Category: Uncategorized
By Steve Evangelista

All my life I’ve been telling people that my father helped shape my work ethic with his example. Today, on the day of his retirement, aside from recalling the thousands of corny jokes he has told, I realize that he also showed me how to create a loving community.

My father, Antimo Evangelista, known to his customers as Andy, began working in 1968 alongside his brothers Sigfrido (aka Siggy) and Bruno at the barbershop owned by Siggy and, at the time, another uncle named Nunzio. My father and Bruno bought the shop (and kept the name Sigfrido’s) when Siggy retired 30 years later. For the past 10 years, my father owned the shop by himself, with Bruno retiring to fight a brave and inspiring health battle.

In a small family-owned business, there is no such thing as a middle manager, so if the shop was open (as it was every day except Sundays and a few major holidays), my father was there. For the past 10 years he has worked six-day weeks with no sick days or vacations, save for the few occasions when a rare day or two when one of his brothers would fill in for him.

That consistency — along with the 5 a.m. wake up, hour-long commute from Staten Island to Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town, and the 11-hour day in the shop — are what taught me my work ethic. There is dignity and validation in putting in that kind of effort day, in and day out.

But there was an even more important quality that my father and my uncles brought to Sigfrido’s. As he has made his last cuts this week, we witnessed the reverence and care he had for his customers over five decades being returned to him by them. He treated each of them as equals — no matter their station in life — and they collectively let him know how much they will miss him and have appreciated his loving touch.

My father’s shop welcomed people from all walks of life. Manhattan’s wondrous diversity spilled into the shop every day. People on the fringes of society found acceptance in those chairs, some of them hanging around and becoming fixtures in the shop, because they felt the same respect as the police commissioner, the television stars and high-powered bankers who were also members of the clientele.

As my dad wraps up his career, he’s cutting the hair of his first customers’ grandchildren. He has hardly raised the prices the last 20 years — he wanted to respect the needs of his customers — and along with that consideration and the old fashioned hot towel straight- edge shave, it’s no wonder those customers have sent postcards to the shop from seemingly every corner of the world.

Every day at our school we start the day with a morning meeting in each classroom. The purpose of the meeting is to convey a sense of belonging, importance and fun to each child. It is the foundation of our school’s commitment to a positive community. It’s something Andy, along with his brothers, did for his customers ever day for the past 48 years without a break.

Now did you hear the one about the guy who walked into the elevator with a supermodel?

Category: Uncategorized
by Steve Evangelista

A recent report, Little to Gain and Much to Lose, calls for a moratorium on kindergarten Common Core reading standards. The report argues that the “many children are not developmentally ready to read in kindergarten.” Therefore, expectations for reading in kindergarten should not be forced on children, who “learn through playful, hands-on experiences with materials, the natural world, and engaging, caring adults.”

The report raises a pressing issue that we face every day at Harlem Link. We are struggling to balance the developmental needs of children to play and explore with the academic demands that are heaped on us not only by Common Core but also by the imperative to improve college and life outcomes that were the impetus of Common Core’s development. Every year we at Harlem Link want children spend more time with blocks, developing spatial awareness, nimble brain functioning and problem solving skills. At the same time, we feel pressure to put the blocks away and take the pencils out. While talkative experts are ready to pounce on Little to Gain to attack Common Core, the esteemed authors of the report and other critics point out a dilemma we will never resolve as long as we ignore the root of the problem.

Unstated in the report is the socioeconomic divide of “developmental readiness.” Here’s the sad and scary truth: children from higher economic classes and whose parents have a higher level of education enter kindergarten with far more literacy and language experiences than children from lower economic classes. In simpler terms, wealthier parents tend to read and talk to their kids a lot and do those things with purpose and verve. Lower income parents, much less so.

The authors throw “developmental readiness” around as if it were an innate, biologically determined quality that each child brings to school. Nonsense. Child development is highly dependent on environmental factors, and home experiences trump just about everything else when it comes to being “developmentally ready” for kindergarten. The now-famous 1995 study by Hart and Risley demonstrated that by age three children from lower-income families typically hear 30 million fewer words than their affluent peers.

