measuring progress

At some Renewal schools, the city’s new ‘challenge’ targets require only tiny improvements

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

When education officials settled on the goals each school in its high-profile Renewal program would have to meet, they allowed them to take three years to meet what are typically one-year goals.

And though some schools have struggled to meet those initial goals, most of them, it turned out, met at least one benchmark ahead of time. So the city came up with new ones — called “challenge targets” — to replace and “strengthen” the goals that schools reached early.

But, according to new data released last week, dozens of those challenge targets require the lowest possible amount of improvement: one hundredth of one point.

In total, just over a third of the 86 Renewal schools have to improve scores on either state math or reading tests by only .01 points above their current averages, according to a Chalkbeat review of the city’s benchmarks for this school year.

P.S. 154 in the Bronx, for instance, needs to boost its average score this spring from 2.48 to 2.49 in math, and 2.49 to 2.50 in reading — both of which are considered challenge targets. (The scores refer to state tests that are graded from one to four, and only scores of three or higher are considered passing.)

The modest goals continue to raise questions about the pace of change the city is expecting from the $400 million Renewal program, which infuses schools with social services and extra resources.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised “fast” improvements, rhetoric that is in tension with the benchmarks the city has released. (At a panel discussion last week, the head of the city’s principals union expressed frustration with the program’s incrementalism.)

In interviews, city officials defended the challenge targets, arguing that they are designed to give schools that already met “rigorous and realistic” goals an extra incentive to maintain or surpass their progress. But some observers noted the challenge targets are so similar to the original goals, in some cases, that calling them a challenge is hard to justify.

“When you see a challenge target that’s so close to current performance, you think, ‘What the heck is going on here?’” said Aaron Pallas, a sociology and education professor at Teachers College. “It’s really hard to see a .01 expected increase as a challenging target.”

Pallas said the modest gains expected in the city’s challenge targets could be the product of a central struggle baked into school turnaround efforts: the political need to have regular benchmarks to track progress, while knowing that low-performing schools can take years to accrue gains, if it happens at all.

Still, setting expectations too low is not likely to yield much useful information about school progress, Pallas said. And while it’s “hard to know what a challenging target is,” he said, “it’s probably greater than .1,” — ten times higher than some of the city’s targets for this school year.

For their part, education officials insist that the new goals are challenging — even if they only represent fractional increases — because they are technically all higher than the original goals, which the city has claimed were “rigorous.”

“If they’re ahead of [the original goals], keeping them on that target is definitely a challenge for them,” said Eric Ashton, the education department’s executive director for school performance.

Ashton noted that many of the city’s Renewal goals — which include measures such as attendance, graduation rates, and progress on state tests — are aggressive and require some schools to improve certain metrics by double-digit percentages. (Coalition School for Social Change, for instance, must improve its four-year graduation rate to 63.4 percent this year, a 17 percent increase.)

The city also defended the challenge targets on the grounds that if they were set too high, they might offer a misleading picture of which schools should be merged, closed or face other consequences.

“Targets do not keep increasing as high as possible each year,” education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye wrote in an email, “because we need the Renewal benchmarks to help differentiate between schools that are in need of more intensive interventions such as school redesign or consolidation, closure, or leadership change — and schools that need other forms of support like professional development or curriculum changes.”

“We believe schools must always work towards continued progress,” she added. “And a challenge target sets the bar above their achievement.”

Playing around

These Detroit student activists wrote a play about the recent political turmoil in city schools. Watch it here.

Students in the 482Forward youth organizing collective perform a play about recent events in Detroit schools.

It’s been a nerve-wracking year in Detroit education, with state officials threatening to shutter two dozen city schools for years of low test scores, then backing off closures in favor of “partnership agreements.”

It’s all been very complicated, which is why a group of Detroit students wrote and performed a play about recent events in the city schools.

Called “Fork in the Road: Succeeding with us or failing without us,” the play was staged for an audience earlier this month at a church on the city’s east side. It was performed by the youth arm of 482Forward, a citywide education organizing network.

“It was their idea to do the play,” said Molly Sweeney, 482Forward’s director of organizing. The students involved wrote and performed the play, she said. “Given all the chaos in the city and everything being so confusing, this was a way of explaining the partnership agreements in a fun and interactive way.”

The play features a student who receives messages from the future via Snapchat that warns of dire consequences if students, parents and teachers are not involved in the work of turning around struggling schools.

Watch it here:

Fork in the road 1 from 482forward on Vimeo.

Building Better Schools

Training overhaul aimed at a big IPS shortfall: Just 1 in 4 student teachers stick around.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Seventy-four student teachers trained in Indianapolis Public Schools last year. But just 17 of those freshly minted educators were hired by the district after they graduated.

In a district where some schools struggle to hire enough teachers, that gap is a problem.

That’s why IPS is revamping teacher training to give student teachers more time in the classroom and attract new educators to the district.

“We really need to focus in on the folks who are student teaching in our buildings, making sure they have a really strong experience,” said Mindy Schlegel, who leads human resources for the district.

In order to attract new teachers and make sure they are well prepared, IPS is rolling out a host of plans, from making sure student teachers in traditional programs are working with experienced mentors to launching two new residency programs.

The residencies, which will be selective, will allow students to spend one to three years in the classroom — far more than the six to nine weeks education students typically spend teaching, said Schlegel.

Those plans are among three programs getting a boost from a new grant program run by the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports Indianapolis school reform.

  • IPS received a three-year, $207,000 grant to pay for a staffer dedicated to improving student teaching in the district;
  • KIPP Indianapolis received a three-year, $38,500 grant for a new yearlong leadership program for current teachers; and
  • Christel House Academy received a $20,000 grant to plan IndyTeach, a transition-to-teaching program at the charter school that it plans to pilot in 2017-2018.

The program will support new efforts to improve teacher recruitment, training, retention and diversity, said Jackie Gantzer, director of talent strategy for the Mind Trust.

“A lot of the best solutions to any one of those pieces is likely going to be developed and driven locally by schools and networks and the teachers who are in that environment,” she said. “We are really interested in testing those hypotheses and seeing what is effective and what can potentially be scaled.”

IPS plans to begin the first teaching residency this fall, with about 10 students from Purdue University’s online degree program in special education. The students will train in IPS schools during the three-year program.

The other residency is still in the planning stages, but the aim is to assign college students to work with experienced teachers in schools using new teacher-leadership models.

One reason the district is focusing its attention on improving recruitment of student teachers is that it is hard to attract educators from other areas, Schlegel said.

“A lot of urban districts are moving in this direction because it is so difficult to get teachers to relocate,” she said. “(We) are really refocusing our recruitment efforts to what local pipelines exist.”