Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Save the date! City Council hearings on need to improve school siting and planning

A week from today, the City Council will hold hearings on the need to improve school planning and siting process.

When: Tues. Feb. 28, 2017 starting at 10 AM
Where: Council Chambers, City Hall
What: City Council joint hearings of the Education and Finance committees on the school siting and planning process
As we have long pointed out, the current process for school siting and planning in NYC is dysfunctional and unless it is significantly improved it will doom NYC students to even more overcrowding in the years to come.

DOE enrollment projections and estimates for the need for seats are badly flawed; the capital plan for school construction is hugely underfunded even by DOE’s own admission; and the school siting process is so protracted that there are overcrowded communities with schools that have been funded for over a decade without a single new school building being built.

Public Advocate Tish James, 22 Council Members, Class Size Matters and many parent leaders pointed out many of these problems in a letter we sent the Chancellor in June 2015 .

Last week, the City Council Speaker announced that the Council would form an internal working group to analyze the many problems with school siting and planning and come up with proposals to improve them. These hearings will kick-off the deliberations of this working group.

Please come on Tuesday to testify about the overcrowding problem at your school, its impact on the quality of education provided your children, and if you can, offer some ideas for how to reform the process. Public testimony starts at about 1 PM. If you can’t testify, here are other options:
  • Come in the morning at 10 AM to show your support; bring signs!
  • Email me at info@classsizematters.org or by responding to this message with your observations about the situation at your school and ideas to improve the process. Please send me your comments no later than Sunday Feb. 26 so I can incorporate them into my written testimony.
A document with more background on this issue is posted below  and as a powerpoint on my website here: http://bit.ly/2m4KvKB.

 Thanks, Leonie 

Monday, February 20, 2017

How NY & Other States Should Count Opt-Outs in the New School Accountability System

Below is a memo that Class Size Matters and NY State Allies for Public Education sent to Commissioner Elia and the NY Board of Regents last week, on what may seem like an arcane and technical subject but is actually critical to ensure that opt-out students aren't counted as failing in the new State Accountability system for schools under ESSA.

ESSA, or Every Student Succeeds Act , passed last year by Congress, was an attempt to move away from the overly-prescriptive No Child Left Behind law and the even more prescriptive NCLB waivers imposed by Arne Duncan.  Not only does ESSA authorize states to allow parents to opt their children out of exams with no fear of consequences, but it also specifically bars the Secretary of Education from telling a state how school participation rates must be factored into its accountability system, as the memo points out.

And yet then-Secretary John B. King and the accountability hawks managed to slip a poison pill into the law: that for the academic component of the system, at least 95% of all students in the testing grades must be included in the denominator -- whether they took the state exams or not.

This provision appears to be written with the goal of forcing schools to try to force parents to make their children take the tests - lest the schools be counted as failing.  Since many NY schools had opt-out rates of 20 percent or more, this would incorrectly identify many otherwise successful schools as low performing and thus in need of comprehensive improvement and support.

What we point out below is that though the denominator may be specified in the law, there is nothing that specifies the numerator.  Thus, we propose that instead of counting opt-out students as having failed the state exams for the purpose of rating the school, the state should insert into the numerator test scores that are average for other students at the school or for their subgroup.

If and when we receive a response from the Commissioner or the Board of Regents we will let you know.  Meanwhile, this memo could be useful for advocates and parents in other states who don't want their children's schools unfairly penalized on the basis of high opt-rates.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Update on Lead - what's going on?

2/27/17 Update: see the WNYC story here and the comment from lead expert Dr. Morri Markowitz head of the lead prevention program at Montefiore Hospital, who convincingly argues against DOE's false assurances that there has never been a case of lead poisoning at a NYC school.  How would they know spoint out ince there is no systematic testing of children above the age of 2 in NYC? I also want to that while the NY law calls for testing of lead in school water every five years,  DC schools test every year, as will NJ schools from now on. That's what this Michigan bill proposed by their Governor requires, and this bill just introduced in Massachusetts.