Taken to its logical conclusion, the Little to Gain report says to me, “Some kids just aren’t going to go to college. They enter kindergarten not ready to read, so why force them?”

On the other hand, study after study shows, “If you aren’t ready to read in kindergarten, you better catch up fast because by the time you should be going to college, the odds are you’ll be looking for a minimum-wage job instead because you won’t be qualified for higher education.”

So implicit in the report, for me, are two real questions, neither of which is answered by the report:

  1. What do we educators and policymakers do about the massive word gap that lower income children face even before they enter kindergarten?
  2. What do we do for the children, regardless of the income of their families, who enter kindergarten “unready” for reading?

As I said above, we’ll never have a satisfactory answer for Question #2. I know; I’ve been trying to find the balance for the last 10 years. It’s a wild ride on this particular pendulum.
But Question #1 does have an answer, and done well, it will attack the root of the problem and break the cycle of poverty.

The answer is about parent education and parent resources. Our school has many families who prove that a low-income doesn’t have to mean a literacy-poor home (although some parents need extra support and creativity; how can you read to your child every night when you are a single parent working the night shift?).

There are multiple organizations working to educate parents on how to support literacy at home, beginning at birth. As part of our new Start to Finish program, we partner with Reach Out and Read, through which pediatricians provide books and training to new parents. The Parent-Child Home Program sends literacy specialists on structured visits to low-income homes to teach literacy-supporting parent-child interactions.

It’s time that elementary schools saw contributing to the solution for Question #1 is a central part of all of our efforts. We must work together to ensure that no community is labeled “developmentally unready.” Every school should be engaged in supporting community members to meet the vision of the Parent-Child Home Program: “Every child enters school ready to succeed because every parent has the knowledge and resources to build school readiness where it starts: the home.”

When that vision is met, there could be a proper celebration in every kindergarten, and a developmentally appropriate one: a block party!

This post also appeared on Chalkbeat NY.

Category: Uncategorized
by Steve Evangelista

I’m writing with Margaret Ryan on the eve of a forum about inequities in public education that we are hosting at Bank Street College of Education. We chose specifically to focus this panel discussion and roundtable on public school education, and not just charter school education, even though we have been running a charter school for the past nine years. We have heard some concerns such as, “So this is a charter school panel. When is the public school panel?”

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way: inequity in public education is not a charters vs. public issue (it’s much bigger); and charter schools are public schools. Charters and district schools are indeed administered differently, and charters can do some things that district public schools cannot do.
Below are a baker’s dozen of popular misconceptions about charter schools that we would like to clarify.

Claim 1: Charters aren’t publicly accountable
This misconception usually falls into two categories: concerns that district schools are in danger of closing more easily and thus are under more pressure to achieve; and concerns over lack of transparency on how public funds are spent.

Prior to the Joel Klein era, closing a district schools was a near impossibility. But charters have been closing around the state since the movement was in its infancy. While Mayor de Blasio has declared a moratorium on district school closures, charters continue to face a high level of scrutiny and must meet achievement goals in order to stay open, every five years; in fact, it’s written into the law.

At its best, since it is written into the law this way, charter school accountability is predictable, straightforward and reasonable. At Harlem Link, our authorizer helped us write an Accountability Plan in 2004. We used it in 2010 when we received a three year renewal and a revised version last year when we gained our five year renewal. Even with tweaks based on changing state standards, expectations laid out 10 years ago by our authorizer are still in effect.

Regarding finances, much has been made about the state comptroller’s attempt to audit charters four or five years ago, an attempt that was thrown out in court as an overreach of the office’s duties. Why? Because all charter school board meetings are public meetings, guided by the state’s Open Meetings Law, and charters are required to submit themselves to an external, independent audit each year. Unlike individual district schools, charters also file a 990 tax return with the Internal Revenue Service every year, which is available publicly online. Figuring out how charter schools spend their public dollars is a heckuva lot easier than doing the same for a district school!

