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.

'It's a new day'

In Newark, will homegrown change replace outsider-led reform?

PHOTO: Newark Press Information Office

Just a few years back, Newark stood at the epicenter of an explosive nationwide campaign where traveling “change agents” tried to reshape urban school districts. Today, it could become the face of a different, homegrown model of change, led by a lifelong Newark resident named Roger Leon.

Leon was chosen this week to become the next superintendent of the Newark school system, which serves 36,000 students and has a roughly $1 billion budget. But long before that, he was a principal trying to revitalize long-floundering schools. Back then, he would gather together his staff members and deliver a simple but stirring message.

“‘All of the problems that exist here in this building — there’s a solution,’” he would say, recalled Havier Nazario, who was a teacher at Dr. William H. Horton School and later University High School when Leon was principal. “‘It’s right here in this room.’”

That message stood in sharp contrast to the one that Nazario felt was conveyed amid the upheaval under state-appointed superintendents Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, who stepped down in February when the state returned control of the district to Newark’s elected school board.

“There was this perception that we were backward — that everyone in Newark from teacher to principal was incompetent,” said Nazario, now the principal of South Street School in the Ironbound section. “That we needed an army from all over the place to come in and fix us.”

When the board voted unanimously in favor of Leon Tuesday night, positioning the longtime educator and administrator to become Newark’s first locally selected superintendent in over 20 years, it sent a clear signal: No more outside armies. We want someone who believes the solutions are in the room.

Not long ago, Newark came to epitomize the so-called “education reform” movement, which promised to transform districts by closing troubled schools, opening charter schools, and rewriting the rules around teacher pay and tenure — actions that have been linked to the district’s recent academic gains. Yet the city has also morphed into an emblem of the movement’s pitfalls: outraged parents, top-down policymaking, and disruptive outsiders, like Anderson, who were eventually run out of town.

Now, the question for Newark’s incoming schools chief is whether he can establish a new model — one that maintains the upward trajectory of test scores and graduation rates while avoiding the excesses and backlash of the reform era. And, crucially, a model that rejects the corruption and complacency that the state cited when it seized control of the district in 1995.

Just as the recent reformers hoped to turn Newark into a “proof point” for their theory of change and a template for other districts to adopt, Leon has suggested that he will make Newark into a model of homegrown, educator-driven and community-embraced change — though what exactly that will look like remains unclear.

“I want us, together, to help Newark serve as a lighthouse,” said Leon, a 25-year veteran of the Newark school system, at a public forum last week. “A beacon of light and hope for our urban districts.”

Newark’s recent wave of reform began in 2010 when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg famously appeared on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” to announce a $100 million investment in the city’s schools. The money helped bankroll a series of sweeping changes that included performance-based teacher pay, a single enrollment system for district and charter schools, and the shuttering of nearly a dozen district schools.

The policies sparked a battle that pitted the self-styled reformers against teachers, their union, and parents. Anderson, who had been recruited from New York, resigned in 2015. She was replaced by Cerf, the former state education commissioner who had helped craft Newark’s reform blueprint. When he took over, he made it his mission to create buy-in for the changes among community members and elected officials in an effort to prevent their dismantling when the district returned to local control.

“The continuation and preservation of the work,” Cerf told reporters in January, “depended a great deal on there being a collective sense of engagement and ownership.”

As further insurance, Cerf made A. Robert Gregory, a respected Newark principal who shared parts of his vision, his second-in-command, which helped position him to become interim schools chief when Cerf stepped down. Gregory was then selected as one of four superintendent finalists, along with Leon and two outside candidates.

While the board had indicated that it preferred a local candidate, it was unclear until the last minute which Newarker would come out on top. After the board interviewed the four men privately on Saturday, Gregory got the most votes in an informal poll, Chalkbeat has reported. But by the board’s closed-door meeting on Tuesday, enough members had changed their votes to give Leon an edge.

Once it was clear that Leon had a majority, the board members agreed to unanimously back him in their public vote. While they may have disagreed on their preferred candidate, they wanted to present a united front in favor of a locally chosen leader — and against state-imposed reformers.

“To unify the board at this time, it’s the right thing to do,” said board member Tave Padilla. “It’s a new day.”

Now that Leon has been tapped to take over as superintendent on July 1, speculation has started about the direction of his leadership. A district spokeswoman said he was not available for an interview for this story.

Critics of the reform movement have celebrated Leon’s selection as clear evidence that the board intends a clean break from the past. They note that, unlike the recent state-appointed superintendents and some of their top deputies and consultants, Leon is a Newark native who attended and taught in the city’s traditional public schools. He coached Science Park High School’s famed debate team, and has established close ties with parents and community leaders across the city — support that was on display when the audience erupted into cheers after Tuesday’s vote.

They also point to Leon’s reportedly fraught relationship with Cerf as an indication that he did not endorse the entire reform agenda, even though he served in both Anderson and Cerf’s administrations. In a Facebook post this week, Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon called Leon’s selection “a unanimous blow to the corporate charter and reform-for-personal profit war machine.”

Cerf, in an email, said he has “always respected Roger” and will support him and the board’s decision.

“NPS has seen record achievement gains over the last several years,” he said, “and I know Roger is committed to building on those foundations to achieve greater and greater success for Newark’s students.”

If some supporters portray Leon as anti-reform, his record is actually more complex.

