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  • The Early Years Of The New York City Teachers Union

    Written on April 30, 2020

    New York Citys Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation (GVSHP) has published an appeal to grant protected landmark status to the “12-story Beaux Arts style office building” at 70 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The building was built in 1912 for George Arthur Plimpton, a publisher of education textbooks, a collector of rare books, a philanthropist and a peace activist. For many years, the GVSHP tells us, the building was a haven for radicals and liberals.” I immediately recognized the address as that of the offices of the New York City Teachers Union (TU) for two decades. There is an intriguing story behind that address and the Teachers Union, and it provides a revealing window into the political history of early teacher unionism.

    In the same year as 70 Fifth Avenue was built, Henry Linville and a small number of New York City teacher comrades launched a publication, The American Teacher, to report on the economic and professional status of the educator workforce and the politics of American public education. Linville was a biology teacher of some note with a Ph.D. from Harvard; one can still find copies of influential science textbooks he authored. He was a democratic socialist and pacifist who had a particularly close relationship with Norman Thomas, the longtime leader of the Socialist Party. The two worked together in an unsuccessful effort to oppose American involvement in World War I.

    In the early twentieth century, there was a great deal of trans-Atlantic cross-fertilization between British and American leftists, with London and New York as the two intellectual centers in this exchange of ideas. From the Womens Trade Union League and the settlement house movement to Fabian Society proposals for reform and the idea of labor party, from anti-imperialist support of Irish and Indian independence to militant suffragist tactics and campaigns for birth control, sex education and the decriminalization of gay sex, New Yorkers often drew inspiration from their British counterparts. The American Teacher followed the development of the National Union of Teachers in the United Kingdom, and New York teachers on the left increasingly looked to it as a model of what could be done in the United States.

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  • The Past Is Prologue To The Future

    Written on January 10, 2020

    Our guest author today is Stanley Litow, Professor at Duke and Columbia Universities, where he teaches about the role of corporations in society, and the author of The Challenge for Business and Society: From Risk to Reward. He formerly led Corporate Social Responsibility at IBM, where he was twice selected as CEO of the Year by Corporate Responsibility Magazine.

    It was thirty years ago this month that Joseph Fernandez began his tenure as the New York City Public Schools’ Chancellor. Born and raised in New York, Fernandez led the public school system in Miami prior to assuming leadership of New York City’s schools, the nation’s largest school system. Even before becoming Chancellor in NYC, Fernandez had already been acknowledged a premier leader of a large city school system.  Over nearly four years under Fernandez's leadership in NYC, the schools accomplished a great deal despite significant challenges.  In fact at the end of his first six months on the job, Joseph Berger wrote a story in the New York Times that claimed that Fernandez had “enjoyed a string of triumphs as he maneuvered to gain control of [the school] system.”

    Among his many reforms, Fernandez championed the creation of dozens of new, innovative small schools across NYC, many of which ultimately spread across the nation. Decades later, the evaluation results of these innovative schools performed by MDRC as part of a set of longitudinal studies have documented significant gains in achievement.  His successors, who have disagreed sharply about many other things, have all continued to support and sustain the NYC small schools effort.  Fernandez also championed the first diversity curriculum in any US school district. That reform, Children of the Rainbow, attempted to assist early childhood and elementary educators in addressing the challenge of providing equity and excellence for students whose families might be nontraditional, including a book in its appendix titled "Heather Has Two Mommies." In the midst of the AIDS crisis, he began a structured way of providing students in New York City high schools with access to condoms, helping to provide health safety and security for students.

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  • Economic Segregation In New York City Schools

    Written on September 28, 2016

    Although student segregation by race and ethnicity is well documented in U.S. public schools, the body of evidence on the related outcome of economic school segregation (e.g., by income) is considerably smaller (Reardon and Owens 2014).

    In general, economic segregation of students is increasing nationally over the past few decades, both between districts and between schools (Owens et al. 2014). It is inevitable that these aggregate trends vary widely by state, metropolitan area, and district. We were curious as to the situation in New York City, the nation’s largest district, but were unable to find any NYC-specific results, particularly results that included different types of segregation measures.

    We therefore decided to take a quick look ourselves, using data from the NYC Department of Education. The very brief analysis below uses eligibility for subsidized lunch (free and reduced-price lunch, or FRL) as a (very) rough income proxy, and segregation is measured between district schools only (charters are not included) from 2002 to 2015. In the graph below, we characterize within-district, between-school segregation using two different and very common approaches, exposure and dissimilarity.