Claim 2: Charters can kick out students
Charter schools are bound by the same statutory laws and common law that district schools face with regard to suspensions and expulsions. Within these laws, charters are free to establish more or less liberal policies with regard to expulsion, but that is a matter of policy and not law. Districts adopting “zero tolerance” policies over the years is an example of how this issue comes down to following the law and making a choice—the same laws and choices faced by both charters and districts.

One key difference is that charters, as individual districts, make their own policies, while districts make policy decisions for the dozens (or hundreds) of schools within their district.

Charters that “kick out” or “counsel out” students without following through on the due process protections and procedures built into the law and described by Goss v. Lopez are simply breaking the law. Is there any accountability for this possibility? Yes – remember that charter board meetings are public, open meetings, and groups such as Advocates for Children can point to or provide legal resources to protect children’s rights, the same as they would for abuse by traditional school districts.

At Harlem Link, we went through a lengthy and wrenching expulsion process during the last school year. We worked with our attorney, and a Legal Aid attorney, to ensure that the process was fair and legal. We did nothing differently than any school district is able to do in order to enforce its code of conduct.

Claim 3: Charters don’t serve special education students or English Language Learners
Charters are in fact required to serve special education students as well as English Language Learners.
This issue is a complicated one, because the very definition of a special education or English Language Learner student, which governed by law, is potentially fuzzy. Charters and districts have varying approaches to identifying and serving students so that they enter and exit these categories.

Generally, our state has recognized that this issue is enough of a concern regarding charters that when the charter law was reauthorized a few years ago, the new version required charters to ensure their percentages of students in these categories reflected the local community.

In some cases, charters actively seek students in these categories, giving them preference in the annual student enrollment lottery because of the school’s mission. Examples include Mott Haven Academy Charter School and Opportunity Charter School; the latter has a charter mandate of a nearly 50% special education population.

At our school, we have a comparable rate of special education to the local district schools—around 17% of our population (and, with Collaborative Team Teaching on every grade level, most of those students are in the “high cost” category of receiving special education services more than 60% of the day). This fact is true despite the fact that we have multiple protections in place through our Response to Intervention process, preventing over-referral. We rarely refer students to the Committee on Special Education (CSE) for special education services, and one year we actually de-certified more students than we referred. Our ELL students tend to exit out within a couple of years of enrolling in our school.

Claim 4: Charters raise millions of dollars, while district schools can’t
This claim is simply and unequivocally not true. Charters are 501(c)3 nonprofits, meaning they can raise philanthropic dollars—but the same is true for school districts, as well as Parent Associations.

It’s true that some charter schools, notably the larger networks, are able to raise millions more than almost all parent associations. It’s also true that some parent associations are able to raise millions; they just do so less publicly.

District school principals and school district officials are also able to go out and write grant proposals, bring in major donors, etc. The star entertainer Vanessa Williams “adopted” PS 46 in Harlem some years go. Why not?

Do you think that district school principals and officials are stretched thin with limited resources? The same is true for charters, but charters have the flexibility for strategic planning and, when they choose to seek philanthropic support, organize and plan around it. Districts and principals choosing not to do so is not a valid excuse for feeling left out of the philanthropic community.

Harlem Link had a fully functioning fund development department when we opened in 2005, but strategic decisions led to us closing it down a few years ago. (These are the kinds of decisions about resource allocation that facilitate charter schools’ focus on their missions, impossible in a district setting.)

With renewal as well as the Common Core transition behind us, and a long-term goal of being in a private space in view, our fundraising department is back—so click here if you’d like to give.

Claim 5: Charters have budgetary flexibility for things like smaller class sizes or co-teaching in every class
When comparing charter schools to individual district schools, this claim is absolutely true, and is one of the great advantages of running a charter school. Comparing charters (which are separate, single-school districts) to traditional school districts, it’s not true at all. Districts make budgetary decisions; they have the same range of choices charters have. Budgets express priorities; it’s up to districts to be flexible and creative in their budgeting.

This past year, the NYC public school pie was about $25 billion, for about 1.2 million children. In other words, the city spent over $20,000 per child. In comparison, charters received $13,527 per child. The Independent Budget Office estimated the additional benefit of charters in district building space (something like two-thirds of charters in the city) as about $3,000 per child, not even close to closing the gap.