As principal of the Horton School in the late 1990s, he hired about 20 teachers who had completed alternative-certification programs, according to an Education Week article from 2000. Teachers unions sometimes attack such programs, which include reform-friendly programs such as Teach For America, as a back door that allows unqualified educators into the classroom.

As an assistant superintendent for the past decade, Leon served under four state-appointed superintendents. Under Anderson, when he was responsible for overseeing several elementary schools, he developed a reputation as a demanding manager who made unannounced school visits and scrutinized school documents to see if they were in compliance with district rules, according to a former district employee. Several of the principals he oversaw left the system, the employee added.

Whatever policy preferences Leon may have as superintendent, he is likely to find — like other leaders who took over districts after they underwent massive overhauls, such as nearby New York City — that it’s impossible to simply turn back the clock.

Over the past decade, the share of Newark students who attend charter schools has tripled, to 33 percent. While Leon is not likely to spur on the sector’s growth, he also cannot halt it. Instead, he will have to manage its impact on the district’s budget and perhaps find ways for the sectors to collaborate. (Leon got an early start on that this week when he spoke at a principal training jointly hosted by the district and the Uncommon Schools charter network.)

Charter critics and some school board members have pushed to scrap the universal enrollment system, which allows families to apply to both charter and district schools. But many families have come to like the system, according to surveys. And it would be hard to revive the previous system, where families were assigned to their nearest district school, since some neighborhood schools were shuttered.

Mary Bennett, a former Newark principal who called Leon “extremely intelligent,” said she did not expect him to immediately unwind every policy instituted under state control.

“I’m sure that he is astute enough to distinguish between those things that have been put in place that are working but need to be improved and bolstered,” she said, “and those things that should be changed and replaced.”

Leon will soon shoulder the burden of leading a district that has made recent gains, but still struggles with deep-rooted problems including widespread student poverty, absenteeism, and a shortage of qualified teachers. All the while, he must try to prove — to state officials, but also to observers across the country — that a return to local control does not necessarily mean a pause in progress.

But for now, he seems to be basking in the moment. On Wednesday morning, the day after he was chosen to lead the system where he was educated and spent his entire career, he stopped by his childhood elementary school. Then he made his way to South Street School led by Principal Nazario, who he had years ago coached on a debate team, taught in class, and later managed as a teacher.

At South Street, Leon was named honorary “Teacher of the Month,” then presented with a school notebook and water bottle and given a round of applause, Nazario said.

“He looked at me like, ‘Wow, I’m living the dream,’” he said.

Superintendent search

Newark board was leaning toward different superintendent candidate before unanimous vote for Roger Leon, source says

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Newark Public Schools Interim Superintendent A. Robert Gregory

When the Newark school board decided on a new superintendent Tuesday, its members offered a public display of unity. One by one, all nine voted in favor of Roger Leon, a longtime veteran of the school system, drawing cheers from the audience.

But earlier, behind the scenes, the board had been divided.

On Saturday, after conducting lengthy interviews with all four superintendent finalists, the board held an informal poll to see where the members stood, according to a person with direct knowledge of the meeting. At that point, A. Robert Gregory, the district’s interim superintendent, had more support than Leon, the person said. The other two finalists were from out of state and did not appear to gain traction with the board.

On Tuesday, the board took another unofficial poll during a closed-door session, according to the same person, who spoke to Chalkbeat on the condition that they not be identified. By then, multiple members had switched their endorsements from Gregory to Leon, who now had the most support. At that point, the full board agreed to back Leon in the official vote.

Board chair Josephine Garcia did not respond to an email about the board members’ shifting support or the decision to display a united front to the public on Tuesday. But shortly after the 9-0 vote for Leon, a reporter said to Garcia that she must have “badly wanted” a unanimous vote on its first major decision since February, when the board regained control of the district after a decades-long state takeover.

“Yes, absolutely — and we got it,” she said. “We’re showing unification.”

It’s unclear what prompted some board members to change their minds. But some superintendent search firms advise boards to agree to unanimously vote for the candidate favored by the majority of members so that the new superintendent is seen as having the full board’s support. And while school boards in some districts conduct public interviews with superintendent candidates, it’s not uncommon for boards to keep the details of their searches and deliberations private.

What’s certain is that the major decisions in Newark’s search happened before Tuesday’s public vote and behind closed doors.

Well before the vote, a superintendent search committee was tasked with choosing three finalists to present to the board. However, after the three were chosen, at least one committee member was unhappy that a particular candidate had been left off the shortlist, Chalkbeat has reported.

At that point, the former board chair, and later Garcia, asked the state education commissioner to amend the rules so that the committee could name a fourth finalist. Two of the committee members objected to the request, and insisted that the group should stick with the chosen finalists. But the commissioner agreed to amend the guidelines, and a fourth person was added.

The committee has not publicly disclosed which finalist did not make the first cut.

All four finalists introduced themselves to the public at a forum last week, where the audience could listen but not ask questions. And they each met with the full board on Saturday during lengthy closed-door interviews that stretched from the morning well into the evening.

Some people have complained about the search process, saying it lacked transparency and meaningful public input.

During the public comment portion of Tuesday’s board meeting, before the vote, the president of the Newark NAACP referenced a pledge by board chair Garcia earlier in the meeting to promote transparency.

“The goal of transparency by the board, as stated by chairperson Garcia, has to be upheld,” said Deborah Smith-Gregory. “If it’s not upheld, then you get this frustration building.”