Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Why too many Renewal schools have failed to show results - a response to NEPC on community schools

Today Kevin Welner and Julia Daniel of NEPC wrote a piece for the Washington Post Answer Sheet defending NYC's Renewal program.  They made two points:  that schools alone cannot improve student outcomes, and that making any judgement about the success or failure of Renewal school program is premature.  
Though I usually agree with Kevin and the support the work of NEPC, I disagree with both of these points. The DOE's Renewal school program has wasted millions of dollars on high-priced consultants and "leadership coaches" making up to $1400 dollars a day.  Many of these consultants already earn six-figure pensions, and some had a history of scandal or mismanagement as administrators.  Much of this program has involved taking teachers out of the classroom for useless PD, making students take endless iReady tests, and spending lots of time and money on data dashboards etc. 
Moreover, the whole concept of community schools offering wraparound services, though of potential benefit to students, cannot be expected to improve results without seriously addressing classroom conditions at the same time.
As I pointed out in my testimony last year before the City Council, many of the Renewal schools still have extremely high class sizes despite repeated and explicit promises since 2014 from the NYC DOE to reduce them, as part of their Contracts for Excellence (C4E) plan  - a state law passed in 2007 that required NYC to be reducing class size in all grades. 
This is despite the fact that in our analysis, we found a strongly significant and negative correlation between Renewal school class sizes   and their positive impact on learning, as measured by DOE’s impact ratings on their school performance dashboard.  In other words, the smaller the class size, the more likely the Renewal school would have a positive impact, as measured by student achievement, attendance, and in high school, graduation rates, after controlling for their background and need level.
We have now updated our findings based on class sizes of the Renewal schools this fall, and sent them to DOE, as part of legally mandated C4E comment process last month.  More than one third, or 36 percent, of the remaining fifty Renewal schools have not reduced average class size by even a fraction of a student since 2014. Over that same period, fewer than half (48  percent) decreased average class size by one student or more. None of the Renewal schools capped class sizes this fall at the original C4E goals of 20 students per class in K-3, 23 in 4th-8th, and 25 in High school.  Nearly three quarters (74 percent) of these schools continue to have maximum class sizes of 30 or more.  Our comments are below.

In short, learning takes place in the classroom, and with class sizes of 30 or more, and teaching loads of 150 or more, it is extremely unrealistic to see how educators,  no matter how skilled, can reach struggling students -- regardless how many wrap-around services are provided. Until NYC and the nation as a whole makes focused efforts to lower class sizes all the way through high school, especially in our high-needs schools, it is simply wrong to assume that schools alone cannot improve results substantially for their students.  It is also wrong to assume that wrap-around services can magically substitute for equitable and optimal learning conditions.

December 31, 2018

To: ContractsForExcellence@schools.nyc.gov

The Contracts for Excellence (C4E) law passed in 2007 required NYC to lower class size in all grades, and yet class sizes are now substantially higher in all grades than when the law was first approved. The trend continues; DOE estimated that average class size citywide increased on average by 0.3 to 26.4 students per class this fall.

These increases in class size indicate that NYC is not in compliance with either the intent or the language of the C4E law, nor the decision of the state’s highest courts which in the CFE decision, concluded that NYC students were denied their constitutional right to a sound basic education because of excessive class sizes.

Indeed, according to NYSED data, class sizes in NYC public schools remain larger than in the rest of the state by 13% to 47% in all grade levels and subjects aside from pre-K, where class sizes are capped by state law.

As the research on the benefits of smaller classes is clear, especially for disadvantaged children and students of color, NYC’s excessive class sizes impose a huge inequity on its public school students. This is especially true because many studies show that smaller classes offer a host of academic and social- emotional benefits, leading to higher achievement, more student engagement and persistence, less teacher attrition, and improved graduation rates.[1]

Since 2014, the DOE officials have claimed in their Contract for Excellence (C4E) presentations and plans submitted to the State Education Department that they are “focusing” their efforts on reducing class size on the Renewal schools. For example, here is an excerpt from this fall’s C4E proposed plan:[2]

For the 2018-2019 school year, the DOE will continue its efforts to reduce class size, which is one of the allowable activities for which Contracts for Excellence funds may be spent, pursuant to the C4E legislation, in the following ways:
  • Last year, NYCDOE focused on class size reduction in the Renewal School Program. These schools align well with the goals of Contracts for Excellence, as they serve students with the greatest educational needs, including students in poverty, students with disabilities, and students with limited English proficiency, and many of these schools are historically underperforming and have high class sizes.
  • For the 2018-2019 school year, NYCDOE will continue to focus on the Renewal Schools in its class size reduction efforts.

Yet as we presented in our testimony last year to the City Council, in nearly half (or 42 percent) of Renewal Schools, there was no reduction in average class size from November014 to November 2017. [3] Of the Renewal Schools that did not reduce class size, the average increase in class size was more than two students per class, with some schools increasing class sizes significantly more than that. Even among those schools that did lower class sizes, 18 percent did so by less than one student per class on average. Not one of the Renewal schools capped class size at the levels in the DOE’s original C4E plan to be achieved citywide, that is, no more than 20 students per class in grades K-3, 23 students in 4th-8th grades and 25 students per class in high school. Worse yet, in 73 percent of the Renewal schools, maximum class sizes were 30 students or more.

We have now analyzed this fall’s class size data, which show that more than one third, or 36 percent, of the remaining fifty Renewal schools have not reduced average class size by even a fraction of a student since 2014. Over that same period, fewer than half (48 percent) decreased average class size by one student or more. None of the Renewal schools capped class sizes this fall at the original C4E goals, and again, nearly three quarters (74 percent) continue to have maximum class sizes of 30 or more.

The evident failure of the DOE to focus on reducing class size in these schools is also indicated by the form letter sent to parents with children at these schools. [4] Though the letter claims that “Every effort is being made to provide the highest quality instructional program to best meet the needs of your child,” no mention is made of smaller classes, which are key to providing a high-quality learning environment. Instead, the letter lists several different “interventions” including “partnerships between families, community-based organizations”, expanded learning time, vision testing, “enhanced curriculum,” teacher training, and new “data systems.”According to news reports, the DOE is now deciding whether to discontinue, phase out or revise the Renewal program for struggling schools, which is now in its fourth year and has shown “mixed” results in the eyes of most observers, after costing an estimated $750 million .[5]

It is profoundly disappointing that no real attempt has been made to improve the learning conditions at the Renewal schools through class size reduction. Indeed, our analysis last year showed that there was a significant negative correlation between average class sizes at Renewal schools, and the quality of these schools, as measured by their impact scores on the DOE performance dashboard. [6]

Impact scores as calculated by DOE measure achievement, attendance, and in high schools, graduation rates, while attempting to control for student background and need level.[7] This significant correlation provides evidence that the smaller the class sizes, the more likely Renewal schools have improved student outcomes .

NYC and NYS should address this fundamental injustice, by ensuring that class sizes are lowered in all NYC public schools, but particularly for struggling students at the Renewal schools to provide them with the best chance of success.

Yours sincerely,

Leonie Haimson, Executive Director

[2] Though the presentation is dated August 2018, but has been revised since then and the latest version is dated Nov. 20, 2018 according to the properties tab.  https://infohub.nyced.org/docs/default-source/default-document-library/fy19_c4e_cec_ppt_08-15-18_final.pptx?Status=Temp&sfvrsn=99a6d67b_4

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