Where are the rest of the district dollars going? As noted above, it’s darn hard to tell. At our school, we have jealously guarded our personnel expenses, but also budgeted conservatively over the years, to the point where we were able to run a deficit in 2012-13 for the first time (and budget for one in 2013-14), knowing that we will come out of the recession soon and continue to build our small base of reserve funding.

Claim 6: Charters can hire whomever they want
This is another claim that is, generally, absolutely true. Charters are not bound by complicated negotiated contracts that require the “dance of the lemons.” Staff members aren’t working out, or do things to harm children? They are fired. Staff members don’t like the working conditions? They can organize and collectively bargain. Labor laws require charters to be fair (and the National Labor Relations Board has been involved to ensure that’s true). But that does not mean that charters have to agree to obtuse policies that erect barriers to getting the best personnel possible in front of children every day.

Like Claim 5, this issue is a key reason that many educators choose to work in and start charter schools. At our school, we receive hundreds of resumes for each position we hire. We have the luxury of watching between five and ten demonstration lessons (depending on the year) before making a hire, so that we know a candidate will truly fit in with our mission and vision.

Claim 7: Charters can “cherry pick” or target certain populations of students
The state law requires that all students have equal access to admission to charter schools, with preference given to siblings and to residents who live close by the school. Similarly to Claim 2 above, charters can choose to break the law just like any district school could do so, but there are layers of accountability: the school’s board of trustees, the state authorizer, and any private citizen including parents or members of the press who can attend any of the 10 to 12 open, public board meetings that occur every year.

Much has been made about charter schools marketing their schools, including buying advertisement slots and sending out mass mailings. One idea behind the charter law was that parents would vote with their feet, but charters don’t have a natural constituency or “zone” from which to draw students. Charters need to make themselves known in order to become an option for members of the community.

At Harlem Link, we try to distinguish ourselves by sending out an annual mailing and visiting day care centers and school fairs. However, word of mouth is by far our most powerful recruiting tool. Certain buildings in certain housing projects, and certain families among West African immigrant groups, have pooled enrollment at our school as people pass on the word to their families and friends.

Districts, by the way, are also free to market, brand, advertise and otherwise target potential students. The fact that a “zone” usually exists for district schools while none exists for charters is often another impetus for charter schools to spend their time and budgetary resources raising philanthropic dollars, so as to compete for students’ and parents’ attention.

Claim 8: Charter teacher evaluations aren’t public, but district schools’ teacher evaluations are
This claim comes down to a matter of local policy as well. Some charter schools chose to participate in the value-added teacher evaluation analysis program that was published—name by name—in the New York Times and other media outlets. Some charters (like Harlem Link) chose not to participate, for a variety of reasons.

Our understanding is that New York City opted in. At Harlem Link, we did not; we found it marginally relevant to our work, since we have our own teacher evaluation tool that satisfies the state law but doesn’t reduce a human being to a number. If we’re remembering right, it’s a simple policy decision whether or not to opt in to this system. If not, there’s another reason why we’d rather work in and run a charter school than a district school! (But don’t blame us for bad policy decisions; tell the chancellor, the mayor or your state senator.)

Claim 9: Charters can demand things from parents that district schools cannot demand
Examples of this claim include signing contracts, showing up to school on time, showing up for detentions including parent detentions, and school uniforms, among others. Like Claims 5 and 6, this issue is a policy one. Charters are bound by the same education laws that district schools are. If districts choose not to enforce their attendance policies by focusing time and attention to it, that’s their choice.

Our understanding of the law is that charters cannot force parents to sign contracts. If they do (and exclude admissions on those grounds), they are breaking the law.

Our sense is that district school folks who make this claim are frustrated by the overwhelming nature of the work we all face, and have not allocated resources adequately to express basic priorities to families and follow up to ensure that there is compliance and understanding. At Harlem Link, we struggle to keep up with the enforcement of our own policies for things like uniforms and attendance, and we like it that way because it means that the policies are strict and that the follow-up required is laborious and thorough.

