Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Karen Sprowal on the negative impact of excessive class sizes on students with disabilities



Yesterday there were hearings of the NYC Council Education Committee on the myriad problems with special education in NYC schools; with thousands of children denied their mandated services, and pushed into classes that were too large to meet their needs.  Here is an article from CapitalNY,  that mentions the testimony of a parent whose son died while waiting for a private school placement.  Below is the testimony that Karen Sprowal gave on behalf of Class Size Matters.

October 28, 2014

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.  My name is Karen Sprowal, I am a public school parent of a sixth grader with special needs. I am here speaking to you today on behalf of Class Size Matters a citywide advocacy group devoted to providing information on the benefits of smaller classes to parents and others nationwide.

A few weeks ago, 73 professors of education and psychology sent a letter to Chancellor Farina, pointing out that the sharp increase in class sizes over the last few years was not only undermining the quality of education in our schools, but also working against the potential benefits of the administration’s special education initiatives:  

“We believe that the benefits of many of the other positive reforms that the city is pursuing, such as increasing access to Universal prekindergarten, establishing community schools, and inclusion for students with disabilities, will be undermined unless the trend of growing class sizes is reversed in the city’s public schools. In particular, placing students with special needs into classes of 25, 30 or more will not work to serve their individual needs, or the needs of the other students in the class.”[1]

I attach the letter to my testimony.   As research shows reducing class sizes to increase student achievement is a proven approach whose value has been shown over and over again. Lowering class sizes will lead to a host of health and economic benefits, as well as substantial savings in avoiding the costs of private school placements and most importantly, enhance the chance of successful academic outcomes for thousands of NYC students with disabilities. 

Recently Chalkbeat reported that special education complaints from teachers rose 60 percent between 2012 and 2013, citing issues including too-large class sizes and a lack of services.[2] Our analysis of DOE statistics show that last year, 3805 special needs children in grades K-8 were in self-contained classes that violated the class limits; 10 percent of those assigned to 12/1 classes; 11 percent of those in 12/1/1 classes; 18 percent of those in 6/1/1 classes, and 9 percent of those in 8/1/1 classes.[3]

What is just as problematic is that in the effort to provide inclusion, the DOE is pushing special needs students into general education and inclusion classes that are much too large to meet their needs -- as these class sizes are increasing every year, and now at their largest in early grades in 15 years.  Don’t get me wrong, inclusion is a great model if class sizes can be kept low enough; but we all know this is not what is happening in NYC schools. 
As a parent of a sixth grader who attended P.S.276 in Brooklyn with a learning disability recently explained,  her son could concentrate better and he received more attention during small-group sessions with other special-education students than in his integrated class. The child himself said, “When I’m in my regular class, sometimes they don’t notice me.”[4] 
In 2012 a memo in which DOE instructed principals made it clear in a very threatening tone, that they could not deny a zoned student a seat in an inclusion class – until class sizes had reached maximum levels of 25 in Kindergarten, and 32 in grades 1st- 5th, and 30-34 in middle and upper grades:  
The need to cap a grade arises when a zoned school is physically unable to accommodate all of its zoned students. In order for a cap request to be approved, all of the following conditions must be met:

·         All GE/ICT in a given grade have reached the contractual maximum (K = 25; Grades 1-5 = 32; Grades 6-8 Title I = 30/ Non-Title I = 33); and
·         There is no mechanism to collapse sections, more efficiently program, or repurpose rooms; and
·         There is no other space to open an additional section.

For recommendations that are not in the best interest of students, regular progressive disciplinary measures for school leaders and IEP teams will apply.”[5](emphasis added)
The result has been failure: failure for the inclusion initiative, and failure for too many of our children. I’m not just talking about academic failure. This initiative has also led to a rise in the share of suspensions experienced by students with disabilities as well – as noted in DOE data. [6]
The blog Motherlode in the NY Times recently published the poignant account of a mother whose son repeatedly acted out and was suspended as a direct result of being placed in a large inclusion class.  It was only when he switched schools and was assigned to a smaller class that his behavior improved and he was able to learn:

 “Last year, I saw my son, now age 9, at the lowest of lows in his classroom. He was hitting other children, spitting on them, stealing, leaving the classroom and even kicking a teacher. He barely got any schoolwork done. Things got so bad that he got two in-school suspensions.

All this time, Xavier, who is in special education, was in an “integrated co-teaching class” with a full classroom of other children. ….. Xavier’s school seemed happier to punish him than to help him. For three years it pushed him to the side because it didn’t know how to deal with him. I often wondered to myself whether this was happening in every public school, to all special education children or just to my son. 

