the new deal

New York state says it wants to expand its definition of success — and focus on equity — in judging schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
J.H.S. 162 Lola Rodriguez De Tio, the lone school to face state receivership thus far

New York unveiled a blueprint Monday for education policy under a new federal law, which officials said will help launch the state beyond a narrow focus on test scores when it comes to evaluating schools.

The Every Student Succeeds Act is designed to provide more flexibility for states to decide what makes a school successful and to support schools that don’t meet that bar. New York education officials have said they hope to capitalize on the extra wiggle room – and framed that choice as a statement of values.

“This is a vision plan for New York state,” said Chancellor Betty Rosa at a Board of Regents meeting Monday, where the draft plan was announced. Still, she cautioned, it’s a work in progress. “The road to success is always under construction.”

There are practical constraints that make aspects of this plan similar to its predecessor, No Child Left Behind — most importantly that student achievement is still a prominent feature. But there are also key differences that state officials argue mark a real shift, including a stronger emphasis on student growth and college, career and civic readiness.

New York officials also say the draft plan advances equity by asking schools to report on their resources. That gets at a broader philosophical shift, a statement that accountability involves inputs — or access to resources, qualified teachers, and advanced coursework — rather than just student outcomes.

Rating schools: A dashboard approach, not letter grades

Rather than using one summative rating to indicate school success — like creating an A-F rating system — the draft plan opts for a dashboard approach that will include a number of different metrics.

It’s unclear exactly what the dashboard will look like, but a local example exists in New York City’s online dashboard, where leaders have moved sharply away from an A-F approach and toward providing multiple measures in the form of numbers, charts and graphs.

To add transparency, the state plan would report information about accountability measures on a 1-4 scale. Schools will also be put into one of four broad buckets from most to least successful: Recognition Schools, Schools in Good Standing, Targeted Support and Improvement Schools, or Comprehensive Support and Improvement Schools.

The dashboard approach is part of the Regents’ equity agenda, since it requires reporting information beyond accountability metrics, such as per-pupil spending. The hope is that making that type of information prominent will help diagnose why schools are struggling and encourage the state and schools to address those problems.

“You want high-quality accountability, and part of that accountability is also knowing what you need to do to fix things,” Linda Darling-Hammond, an education expert who advised the state on its plan, said earlier this year. “Because otherwise you’re not being accountable to parents and to children.”

But some believe providing a dashboard, without a more concrete rating system, could be confusing to parents.

“Parents should be able to see a clear rating for the school and for each indicator, along with a dashboard of deeper data,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of EdTrust-NY. “But SED’s draft plan appears to reject the transparency of school and indicator ratings altogether in favor of potentially dozens of individual ratings that, on their own, could cause confusion rather than provide clarity.”

State tests: Experimenting with new models and addressing opt-out

New York wants to apply for a federal program that allows a handful of states to pilot innovative assessments, according to state materials.

That signals New York is interested in revamping standardized tests, but cost will likely remain a major hurdle. State officials expressed concerns about expenses last year, when they learned that the federal pilot program came with no additional funding. This year, the state asked for $8 million from the legislature to pilot project-based assessments this year, but did not get the funding.

The federal law also requires that 95 percent of students participate in state tests, a major sticking point in New York state, where more than 20 percent of families opted out of state tests last year.

The state draft plan says it will require districts and schools with a history of low participation rates to create plans to address the problem, while “recognizing the rights of parents and students.” That will start with a self-assessment for schools that have pattern of frequent opt-outs, but may escalate to more state involvement.

Test scores: Greater emphasis on growth, science, social studies

Unlike No Child Left Behind, which focused on whether all students could reach a certain bar, like a third-grade reading level, this plan is designed to place a stronger emphasis on whether students make progress compared to where they started.
A narrow focus on proficiency leads schools to pay more attention to students close to attaining proficiency and ignore those far behind or far ahead, critics have argued. It can also be unfair for schools that serve high-needs students, since those populations of students often start well below grade-level.

In elementary and middle school, this plan would use one rating for achievement and one for growth. Schools could be targeted for improvement if they fall in the bottom 10 percent of schools on those two metrics combined. (That would avoid identifying schools that have either a lot of high-performing students but a poor growth score, or those that do an excellent job helping students improve over time.) For high schools, graduation rates replace the growth metric.

Also in this plan, the state plans to include social studies, with an emphasis on civics and democracy, at the high school level, along with science scores for elementary, middle and high schools.

Other metrics: Moving beyond test scores

Under ESSA, states get to experiment with a way to judge schools beyond academic achievement and test scores.

New York state, like many others, plans to use chronic absenteeism, defined as missing more than 10 percent or more of enrolled school days, at the elementary and middle school level. Research shows that absenteeism is associated with poor academic outcomes and addressing it can help change a student’s trajectory.

For high schools, the state wants to create a metric for college, career and civic readiness. That new metric would provide more information than a simple graduation rate. It could help distinguish, for instance, between students who graduate, and those who earn a more advanced diploma, or complete career training.

These metrics would come into play if a school is identified as in the bottom 10 percent based on its combined growth and achievement scores. Among those schools, these extra measures would help determine if a school should be targeted for improvement. If a school scores a Level 1 on any category, the school and district must investigate.

Schools would also be judged based on whether they make progress toward long-term goals.