Claim 10: Charters don’t work with district schools; they adopt a “holier than thou” attitude
We can’t argue with this claim, in many cases, but then again, we don’t know the history of every district-charter relationship. We know that in the case of our school (and in the cases of many of our colleagues) we have adopted a collaborative, shared ethic around school improvement. We have received a reciprocal approach in return at times, and we have received the cold shoulder at other times.

There are examples all of the city of charter schools that have reached out to their co-located or district partners to work together. When Joel Klein put on an event to mark the 100th charter school to be approved in New York City a few years ago, he chose Brooklyn Charter School to host. The principal, Omi Escayg, asked the co-located principal of P.S. 23K to attend the event, and to stand up and receive a standing ovation from the charter school crowd for her support in their collaborative, mutually beneficial relationship.

Members of the media like to portray the angry fights, but this example is the tip of a very collaborative iceberg. At Harlem Link, we have a supportive co-location, with four other school sharing our campus. Three are district schools, including a District 75 school site. We have found ways to work together with, and learn from, each of them.

Claim 11: Charters are all part of cold, businesslike networks that don’t care about communities
It’s true that something like half of charters in NYC are members of networks—contracting with Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) like Uncommon Schools or the Success network, or Educational Management Organizations (EMOs) like Victory Schools or even Edison Schools. But that doesn’t preclude individual schools from interacting with community institutions and members of the community at large.

It seems to us that some charters (like us – see the word “link” in our name, and the many charters with the word “community” in their names) make a point in their mission statements and practices of working to establish community ties and to use community resources to support their aims. In our view, choosing not to do so is not very different from district schools shutting out members of the community and erecting signs like “No Parents Allowed Past This Point,” which proliferate in underserved communities like Harlem.

Claim 12: Charter leaders make more money than the chancellor
While some charter school leaders (particularly those who head networks of upwards of two dozen schools) earn salaries that look like they belong to a lower tier executive of a Fortune 500 company, most of us labor in the shadow of our schools’ meager resources. Remember: $13,527 per child is not a lot of money.

Here’s one point about the stratospheric salaries of some charter network leaders. They bring resources to public education. You can’t tell us that New York City does not benefit from the 500-seat building built with private resources for Harlem Village Academies Charter Schools, led by Deborah Kenny, whose compensation is one of the most oft-cited examples of excessiveness. Taxpayers should be thanking Ms. Kenny for bringing in the resources to build a presumably state-of-the-art building with those seats that would otherwise not be available for low income New York City students.

At Harlem Link, we have a fair compensation program in place, but no one is confusing any of our employees or school leaders with Bill Gates.

Claim 13: Charters are seen as a silver bullet
Anyone who thinks this is true is probably not fully engaged in the fight to eradicate educational inequity. Charters are only part of the complicated answer to our shared problems. On our Bank Street panel, you will find three people who have founded charter schools, but you will not find one who believes this claim is true.

Category: Uncategorized
by Steve Evangelista

The scene: a community board meeting in New York City, circa 2005. A charismatic executive was speaking to the crowd about a new charter school network that was in the offing. The executive emphasized that the school didn’t need community board approval but felt it was important to have the blessing of these community leaders. After a few perfunctory comments about school design and achievement gaps, the executive uttered a carefully crafted statement I have been thinking about ever since:

“We will work with any family that will work with us.”

On the surface it sounds great, even noble. Who wouldn’t admire such openness, even magnanimity? A typical public school educator would probably shrug and say, “I do that every day.” But a reformer with a cape coming down from the elite to work with the little people promises to work with them all!

A close parsing of the dependent clause of that sentence, however, reveals another side of the hero story and raises questions that get to the heart of a core issue about school reform and school design that our board of trustees will debate tonight at its public meeting. Who exactly are we serving? What is the real cost of serving everyone? And who, exactly, wants to work with us?

An alternative—and, I would say, more noble–statement would be: “We will work with any family.”

The question of whether or not to include the dependent clause boils down to this: Are so-called high-performing schools of choice on one level just great sorting factories? Are the “families that will work with us” just another way of identifying the same families that researchers like economist James Heckman would find already imbue in their kids the “soft skills” required to persist and be successful in school, college and life?