Last Thursday night, I gave a presentation on the capital plan to District 6 CEC.  Since many of the   parents in the district at the meeting were  understandably concerned about the high levels of lead reported in the water of some of their schools -- including a finding of 6,620 parts per billion (ppb) and 493 ppb at the building shared by Muscota and Amistad, as well as elevated levels at P.S. 98, I.S. 52  and Washington Heights Academy -- I also provided an update on this critical issue.

As I pointed out in this DNAinfo article, DOE officials had dragged their feet ever since the lead scandal erupted in Flint Michigan, which drew attention to this issue for the first time in years.   In its first round of testing last year, DOE refused to follow the recommended protocol and instead flushed out the water from pipes first before gathering samples which tends to diminish lead levels. This discredited method was also used by the government officials in Flint to minimize the problem of lead and also violated recommended EPA guidelines

Initially,  DOE also refused to test the water in schools built after 1986-- even though most experts advised all schools should be tested.  As we saw in the case of Muscota, new school buildings sometimes have lead levels as high or higher than older buildings. In response to the city's insistence on flushing the water before testing it,  Dr. Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech expert who brought national attention to the crisis in Flint said, The results should be thrown into the garbage, and the city should start over."

Then in June 2016, the NY legislature passed a new law requiring that water at all schools be tested with the “first draw”  to more accurately assess the lead levels that a child might be exposed to,  as recommended by experts and the EPA.

Though Governor Cuomo didn't sign the legislation until September, many districts started retesting the water over the summer in expectation that the law would take effect soon.  The NYS Department of Health released an memo in late August to school districts, informing them of the urgency of this issue;  and emergency regs were issued Sept. 6, letting them know that any outlets found to have water with lead at more than 15 parts per billion -- the "action level" -- would have to be shut off and the sources of lead identified and removed until lead fell below this limit.  The regulations also called for a deadline for retesting the water in all schools by October 31, 2016.  (You can check out the DOH documents here.)

Parents and others were supposed to be informed of the results within six weeks of testing, and also be told the plans to remediate the lead; districts were mandated to report all results to the state no later than November 11, 2016.

Yet even after law passed and the regulations issued, DOE refused to adopt the new protocols.  Inexplicably, NYC officials didn't begin retesting schools according to the mandated method until sometime this winter, according to a letter written by Deputy Chancellor Elizabeth Rose.  

The results? As of January 27, according to the NY State Department of Health, 96 percent of schools in state outside of NYC had finished retesting;  yet NYC had submitted results for less than one third of schools, and would not have complete results until sometime in mid-2017. So far, 9 percent of tested school faucets and fountains in NYC schools have been found to release water above the action level, according to the NY State Department of Health.  

But what has not yet been widely reported is that even earlier, in June 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with new guidelines that schools should limit the amount of lead in their water to no more than 1 part per billion, as opposed to the 15 parts per billion mandated in NY state law. Why? Because as AAP stated, ”There is no identified threshold or safe level of lead in blood…No Amount of Lead Exposure is Safe for Children. 

Indeed, research has shown that children with blood levels even less than 5 micrograms per deciliter suffer from lower IQ , worse test scores, and higher rates of inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity.  

Here is a post I wrote earlier, with the research evidence that there is no safe threshold -- given that any detectable blood levels of lead in children are correlated with worst outcomes.  See the charts to the right,  from a study by researchers at Yale and Brown called "Lead Exposure and Racial Disparities in Test Scores," showing that preschool children with very low levels of lead are likely to have lower test scores in later grades in math and ELA.

Accordingly, DC schools have now adopted the AAP lower guidelines of 1 part per billion for water, and have retested and installed filters in outlets at schools, recreation centers and libraries.  

The lead levels of young children under six have been declining overall, according to the NYC Department of Health,  since the NYC Council passed a strict lead paint law in 2003 over Mayor Bloomberg's veto.  Yet  2 percent of NYC children are  still found to have blood levels at or above 5 mcg per deciliter.  And children's blood levels are rarely tested again after the age of 3.

