the extra time they worked.

In 2016, a district-commissioned survey of 787 teachers at schools with extended hours found that two-thirds of teachers at schools where the extra time was spent on student instruction said the time was valuable. But in a survey the union conducted in April, the 278 teachers who responded gave the extended hours low ratings for effectiveness in boosting student achievement.

Some teachers in the union survey praised the longer hours, saying their schools used them effectively to lengthen class periods, run after-school clubs, or allow teachers to plan lessons or review student data. But others said the extra time was squandered, leaving staff and students exhausted with little evidence of improved student outcomes to show for it. (Students’ pass rates on state tests stayed flat or declined at most “renew” schools in the first years of the program.)

The union also has complained that many teachers felt compelled to work the extra hours because those who refused to could be transferred to different schools. Under the terms of the original extended-day agreement, teachers were required to work an extra hour per day and attend trainings during the summer and some weekends.

In León’s email to employees, he said every extended-day school had set different work requirements and “none are consistent with the original design.” The longer days may also be contributing to high teacher turnover in those schools, he wrote, adding that principals of schools with regular hours told him they did not want to extend their hours.

Abeigon, the union president, applauded León’s decision to scrap the extra work hours.

“He came to the conclusion that we expected any true educator to reach: that the program was not working and was never going to work,” he said.

León said Thursday that he is now working on a new turnaround program. Once it’s ready, he promised to share the details with affected families before publicly announcing which schools are part of it — an effort to avoid the student protests that erupted when Anderson identified her “turnaround” schools.

He also said he was still considering whether he would ever close schools that fail to improve or to reverse their declining enrollments. Anderson’s decision to shutter nearly a dozen long-struggling schools continues to fuel resentment among her critics even years later.

“I think the whole idea of how much time does a school get to correct itself is a very important one and I’m going to need to be really reflective on it,” León said. “I’ve seen what closing schools does with people who do not feel that they were aware of it or a part of fixing it.”

Back to school

Newark officials deliver a message to students on first day: Keep showing up

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León spoke to seventh-graders at Hawkins Street School on the first day of school Tuesday.

At Hawkins Street School Tuesday morning, eighth-grade teacher Jasmine Johnson was at the whiteboard writing her students’ goals for the new school year — complete all assignments, get into a great high school — when in walked two unusual visitors: Newark’s mayor and schools chief.

Luckily for Johnson, Mayor Ras Baraka’s message was also about goals — namely, the lofty goal of perfect attendance.

“Try your best to get here and be in these seats every single day,” the mayor told the students as a phalanx of TV cameras captured his remarks from the back of the room. “It’s very, very important. The superintendent is super focused on that.”

Superintendent Roger León, who started in July and is the city’s first locally selected schools chief in more than two decades, told employees last week that he wants the district to achieve 100 percent attendance. That is a hugely ambitious, if not impossible, goal considering that the average daily attendance was 90 percent in 2016-17 and — even more troubling to experts — about 30 percent of students were chronically absent.

To assist in the effort, León has promised to rehire the attendance counselors who were laid off by former Superintendent Cami Anderson and to restore the truancy teams that in the past roamed the streets searching for students who cut class. He also ordered every district employee to call five students’ families before the start of the school year to remind them that school began Tuesday.

“It’s important for everyone to worry about student attendance,” León said during the all-staff meeting at the Prudential Center last Tuesday.

At a school board meeting that evening, district officials said that an analysis of state test data had shown a strong connection between attendance and test scores: Students who regularly showed up to class earned markedly higher scores.

Research shows the reverse is also true. Students who are chronically absent, meaning they missed 10 percent or more of school days, tend to perform worse on tests and are more likely to drop out of school and enter the criminal-justice system.

Peter Chen, a staff attorney at Advocates for Children of New Jersey who co-wrote a report on Newark’s high-school absenteeism problem last year, said in an August interview that schools often take a compliance-driven approach to attendance. After students miss a certain number of days, staffers may call or write home and inform families of the problem.

He said that a more effective, but also more resource-intensive, strategy is to analyze why certain students are frequently absent — for instance, are they suffering from mental-health challenges or struggling with school work? Then social workers and other staffers should try to help remove those obstacles that are keeping students out of class, Chen added.

He also pointed out that León’s state-appointed predecessors, including Anderson and Christopher Cerf, also came up with plans to reduce absenteeism. But top-level mandates only go so far, Chen said.

“What we’ve seen is that leadership at the top matters,” he said. “But on a day-to-day basis, what happens in school buildings is often more a function of the school-building leadership.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Seventh-graders listened to Superintendent León on Tuesday.

At Hawkins Street, Principal Alejandro Lopez said his school’s attendance task force had already devised its own plan to boost attendance.

Students with perfect attendance each week will earn “Hawk bucks,” named for the school mascot, and be entered into raffles to win prizes. Also, the three classes with the highest attendance rates at the end of the year will take a trip to Six Flags Great Adventure theme park.

Meanwhile, support staff will look for ways to help students who are frequently absent. In 2016-17, 45 percent of Hawkins Street students missed more than 10 days of school. Getting them to show up every day this year will be hard, Lopez said — but doing so is crucial.

“If you’re not present, you’re not going to learn,” he said. “There’s no substitute for that.”

After leaving Johnson’s room Tuesday morning, Mayor Baraka and Superintendent León stopped by a seventh-grade math class where teams of students were building towers out of noodles and marshmallows.

León told the class that he had attended Hawkins Street as a child, before growing up to become a teacher, principal, and now, superintendent. Baraka, another Newark Public Schools graduate and former principal, told the students he loved them and would make sure they got whatever they needed to succeed.

After the city officials left to visit two high schools, 12-year-old Angeles Rosario said she was excited about the new school year — and dance classes, in particular. That the mayor had chosen to visit her school first on Tuesday only added to her excitement, she said.

“There are many other schools in Newark,” she pointed out, “but he decided to come to ours.”