If so, what happens to those other kids? The ones whose parents are intimidated by the prospect of charter school rigor, or by the demands of keeping up with the schedule and the requirements of having a child in a charter school, or who won’t agree or feel they can’t agree that it’s important to get their kids to school on time and in uniform every day?

Creaming and Counseling Out
According to defenders of the status quo, the charter answer to this predicament is to ignore the problem so it will go away for someone else to solve. Charters allegedly use intimidating, even hostile techniques such as harassment both to prevent parents who are less engaged and equipped to support their child’s education from signing up (so-called “creaming” or “skimming” the best students and families) and, if they do sign up, to push out those less engaged parents once they show their stripes (“counseling out”). This issue has long been Criticism Number 1 of charter schools, and charter folks like me have spent years denying that our own schools engage in such practices, even as we know, and admit, that it happens elsewhere to varying degrees. (As an aside, I know that this practice occurs at district schools as well, increasingly as school choice has proliferated; I know because I’m curious and parents with firsthand knowledge and an atypically blunt principal have told me so.)

I also argue that de facto counseling out occurs as a result of high expectations. If I demand that a child come to school on time every day—and then have our school social workers and parent coordinator work with that student’s family if the child is repeatedly tardy or absent —some families will choose the path of least resistance and transfer their children to a school down the street that won’t bother dealing with attendance concerns. In these cases (which are rare) I don’t see an alternative for preventing that family from leaving our school other than lowering our standards—and that’s not an option.

Charter Choices
To the extent that there is counseling out, are charters making conscious choices to push out or exclude families that require greater resources or refuse to get on board? Or do some parents self-select out simply as a result of the rigor or perceived rigor of school policies? How aware are charter operators of the enrollment and attrition implications of their policies?

I believe that by failing to answer these questions explicitly, comprehensively and publicly, charter schools are wasting the opportunity to contribute to long-lasting, meaningful reform. As a charter school founder and mentor of mine told me recently, “In 25 years no one will care about this school’s or that school’s test scores. A rigorous analysis will be longitudinal, and start with all the students in a school’s original cohort. If you’re only reporting on the ones who stay, you’re not doing rigorous research. And no one should care.”

There are some charter schools confronting these questions, but I’m not entirely satisfied with their answers. KIPP, among the largest and most respected charter schools, publishes its own annual report card that asks questions such as: “Are we serving the children who need us?” and “Are our students staying with us?” The report contains statistical answers on how many students stay in the program and the demographic composition of students—more transparency than you will typically find in a public school district—but no analysis of how a “no excuses” policy impacts those statistics.

Is Harlem Link Intentional?
At our school, we have always believed that having high expectations can lead to an inclusive and still high-performing school, if all families are required to meet the same standards but support is provided to ensure that those who need help get it. We have continually raised expectations—for everyone about everything—and have seen that the strain of meeting these expectations has exposed some disagreement over the standards by some families.

Examples of our policies include:

  • If a child comes to school out of uniform, we require that to change and are unyielding about it, but if acquiring a uniform is a demonstrable financial burden, we will provide a uniform.
  • We have hired multiple support personnel to hear the concerns of and provide support to parents—including two full-time social workers and one parent coordinator for our small student body of 300 students. (There was one counselor and no parent coordinator at my first public school, which had an enrollment of 1,700.)
  • If a child comes to school late multiple times, several different members of our staff will contact the child’s parent or parents to offer support and remind them of the importance of being on time. If we ask for a meeting and a parent misses the meeting, we will ask to reschedule.
  • When seats open up in the upper grades, we continue to enroll new students to fill those seats. We plan our budget accordingly, knowing the burden it places on all of us at the school to acclimate new families and students to our expectations and support new students who, on average, enter far behind the typical academic performance of our current student body.
  • We have three full-time Academic Intervention Services teachers to help with remediation for students who are behind academically. (That’s one for every 100 students, compared to one for every 350 or so at my first school and probably most schools nationally.
  • We have continued to support the independence of our parent association, which has since our opening year elected its own leadership, even though in some years in the past the parent willing to make the most noise and get elected president was a disgruntled one who used the office to grind an ax rather than make productive change for children.