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  • Thinking About Tests While Rethinking Test-Based Accountability

    Written on August 5, 2016

    Earlier this week, per the late summer ritual, New York State released its testing results for the 2015-2016 school year. New York City (NYC), always the most closely watched set of results in the state, showed a 7.6 percentage point increase in its ELA proficiency rate, along with a 1.2 percentage point increase in its math rate. These increases were roughly equivalent to the statewide changes.

    City officials were quick to pounce on the results, which were called “historic,” and “pure hard evidence” that the city’s new education policies are working. This interpretation, while standard in the U.S. education debate, is, of course, inappropriate for many reasons, all of which we’ve discussed here countless times and will not detail again (see here). Suffice it to say that even under the best of circumstances these changes in proficiency rates are only very tentative evidence that students improved their performance over time, to say nothing of whether that improvement was due to a specific policy or set of policies.

    Still, the results represent good news. A larger proportion of NYC students are scoring proficient in math and ELA than did last year. Real improvement is slow and sustained, and this is improvement. In addition, the proficiency rate in NYC is now on par with the statewide rate, which is unprecedented. There are, however, a couple of additional issues with these results that are worth discussing quickly.

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  • Student Attrition And "Backfilling" At Success Academy Charter Schools: What Student Enrollment Patterns Tell Us

    Written on February 18, 2016

    This is the second of two posts on Success Academy Charter Schools. The first post was entitled “Student Discipline, Race and Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter Schools.”

    Last fall, at a press conference called to respond to a New York Times exposé of efforts to “push out” targeted students from New York City’s Success Academy Charter Schools, Eva Moskowitz , the charter chain’s founder and CEO, described those practices as “an anomaly.”

    “Our goal in suspending children or issuing any consequences,” Moskowitz told reporters, “is not to get rid of children or to have them leave our school. It is to have them have high standards of conduct.”

    Last week, at a press conference called to respond to the New York Times publication of a video of a Success Academy model teacher berating a child for making a mistake in arithmetic, Moskowitz reiterated her claim that such practices were “anomalies.”

    The notion that students were being “pushed out” in order to boost Success Academy scores on standardized exams was “just crazy talk,” Moskowitz told journalist John Merrow in a PBS interview.

    Does the available evidence support Moskowitz’s claims? In search of an answer, I examined the student enrollment patterns at Success Academy Charter Schools, using the data currently available in the New York State Education Department’s school report cards.

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  • Student Discipline, Race And Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter Schools

    Written on October 19, 2015

    At a recent press conference, Success Academy Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz addressed the issue of student discipline. “It is horrifying,” she told reporters, that critics of her charter schools’ high suspension rates don’t realize “that five-year-olds do some pretty violent things.” Moskowitz then pivoted to her displeasure with student discipline in New York City (NYC) public schools, asserting that disorder and disrespect have become rampant.

    This is not the first time Moskowitz has taken aim at the city’s student discipline policies. Last spring, she used the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal to criticize the efforts of Mayor Bill De Blasio and the NYC Department of Education to reform the student code of conduct and schools’ disciplinary procedures. Indeed, caustic commentary on student behavior and public school policy has become something of a trademark for Moskowitz.

    The National Move to Reform Student Discipline Practices

    To understand why, it is important to provide some context. The New York City public school policies that Moskowitz derides are part of a national reform effort, inspired by a body of research showing that overly punitive disciplinary policies are ineffective and discriminatory. Based on this research evidence, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and School Discipline Consensus Project of the Council of State Governments have all gone on record on the harmful effects of employing such policies. The U.S. Education Department, the U.S. Justice Department, civil rights and civil liberties organizations, consortia of researchers, national foundations, and the Dignity in Schools advocacy coalition have all examined the state of student discipline in America’s schools in light of this research.1

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  • Trust: The Foundation Of Student Achievement

    Written on May 21, 2015

    When sharing with me the results of some tests, my doctor once said, "You are a scientist, you know a single piece of data can't provide all the answers or suffice to make a diagnosis. We can't look at a single number in isolation, we need to look at all results in combination." Was my doctor suggesting that I ignore that piece of information we had? No. Was my doctor deemphasizing the result? No. He simply said that we needed additional evidence to make informed decisions. This is, of course, correct.

    In education, however, it is frequently implied or even stated directly that the bottom line when it comes to school performance is student test scores, whereas any other outcomes, such as cooperation between staff or a supportive learning environment, are ultimately "soft" and, at best, of secondary importance. This test-based, individual-focused position is viewed as serious, rigorous, and data driven. Deviation from it -- e.g., equal emphasis on additional, systemic aspects of schools and the people in them -- is sometimes derided as an evidence-free mindset. Now, granted, few people are “purely” in one camp or the other. Most probably see themselves as pragmatists, and, as such, somewhere in between: Test scores are probably not all that matters, but since the rest seems so difficult to measure, we might as well focus on "hard data" and hope for the best.