Six months ago, I was able to get my son transferred to another public school. I’ve been able to see how a child can thrive with the right support. This new school is awesome. It immediately placed my son in the right setting — there are only 11 students in his class. Xavier is doing great. No outbursts, no being sent to the principal’s office. Instead, Xavier is going in early for math tutoring. He is passing spelling tests. He is rushing in the house after school to do homework because now he understands it.[7]

When my own child entered school, back in 2008, he was fortunate enough to be in a classroom with only twenty students.  His class sizes remained between eighteen and twenty-three from kindergarten through third grade. Despite the difficult learning challenges he faced daily, he flourished during those years in both general and inclusion class settings. At one point when he was well above grade level his teachers suggested that we consider the gifted program for him.

However, when he entered fourth grade his class size increased to twenty-nine students and it was apparent that more than any other factor, class size mattered for my son. As many student with ADHD he was unable to focus or be productive in a classroom with so many students. I watched in horror as my son unraveled, here was my once inquisitive, bright, eager to learn and happy child who essentially stop learning and became emotionally unhinged whenever he was in school.

His fourth grade teacher wrote on his report card, he only participated in class instruction when the class worked in smaller groups. By the middle of the school year in order to keep in school, he required an arsenal of IEP support services, including a crisis Paraprofessional. These services were badly managed with very little oversight, collaborations or accountability. He began having frequent meltdowns in class, his attendance suffered; he was subjected to suspensions and for the first time ever hospitalized just weeks before that school year ended.

Tragically this became a huge problem for not only my son, but for many other students with special needs who suffered academically as well the same fate behaviorally as a direct result of excessive class sizes.

During the mayoral campaign when asked directly by parents, Bill De Blasio promised he would reduce class size in all grades, to the levels the city agreed to in their original Contract for Excellence plan.[8]  Mayor De Blasio has yet to show any sign that he intends to follow through on his promises, and we expect class sizes to increase yet again this year in schools throughout the city. The city's lack of commitment to reduce class size and its failure to implement its own Contracts for Excellence plan has been devastating for my son and so many others like him as well. 

Despite class size reduction being the number one concern for public school parents on the DOE survey for eight years, in numerous town hall meetings this fall the Chancellor has brushed off parents who expressed the need for smaller classes.

The special education inclusion program will not work to help special needs children learn, until and unless class sizes are reduced and their basic constitutional rights to a smaller class are met.      

Thank you for your time.  


Monday, October 20, 2014

Joel Rose and School of One get new NYC contract that violates conflict of interest rules and the terms of his earlier contract



Yesterday’s NY Daily News reported that last month, the Panel for Educational Policy approved a contract for New Classrooms to teach math in city middle schools via an online program called the School of One.  The contract  charges the city nearly $200 per student for the licensing fee: “An estimated 2,220 students will be enrolled in the School of One program at a cost of $420,750 for license fees ($191.25 per student)."  This is the second contract granted New Classrooms; the original one was granted in January 2012.

Joel Rose, a former chief of staff to Deputy Chancellor Chris Cerf, created School of One while at DOE, starting in February 2009.  He developed the algorithm and the program along with Chris Rush, a consultant then working for Wireless Generation, now headed by former Chancellor Joel Klein for Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp.    

In March 2011, Rose spun off the program into a separate company,  renamed it New Classrooms, and became co-CEO along with Chris Rush. The company, ostensibly a non-profit, boasts an impressive list of funders, including NewSchools Venture Fund, the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, New Profit Inc., and Carnegie Corporations, and its 2013 tax returns (the latest available on Guidestar) show a surplus of $4.5 million dollars. Board members include Miguel Bezos, father of Jeff Bezos, billionaire CEO of Amazon.com, and Gideon Stein, omnipresent corporate reformer and board member of Chalkbeat, Teach Plus, Stand for Children and a former board member of Success Charters. 

According to Rick Hess, who plugged the much-hyped program in his column, “One of my favorite things about School of One is that it's a solution that doesn't imply new costs. It's a way to optimize whatever dollars a school is spending on math instruction--to squeeze more juice from the orange--and doesn't entail new outlays. “The question becomes if it doesn’t entail new outlays, why the city has to spend more money to implement it.  

Here is an excerpt from the January 9, 2012  Conflict of Interest decision, justifying the first DOE contract with New Classrooms in 2012: 

Of course the algorithm and methodology inherent in the School of One program was developed by Rose while he worked for the DOE – and would remain fully confidential.  The city’s Conflict of interest rules also say a former employee “may never work on a particular matter or project that you were directly involved in while employed by the City.” 

Yet somehow, despite the fact that Rose is head of the company and his company would clearly benefit from the contract, the conflict of interest rules were waived. 