Certain metrics that groups have urged the state to include, like suspension data, were not included in the draft plan as accountability measures. In fact, there is a whole tier of indicators, including school safety and teacher turnover data, that would not be used initially for accountability under this draft plan, either because the state does not currently collect the data or officials thought they could result in misleading conclusions about school success. But state officials said “Tier 2” indicators could be used to rate schools in the future.

Boosting diversity: A new stab at an old problem

At the last meeting, officials suggested they may leverage ESSA to tackle the state’s problem with school segregation.

State materials on Monday indicated the draft plan allows the use Title I School Improvement Funds to increase diversity and address socioeconomic and racial isolation in schools. But it remains unclear what exactly that might look like.

When asked about how schools could use those funds to support diversity, State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said the state will not get a sum of money specifically for integration efforts, but that it may be part of a broader approach to school improvement.

Intervention: Moving from consequences to support

State officials emphasized that they want to move from a culture of consequences toward one of support. They hope to provide technical assistance and evidence-based interventions to schools. If those schools continue to underperform, they would be folded into the state’s receivership program, officials said. That program, however, has been significantly scaled back since it was launched in 2015, and so far, has yielded only one school slated for receivership.

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.

New Standards

Tennessee updates science standards for first time in 10 years. New guidelines stress class discussion, inquiry

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Fourth grade science teachers Lamarcus Marks, of Rivercrest Elementary, and Angie Clement, of Bartlett Elementary, test out a lesson on kinetic and potential energy at Arlington High School, one of 11 statewide sites where Tennessee teachers are training for next year's new science standards.

How can a wolf change the river? Why doesn’t a cactus have leaves? Why can’t you exterminate bats in Tennessee?

With new state science standards coming to classrooms next fall, these are the kinds of questions students will explore in their science classes. They’ll be tasked not only with memorizing the answers, but also with asking questions of their own, engaging on the topic with their teacher and classmates, and applying what they learn across disciplines. That’s because the changes set forth are as much about teaching process, as they are about teaching content.

“At the lowest level, I could just teach you facts,” said Detra Clark, who is one of about 300 Tennessee educators leading teacher trainings on the new standards to her peers from across the state. “Now it’s like, ‘I want you to figure out why or how you can use the facts to figure out a problem.’”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Detra Clark, a science coach in Shelby County’s iZone, demonstrates a sample lesson for sixth grade science teachers.

On Wednesday, Clark — a science coach for the iZone, a group of underperforming schools that Shelby County Schools is looking to turn around — unpacked for her peers, who gathered at Arlington High School, a key component of the new material: three-dimensional modeling. Under three-dimensional modeling, students should be able to do something with the content they learn, not just memorize it.

In recent years, Tennessee students have performed better on state science tests than on their math and English exams. But state science standards for grades K–12 haven’t been updated since 2008. By contrast, math and English benchmarks have undergone more recent changes. To give the stakeholders time to adjust, results from next year’s science test, the first to incorporate the new standards, won’t count for students, teachers, or schools.

At the training session, Clark, standing before a room of sixth-grade science teachers, held up a chart with the names of woodland animals, such as elk and deer. Under each name, she tracked the population over time.

“At our starting population, what do we see?” she asked.

“The deer, it decreases again because it’s introduced to a predator,” a teacher responded.

“More resources, more surviving animals” another teacher chimed in.

“How can we explain what happened in year two, when we’re dealing with students?” Clark asked the group.

“The population went up,” a teacher said.

“They start to reproduce!” another teacher interjected.

Clark nodded.

In another classroom, this one composed of kindergarten teachers, Bridget Davis — a K-2 instructional advisor for Shelby County Schools — clicked through a video of fuzzy critters, each paired with a close relative, such as two different breeds of dogs.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
In a teacher training session on Wednesday, kindergarten teachers highlight the three dimensions of three-dimensional modeling, a key part of new state science standards.

She encouraged the teachers to ask their students what traits the animals shared.

“The first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Well, one’s big and one’s small,” she said. “What we really want them to say is, ‘Well, their fur is the same color,’ or, ‘Mom has a patch of black hair here and the baby doesn’t.’ We want them to look at detail.”

She added, “We want them to get used to being a detective.”

The science standards that have been in place for the past decade fulfills the first dimension of three-dimensional modeling.

Doing something with that knowledge satisfies the second dimension, and the third dimension requires teachers to apply to their lessons a “cross-cutting concept” — strategies that students can apply to any subject, like identifying patterns or sequences.

Under the existing standards, a student may not have been introduced to physical science until the third grade. But starting next year, Tennessee schoolchildren will learn about life science, physical science, earth and space science, and engineering applications, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.

“I do believe that this is the best our standards have ever been, because of the fact that they are so much more detailed than they have been in the past,” Davis said.

About a thousand Shelby County teachers made their way to trainings this week, which were free and open to all educators. Several administrators also met to discuss ways they can ensure the new standards are implemented in their schools.

As with anything new, Jay Jennings — an assistant principal at a Tipton county middle school and an instructor at Wednesday’s training — expects some pushback. But he’s optimistic that his district will have every teacher at benchmark by the end of the 2018–2019 school year.

“We talked before about teachers knowing content, and that’s important,” he said. “But what we want to see is kids knowing content and questioning content. We want to see them involved.”

He reminded other school leaders about last year’s changes to English and math standards, a transition that he said was challenging but smoother than expected.  

“Teachers are going to go out of their comfort zone,” he explained. “But it’s not changing what a lot of them are already doing.”