All of which makes the comments of Oxiris Barbot, the first deputy commissioner of NYC Department of Health, as quoted in DNAinfo, frankly irresponsible:

Her message to kids: “Drink more water in schools,” because, "the more you run the water through the pipes, the more you're flushing out the stale water."
Really? This is the remediation method recommended by a health professional, given the new recommendations of the AAP?  When the building shared by Muscota and Amistad found one outlet with lead at 6,620 parts per billion (ppb) and another at 493 ppb?     And the school at Roosevelt Island, where a sink in the weight room was found to have water with 3,430 ppb?

As Dr. Marc Edwards has said, "Frankly, a onetime exposure to even 100 parts per billion is a concern,” given the research findings on the devastating impact of even low levels of lead."  The city needs to be far more honest with parents and more scrupulous in addressing this problem than it has been in the past. 

See the NY Dept of Health report  to the Governor and the Legislature, Lead in School Drinking Water, dated Jan. 27, 2017; and the NY DOH school water data reporting pages and maps, as of today without any NYC data. Also check out this just-released report from  the Environment America Research and Policy Center, Get the Lead Out: Ensuring Safe Drinking Water for Our Children at School, February 2017.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

So it happened; DeVos was confirmed. What next?

So it happened as predicted; Mike Pence cast the tie-breaking vote for Betsy Devos this afternoon. 
Though disappointing it was in its way historic: the only time in US history that a Cabinet secretary needed the vote of the Vice President to be approved.

The last few weeks have been historic in another way:  Never have parents, teachers and concerned citizens been so outraged and activated over an education official or issue.  Never have so many called, rallied, protested, faxed and written letters to their Senators, in an "avalanche" that nearly flattened Capitol Hill, overwhelming and shocking Senators of both parties.

In CSPAN's 24 hour, all night coverage of the debate over DeVos nomination, the Democrats read aloud numerous letters from their constituents, eloquent passionate and smart, begging them to reject DeVos as the most unqualified candidate ever to be named as Education Secretary, whose qualifications were based primarily upon her family's wealth.  In every past administration  no matter how conservative, she would have been named Ambassador to Luxembourg or something similar.

Even after the vote there were protests.  NYC high school students walked out of their schools en masse, in a stirring show of resistance.

So call your Senators and thank them if they voted "No"; if they voted otherwise, let them know what you think.  NPE has a list of all the Senators, their votes, and phone numbers.

We need to sustain the activism and involvement we exercised in this battle and keep speaking out loudly and firmly to let education policymakers at the federal, state and local levels know that we will not stand idly by while our public schools are defunded, dismantled and privatized.

One issue little noticed by the media:  it was widely recognized how avid Betsy DeVos has been to allow for-profit charters and vouchers to draw funds from the public schools.  What was little noticed is her devotion to online learning and questionable ed tech solutions. These will just as surely divert resources from the proven strategies that provide students with the support  and human feedback they need.   It was reported  that the one financial company she refused to divest from is Neurocore that runs "brain performance centers” via biofeedback to treat autism and attention deficit disorder with no evidence of efficacy.

In 2015, while speaking at SXSW Edu, that annual Kumbaya gathering of the technology tribe, DeVos sounded exactly like Bill Gates:
It’s a battle of Industrial Age versus the Digital Age. It’s the Model T versus the Tesla. It’s old factory model versus the new Internet model. It’s the Luddites versus the future. We must open up the education industry — and let’s not kid ourselves that it isn’t an industry — we must open it up to entrepreneurs and innovators.
This is how families without means will get access to a world-class education. This is how a student who’s not learning in their current model can find an individualized learning environment that will meet their needs.
We are the beneficiaries of start-ups, ventures, and innovation in every other area of life, but we don’t have that in education because it’s a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market. It’s a monopoly, a dead end. And the best and brightest innovators and risk-takers steer way clear of it. As long as education remains a closed system, we will never see the education equivalents of Google, Facebook, Amazon, PayPal, Wikipedia or Uber. We won’t see any real innovation that benefits more than a handful of students."
Surely, we will need all your activism in the battles to come - whether it be against the expansion of charters, the use of tuition tax credits or vouchers, or wasteful ed tech scams -- all of which would divert precious resources from our public schools. Now that we've woken up our elected officials to the fact that parents and teachers and citizens fiercely love their public schools, and will do nearly anything to preserve, protect and support them, we must continue to speak out. As Patty Murray tweeted this afternoon, 
"To the parents, teachers,  and students who made their voices heard: We hear you and the fight isn't over.