    Why this narrow focus on individual measures such as student test scores or teacher quality? I am sure there are many reasons but one is probably lack of familiarity with the growing research showing that we must go beyond the individual teacher and student and examine the social-organizational aspects of schools, which are associated (most likely causally) with student achievement. In other words, all the factors skeptics and pragmatists might think are a distraction and/or a luxury, are actually relevant for the one thing we all care about: Student achievement. Moreover, increasing focus on these factors might actually help us understand what’s really important: Not simply whether testing results went up or down, but why or why not.

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  • Teacher Turnover At Success Academy Charter Schools

    Written on April 9, 2015

    A recent New York Times article about the Success Academies, a large chain of New York City charter schools, focuses a great deal on the long working hours and heavy stress faced by teachers at these schools. The article reports that three Success Academy (SA) schools had teacher turnover rates above 50 percent. Officials from the network, however, dispute these figures, which they say are inflated by the fact that many teachers who leave SA schools simply transfer to other SA schools (i.e., they are counted falsely as leaving SA when they are in fact staying within the network).

    In fact, SA officials claim that, when one account for these intra-network transfers, their true turnover rate across all their schools ("attrition from the network," in the article) between June 2013 and June 2014 was 17 percent, which is far lower than many critics suggest. Now, on the one hand, these ongoing debates about teacher turnover at SA schools, which have been occurring regularly for years, are a little strange. It is clear that SA teachers work unusually long hours in high stress, tightly regulated environments, and do so for salaries that are lower than those offered by most other professional jobs with similar working conditions. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that turnover would be high; indeed, high teacher churn, like student mobility, is in many respects part of the model of schools such as the Success Academies (and, of course, some turnover, such as that among poorly performing teachers or those who are not a good fit for their schools, can be beneficial).

    On the other hand, however, SA officials are making an empirical claim about turnover at their schools, one that includes an interesting and somewhat unusual angle (intra-network mobility). And this claim is very easy to examine with teacher-level data that we happen to have available via a public records request. So, let’s take a quick look at turnover at SA between 2012-13 and 2013-14 (the latest year-to-year transition we have).

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  • The Great Teacher Evaluation Evaluation: New York Edition

    Written on September 8, 2014

    A couple of weeks ago, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) released data from the first year of the state's new teacher and principal evaluation system (called the “Annual Professional Performance Review," or APPR). In what has become a familiar pattern, this prompted a wave of criticism from advocates, much of it focused on the proportion of teachers in the state to receive the lowest ratings.

    To be clear, evaluation systems that produce non-credible results should be examined and improved, and that includes those that put implausible proportions of teachers in the highest and lowest categories. Much of the commentary surrounding this and other issues has been thoughtful and measured. As usual, though, there have been some oversimplified reactions, as exemplified by this piece on the APPR results from Students First NY (SFNY).

    SFNY notes what it considers to be the low proportion of teachers rated “ineffective," and points out that there was more differentiation across rating categories for the state growth measure (worth 20 percent of teachers’ final scores), compared with the local “student learning” measure (20 percent) and the classroom observation components (60 percent). Based on this, they conclude that New York’s "state test is the only reliable measure of teacher performance" (they are actually talking about validity, not reliability, but we’ll let that go). Again, this argument is not representative of the commentary surrounding the APPR results, but let’s use it as a springboard for making a few points, most of which are not particularly original. (UPDATE: After publication of this post, SFNY changed the headline of their piece from "the only reliable measure of teacher performance" to "the most reliable measure of teacher performance.")

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  • The Thrill Of Success, The Agony Of Measurement

    Written on August 21, 2014

    ** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

    The recent release of the latest New York State testing results created a little public relations coup for the controversial Success Academies charter chain, which operates over 20 schools in New York City, and is seeking to expand.

    Shortly after the release of the data, the New York Post published a laudatory article noting that seven of the Success Academies had overall proficiency rates that were among the highest in the state, and arguing that the schools “live up to their name." The Daily News followed up by publishing an op-ed that compares the Success Academies' combined 94 percent math proficiency rate to the overall city rate of 35 percent, and uses that to argue that the chain should be allowed to expand because its students “aced the test” (this is not really what high proficiency rates mean, but fair enough).

    On the one hand, this is great news, and a wonderfully impressive showing by these students. On the other, decidedly less sensational hand, it's also another example of the use of absolute performance indicators (e.g., proficiency rates) as measures of school rather than student performance, despite the fact that they are not particularly useful for the former purpose since, among other reasons, they do not account for where students start out upon entry to the school. I personally don't care whether Success Academy gets good or bad press. I do, however, believe that how one gauges effectiveness, test-based or otherwise, is important, even if one reaches the same conclusion using different measures.

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