race to the race to the top

Even as a finalist, NY still a Race to the Top longshot, officials say

New York’s education officials and politicians reacted with shock to news today that their dark-horse state was named a finalist in the competition for Race to the Top funds.

But the unexpected good news did little to instill confidence among lawmakers, who cautioned that the state is still a long-shot for a win.

Many officials and advocates said the state legislature’s failure to act on several key elements of the application — namely, its cap on charter schools and teacher tenure laws — could hobble the state’s chances at the badly-needed funds. And they urged Albany to enact those changes immediately, before the state makes its final pitch to the grant program’s judges in two weeks. The winners of the competition will be announced in April.

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said she was “thrilled” that the state’s application, which centered on proposals to build a new data tracking system and to overhaul how teachers are trained and certified, was judged strong enough to make the finals. But she added a note of caution.

“Now we need to make sure that the possibility doesn’t slip away,” Tisch said.

The city Department of Education, the teachers union and a variety of advocates praised the Regents and State Education Commissioner David Steiner for their work in crafting the application. Throughout the fall and winter, the Board of Regents voted to link teacher certification to student performance, greatly expand a statewide student data tracking system and outlined a policy to replace the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools.

But changes the Regents asked the legislature to make, including the charter cap lift, were stymied.

With Governor David Paterson embroiled in ethics scandals and members of his administration leaving, Albany’s political paralysis has intensified. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg nevertheless called on the legislature to act swiftly.

“[W]e’ve got to work very hard with the legislature and say, you know, we’ve got some life here, but we’re on life support,” Bloomberg told reporters today.

Bloomberg and New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein have lobbied hard for the elimination of the charter cap and provisions that would allow the city to use test scores not only to grant tenure, but also to fire teachers and change the order in which teachers are laid off in budget crises. Both have argued that these changes are necessary to maximize the state’s Race to the Top changes.

“[W]e haven’t won a dime yet,” Klein said in a statement. “And we’re realistic about what the State needs to do to win this race.”

Promoting the growth of charter schools and using data to evaluate teachers are two Obama administration priorities, and and taken together they would have counted for nearly a fifth of the points on the state’s application. Nearly 50 anonymous judges reviewed states’ applications, scoring each one using a rubric with a 500 point scale. The 16 finalists announced today all received scores of above 400, federal officials said.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said today that applications were evaluated on a wide variety of factors and no single element had killed a state’s chances.

“Every state had relative strengths and every state had relative weaknesses,” Duncan said in a conference call with reporters. “Charters were never going to be the determining factor. We’ve said that from day one.”

The contest did have one significant eligibility requirement: states could not have any legal barriers to using student test scores to evaluate teachers or principals. New York’s tenure law, set to expire this summer, led observers early on to question whether the state would even be eligible. Even after it became clear that New York would be able to submit an application, many suspected the provision would hurt the state’s chances.

The charter cap issue has created even more headaches. Days before the Race to the Top application deadline in January, Governor David Paterson and the state legislature became tangled in a debate over whether and how to raise the state’s charter cap and in the end failed to take any action at all.

The state teachers union, which resisted a wholesale lift of the charter cap, argued that the state’s advance to finalist confirmed their argument that New York was competitive without significant changes to state law.

“We believed from the very start of this process that New York possessed the basic building blocks to put forward a very competitive application,” union head Richard Ianuzzi said in a statement.

New York Charter School Association policy director Peter Murphy said the state was now in a kind of “Catch-22” situation — New York could risk receiving partial funding for some reforms but miss the opportunity for a full grant because of the application’s weaknesses.

“It really behooves the state sooner rather than later to show we’re serious,” Murphy said. “I think the worst outcome would be to get a pittance of a grant when the full opportunity was lost.”

New York’s Race to the Top application asks for $831 million over four years to fund 30 projects. That’s $130 million more than the USDOE has indicated large states like New York are likely to receive, though federal officials indicated that their estimates are non-binding. In January, Paterson included $750 million in Race to the Top funds in his proposed state budget in anticipation of a win, a move that Duncan called “a leap of faith.”

USDOE spokesman Justin Hamilton said that the department would hold budget meetings with winners to determine how much money will actually be given to each state to put its plan into action. The winners of the first round of competition will not be eligible to apply for new funds in round two, Hamilton said.

When the winners are announced, federal officials plan to release all states’ scores and judges’ comments about each application’s strengths and weaknesses. However, finalists will not see their scores before their presentations, Hamilton said, meaning state officials will not know precisely what areas have weakened their application as they prepare their final pitches.

State education officials have not yet determined which representatives from New York will travel to Washington to make the final pitch to judges, state education department spokesman Tom Dunn said.

the aftermath

What educators, parents, and students are grappling with in the wake of America’s latest school shooting

Kristi Gilroy (right) hugs a young woman at a police check point near the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 people were killed by a gunman in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It’s hard to know where to start on days like this.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead on Wednesday has elicited both terror and anger — and raised debates that are far from settled about how to keep American students safe.

Here are a few storylines we noticed as the country again grapples with a tragic school shooting:

1. You’re not wrong to think it: There have been a lot of mass shootings, and many recent ones have been especially deadly.

Data on school shootings specifically, though, is notoriously murky. As the Atlantic recently noted, varying definitions can contribute to either “sensationalizing or oversimplifying a modern trend of mass violence in America that is seemingly becoming more entrenched.”