Why parents and privacy experts are NOT reassured by the Chancellor's letter on undocumented students

Last week, Chancellor Farina sent a letter home to parents, saying they should not worry that their children are at risk of having their immigration status disclosed to government officials looking to deport them.  The letter said this:

DOE staff will not grant unlimited access to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Like all other law enforcement agencies, ICE is not permitted access to schools without proper legal authority. If ICE officers go to a school for immigration enforcement purposes, they will be referred to the principal who will take appropriate action.  

So it seems the DOE is leaving it up to the principal to “take appropriate action” but does not explain what that might be.  Unsurprisingly, the letter did little to assuage many people’s fears – including experts on the subject.   Why?   

Contrast the Chancellor’s ambiguous statement with the position the Los Angeles school board took recently on the same subject:  In February, the L.A. Unified board directed district officials not to allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement onto its campuses without a review by the superintendent.”  

The LAUSD board also proclaimed that the they would “continue to protect the data and identities of any student, family member, or school employee who may be adversely affected by any future policies or executive action results in the collection of any personally identifiable information.”  

More specifically, the LA resolution called for the following protections:
  • Forbids agents from coming on campus without review and not before a decision is made by the superintendent and the LAUSD lawyer’s office.
  • Forbids school staff to ask about a student’s immigration status or that of family members.
  • Provides teachers, administrators and other staff training on how to deal with immigration issues and how to notify families in multiple languages of issues.
  • Asks all schools to treat students equitably, including those receiving free and reduced lunches, transportation and other services.
  • Requires the superintendent to come up with a plan in 90 days to provide assistance, information and safety for students and families “if faced with fear and anxiety related to immigration enforcement efforts.”
Similar resolutions to protect immigrant students have been approved by other school districts, including San Francisco Unified and Montgomery County, Md.

The Chancellor’s letter featured other troubling and ambiguous statements.   She wrote the following: 

As in the past, DOE staff will not ask about or keep a record of the immigration status of a student or family member. If you do share confidential information, including immigration status, about yourself or your family, it will be protected under the City’s confidentiality policy and the Chancellor’s Regulations.

Yet the Chancellor’s regulations are not particularly reassuring as regards student privacy and the DOE has shown little respect for protecting student privacy in the past – as we saw during the inBloom controversy.  The DOE still hasn’t posted the NY Parent Bill of Rights for Data Privacy and Security, as it has been legally obligated to do since 2014 – but instead posts a shorter, amended version with far less information.   The DOE also fails to inform parents that they have the right  to withhold directory information for their children each year,  which is their most basic legal obligation under the federal law known as FERPA.

Moreover, the Chancellor’s regulations contain several instances when personal student information can be provided without parental consent. Here is A-820 of the Chancellors regs:

     In keeping with the individual's right to privacy, no part of a student's education record, however created, may be divulged with personally identifiable information to any person, organization, or agency in any manner unless there is….
     a)       informed written consent by the parent or eligible student;...
     b)      a valid court order or lawfully issued subpoena requesting such information (in such cases, prior to complying with such order or subpoena, the parent or
eligible student shall be notified immediately in writing of the information which has been subpoenaed or which is the subject of the court order)
  c)   a request for disclosure by authorized representatives of the officials or agencies headed by State or local educational authorities, the Secretary of Education of  the United States, the  Attorney General of the United States, or the Comptroller General of the United States and the request is in connection with an audit or evaluation of Federal or State supported education  programs, or for the enforcement of or compliance with Federal legal requirements that relate to those programs. Such information that is collected must be protected in a manner that does not permit personal identification of individuals (unless specifically authorized by Federal law) by anyone except the officials or agencies headed by officials mentioned above and must be destroyed when no longer needed for the purposes listed…

This part of the Chancellor’s letter is not reassuring either: “DOE staff will not release student information unless required to by law."