In any event, when Rose was granted his initial contract by the Panel for Education Policy, only nine days later on January 18, 2012, it was at no cost to the city, and the back-up documentation promised that the DOE would be granted joint ownership or a royalty-free perpetual non-exclusive license to the platform … for use in NYC schools."   (See p. 37 for this language in the  2012  PEP document.) 
Presumably, the joint ownership or royalty-free perpetual contract was pledged in recognition of the fact that the program was created by Rose while employed at the DOE.  Indeed, if anything, it might be argued that the city should also royalties each time the program is re-used in other districts, considering it was developed using city students as guinea pigs and took up much teacher and staff time.
Even so, the awarding of the contract in 2012 was quite controversial, as noted in the Daily News:
City officials defend the deal, noting Rose got the blessing of the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board because he’s promised to play no role in any of the city-related work. 

Under the agreement, the city will share with Rose’s groups the licenses for the School of One program, which uses computer-based learning to individually tailor math classes for students at three middle schools. [emphasis added] 

“This is exactly the type of thing that raises eyebrows and causes people to question” the Education Department, said Michael Loughran, a spokesman for city Controller John Liu, whose office will review the contract. 

Education Department officials note four other companies showed initial interest but did not bid because the city isn’t paying out any money during the three-year term of the contract. 
“We believe this zero-cost contract is a smart move for the city, potentially saving millions of dollars,” said spokesman Matt Mittenthal, defending the deal that aims to expand School of One to 50 schools.” 

The no-cost contract voted on in January 2012 that was to “commence on or about March 1, 2012” and was to last for three years, which means that it would only lapse in March 2015. To add insult to injury, the new contract was just granted retroactively from August 2014 --six months before the old cost-free cntract was supposed to lapse.
So what does the company say in its defense about the fact that it is now charging a per student license fee instead of allowing the city to use it for free in perpetuity? In the Daily news, a New Classroom spokesperson claimed that “the fees in the new contract cover services other than the free software license Rose promised back to the city in 2012.” But the PEP documents say otherwise: 

The DOE also claimed in the Daily News article that “no city taxpayer money was used in paying for the services” though the document says the opposite; that while the initial funding came from a federal grant, “Now that the program is fully implemented in participating schools, the DOE is responsible for the cost of supporting these schools.” 

So essentially, the company is charging the city nearly $200 per student for a program developed by Rose while a city employee, instead of for free as promised, six months before the previous contract lapsed --exactly what conflict of interest rules were designed to prevent. 

To make things worse, this is a no-bid contract.  In 2012, the DOE claimed to have bid out the contract to New Classrooms competitively, although it was apparent that the contract was designed only for Joel Rose, as at that point the DOE wasn’t willing to pay any fees:

Now, however, when the city is paying real money, the DOE hasn’t even pretended to bid it out, supposedly to prevent “a lengthy competitive bidding process” (even as the previous contract wasn't near completion):

Even so, if and when a new RFP is announced, it will likely be designed for Rose’s company to win --which despite huge hype, lacks convincing evidence of positive results.  The online data-mining program was originally designed to spread across 50 schools throughout the city, and yet it is only used in five schools at this time, compared to six schools last year Two of the three original schools dropped out because of poor results.   

When I visited one of the pilot programs at a school in lower Manhattan a few years back, I saw utter confusion, with up to 60 students in a room, switching places every 15 minutes, and many of them disengaged while answering multiple choice questions on their computers, clicking on answer A, B, C in turn until the machine told them they had  the right one.  

When the PEP was granted approval power over contracts in 2009 with the renewal of mayoral control, there was hope that some of this cronyism, corruption and waste that had been rampant would be stemmed.  The number of no-bid contracts had exploded  under Bloomberg, with no-bid contracts totaling $15 million in 2001 ballooning to $300 million by June 2008, with more than one fourth of those contracts going over the agreed upon cost.

Yet after the PEP was given the ability to vote on these contracts, every  contract but one was rubberstamped by the mayoral majority on the PEP, even when there was strong evidence of corruption --- as pointed out by independent-minded watchdogs, like Manhattan appointee Patrick Sullivan.   

The new PEP members appointed by Mayor de Blasio were supposed to be more independent; but the Panel has yet to reject any proposed contract, to my knowledge.  In some ways, the process now is LESS transparent than before, as the back-up contract documentation is not posted until the night before the PEP vote – instead of about about a week before, as happened previously.  Previously, PEP members complained that they were not allowed to see the full contracts; now no written description of what the contracts are meant for, or explanation if they have been competitively bid is available to the public until the night before the vote. It is truly disappointing to see waste and favoritism continue under a new administration which had promised otherwise.