But by NBC News’ count, 20 people have been killed and more than 30 have been injured in school shootings this year. That’s a lot — and more news organizations are now trying to keep a careful tally.

2. The consequences of traumatic events like the shooting at Stoneman Douglas are likely to be felt for some time.

A number of studies have found that violent and traumatic events in and outside of school do real damage to student learning, as we’ve reported — particularly among students who are already struggling. Here are some resources for teachers who need to talk to their students about trauma.

3. The tragedy is already renewing debates over whether or how to arm teachers.

Education Week gathered some of those calls from politicians Thursday. “Gun-safety advocates say that teachers can’t safely and quickly move from the mindset of teaching to being asked to fire a gun at an active shooter,” the story also notes.

This doesn’t even get at the debate about whether anyone should have access to the kind of gun the shooter used. Students from the district, for their part, told Broward schools chief Robert Runcie Thursday “that the time is due for a conversation on sensible gun control,” the Miami Herald reported.

Whether other technology and infrastructure can help keep students safe is a topic of ongoing discussion in communities across the country. Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill to help schools buy communications systems that would allow them to talk directly to police and other emergency responders. Officials from districts that already use this equipment described them as a way to increase safety without “turning our schools into prisons,” even as they also assured lawmakers that the radios were just as useful for serious playground injuries and broken-down buses as for the much rarer active shooter situations.

In Tennessee, one school district near Nashville announced plans to close schools next Monday to review all safety plans with school staff and local law enforcement.

4. In some places, the shooting is unlikely to change the school safety debate at all.

In New York City, for example, conversations about school safety in recent years have revolved around discipline policies and metal detectors (though police have seized an increasing number of weapons from city schools). There’s little appetite there to arm teachers.

5. But all across America, the shooting and others like it have added a frightening tone to what it means to teach and learn in schools today.

“I know you are waking up this morning to a nightmare,” a former educator wrote in a “love letters to teachers” on Teaching Tolerance. “I know you are frustrated, tired and weary of the news. I know you are wearing your coat of bravery today.”

“I’m so, so angry and I’m having a hard time today looking at my students and not thinking about what happens when it’s my school’s turn,” wrote one commenter on the Badass Teachers Association Facebook group.

getting to graduation

New York City graduation rate hits record high of 74.3 percent in 2017

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the 2017 graduation rate at South Bronx Preparatory school.

New York City’s graduation rate rose to 74.3 percent in 2017, a slight increase over the previous year and a new high for the city.

The 1.2 percentage point increase over the previous year continues an upward climb for the city, where the overall graduation rate has grown by nearly 28 points since 2005. The state graduation rate also hit a new high — 82.1 percent — just under the U.S. rate of 84.1 percent.

The city’s dropout rate fell to 7.8 percent, a small decline from the previous year and the lowest rate on record, according to the city.

“New York City is showing that when we invest in our students, they rise to the challenge and do better and better,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement Wednesday.

More graduates were also deemed ready for college-level work. Last year, 64 percent of graduates earned test scores that met the City University of New York’s “college-ready” benchmark — up more than 13 percentage points from the previous year. 

However, the gains came after CUNY eased its readiness requirements; without that change, city officials said the increase would be significantly smaller. But even with the less rigorous requirements, more than a third of city students who earned high-school diplomas would be required to take remedial classes at CUNY.

Phil Weinberg, the education department’s deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, noted that CUNY’s college-readiness requirements are more demanding than New York’s graduation standards — which are among the toughest in the country.

We will work toward making sure none of our students need remediation when they get to college,” he told reporters. “But that’s a long game for us and we continue to move in that direction.”

The rising graduation rates follow a series of changes the state has made in recent years to help more students earn diplomas.

The graduation-requirement changes include allowing students with disabilities to earn a diploma by passing fewer exit exams and letting more students appeal a failed score. In addition, students can now substitute a work-readiness credential for one of the five Regents exams they must pass in order to graduate — adding to a number of other alternative tests the state has made available in the past few years.

About 9,900 students used one of those alternative-test or credential options in 2017, while 315 students with disabilities took advantage of the new option for them, according to state officials. They could not say how many students successfully appealed a low test score; but in 2016, about 1,300 New York City students did so.

The news was mixed for schools in de Blasio’s high-profile “Renewal” improvement program for low-performing schools. Among the 28 high schools that have received new social services and academic support through the program, the graduation rate increased to nearly 66 percent — almost a 6 percentage point bump over 2016. Their dropout rate also fell by about 2 points, to 16.4 percent, though that remains more than twice as high as the citywide rate.

However, more than half of the high schools in that $568 million program — 19 out of 28 — missed the graduation goals the city set for them, according to a New York Times analysis based on preliminary figures.

Graduation rates for students who are still learning English ticked up slightly to 32.5 percent, following a sharp decline the previous year that the state education commissioner called “disturbing.” City officials argue that students who improved enough to shed the designation of “English language learner” in the years before they graduated should also be counted; among that larger group, the graduation rate was 53 percent in 2017.

Meanwhile, the graduation-rate gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers narrowed a smidgen, but it remains wide. Last year, the graduation rate was about 83 percent for white students, 70 percent for black students, and 68 percent for Hispanic students. That represented a closing of the gap between white and black students by 0.4 percentage points, and 0.1 points between whites and Hispanic.

Asian students had the highest rate — 87.5 percent — a nearly 2 point increase from the previous year that widened their lead over other racial groups.

Christina Veiga contributed reporting.