President Trump recently signed the following Executive Order focused on removing “aliens” and includes stripping privacy rights to anyone who is not a citizen or a lawful permanent resident:

Sec. 2.  Policy.  It is the policy of the executive branch to:
(a)  Ensure the faithful execution of the immigration laws of the United States, including the INA, against all removable aliens, consistent with Article II, Section 3 of the United States Constitution and section 3331 of title 5, United States Code;
(b)  Make use of all available systems and resources to ensure the efficient and faithful execution of the immigration laws of the United States;
(c)  Ensure that jurisdictions that fail to comply with applicable Federal law do not receive Federal funds, except as mandated by law; 
(d)  Ensure that aliens ordered removed from the United States are promptly removed…

Sec. 14.  Privacy Act.  Agencies shall, to the extent consistent with applicable law, ensure that their privacy policies exclude persons who are not United States citizens or lawful permanent residents from the protections of the Privacy Act regarding personally identifiable information.
How this relates to federal student privacy rights under FERPA is unclear.  In any case, there are many exceptions in FERPA, including that student privacy can be violated “to comply with a judicial order or lawfully issued subpoena…”  

Moreover, contrary to the assertions in an article in Chalkbeat, which implies  that the DOE collects relevant information only pertaining to “a child’s country of origin and ethnicity” all NY school districts are required to collect more information that could be used as a method to help identify a student’s immigrant status.

According to NYSED's 2016-7 SIRS State Education Manual, districts including NYC are required to collect the following information for each  public school student and send it to the state:
  1. Country of birth
  2. Whether the student is an immigrant; defined as individuals aged 3 through 21; 
            a)  Who were not born in any State; and
b)    have not been attending one or more schools in any one or more States for more than 3 full academic years

         3. Migrant status: -- A student is a migrant child if the student is, or whose parent, guardian, or spouse is, a migratory agricultural worker, including a migratory dairy worker or a migratory fisher, and who, in the preceding 36 months, in order to obtain, or accompany such parent, guardian, or spouse, in order to obtain, temporary or seasonal employment in agricultural or fishing work has moved from one school district to another.
To allay parental concerns, NYC Board of Education, known as the Panel for Educational Policy, should pass a similar resolution as LAUSD – and the Chancellor should send out a stronger message to parents that they will protect the confidentiality of student records from immigration officials, and if necessary go to court to do so, rather than leave it up to principals how they should respond to inquiries or interpret the law.

In addition, the NY State Education Department should explain why it needs to collect so much sensitive student data in the first place.  In return for an $8 million federal grant to develop its student longitudinal data system (LDS), the Department promised to establish a Stakeholder Advisory board by 2009 that would provide oversight and input as to the collection, storage and use of this information: 

Yet to this day, there are no such boards -- either statewide or regionally and neither students nor their parents have any input into how their extremely sensitive data is collected, stored or protected from breach or abuse.

NYSED just hired a Chief Privacy Officer this fall two years past the legal deadline, and remain years behind in updating and expanding the Parent Bill of Rights.  The NYSED student privacy website recently posted is incomplete in many ways, as we have pointed out to state officials.   They should immediately fulfill their promise to create a Stakeholder Advisory board to include parents and privacy advocates, who would deal with situations like the immigration issue; to  figure out whether all the personal student data they collect is truly necessary, and if so, how it can be best protected from disclosures that would hurt students.

There is also now a big push by several organizations, including Education Trust, Data Quality Campaign and other Gates-funded DC groups, as reflected by their testimony to the Commission on Evidence-based Policy, to overturn the law in Congress that prohibits the federal government from creating a comprehensive database of personal student information.   The move to develop just such a database that would allow the federal government to track all public school students from preK through college and beyond is one of the top priorities of the Gates Foundation this year.  More on this here.    

Our deep concerns about the huge risk to privacy such a database would pose were only reinforced when it was recently revealed that the Home Office in Great Britain has made repeated attempts to access information in their national student database for the purpose of immigration control, including students' country of birth,  despite repeated government promises that this data would only be used only for research purposes.  One can only imagine how the Trump administration might use such information.  The Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, the national organization we formed after inBloom’s collapse, is leading the fight against overturning this ban.  Join us here.