Behind each of these policies is a conscious decision that has a discernible impact on the composition of our student body, on whether the children of parents who are uninformed about, feel powerless to control or simply disagree with our society’s norms about the basics of school readiness continue to attend our school.

Tonight, as we begin the process of building our next five-year strategic plan (2014-2019), we will debate whether we should continue these policies and others like them and we will take a stab at uncovering their true costs.

My presumption entering the debate is that if we are to take the stance that we are here to serve “all families” (without the dependent clause) we need more resources than we have now. Two social workers and one parent coordinator aren’t enough—simply because instruction needs my full-time attention and that of our other instructional leaders.

Right now, we’re half an instructional team. Half our attention seems to be occupied with issues like those described above. (I’ll bet the ratio is even higher for many district school principals.)

What if we had not only two but a full team of social workers, who would work not in the school but in needy families’ homes? What if we supplied everyone with a uniform? What if we had intervention teachers who only worked with individual students who were new to the school in the upper grades and need remediation?

Well, you might say, why don’t you do all those things already? Why don’t you spend your money more wisely to meet your mission? You won’t typically find me saying, “Schools need more resources.” That’s because I know that the money that is currently allocated to district schools in high-poverty neighborhoods is typically not well-spent to begin with.

In addition to having a strong curriculum, faculty and school ethos, I hope I have demonstrated that our school has already devoted significant time and money to providing support to families that need it and ensuring we attract and retain students of all varieties. What I’m saying is, if we are to serve “any family” and not just “any family that will work with us,” we need a parallel school, one for the soft skills that in high achieving communities are taken for granted.

You don’t have to look far down the street from our school—Geoff Canada and Harlem Children’s Zone are basically trying to do these very same things (except, they were a social service agency that started a school rather than the other way around). Our questions are different: What can one school do? What can each school do? What does each school need to do? And tonight at our board meeting, what ought we do?

This post also appears at Chalkbeat.

Category: Uncategorized
By Steve Evangelista

A hidden bias
Out of 90 charter schools that administered the New York State standardized tests in both 2011 and 2012, Harlem Link had the 8th highest average increase in English Language Arts (ELA) and Math scores. This score improvement was amazing, fantastic, even inspiring. And misleading—because of a small, relatively unknown factor called survivorship bias.

Survivorship bias is a statistical term for an indication that there is some hidden factor that excludes certain members of a data set over time—namely, part of a sample that was there at the beginning is no longer there at the end and does not count in the final analysis. The smaller subset of those who “survive” over time might be better off than the original whole group simply because of who stayed and who left, not any value added over time.

Simply put, every year, at every school, some students leave, and their departure changes the profile of who takes the test from year to year. Sometimes high-scoring students depart. At other times low-scoring students depart.

If schools continuously enroll new students (and some don’t), the same factor impacts the student population for these incoming students. At the end of this blog I chart a hypothetical situation in which survivorship bias shows how a school can appear to improve while not actually adding any value simply by not adding new students year after year.

In large systems, there is so much mobility that these student profiles tend to cancel each other out because of scale. For example, the student population appears relatively stable from year to year in the third grade in Community School District 3, where 1,342 students in 30 school took the state English Language Arts exam in 2012. But in small student populations like the one at Harlem Link, where only 52 third grader students took the 2012 exam, a few students entering or leaving the school with certain test scores can make a big difference.

When the state department of education releases test scores each year, however, it does not provide this or any other contextual background information alongside the scores. I believe that this process penalizes, in the public eye, schools that continue to enroll students to replace those that depart.

(Partly) illusory gains
At Harlem Link, the fact that we only test in three grades guarantees that at least 1/3 of our students taking the tests each year will be different students than those who took it the year before. Putting aside the variability in the state test from year to year, this rolling of the dice has influenced some dramatic swings in achievement that mean our school’s test scores have looked worse than the actual performance of our teachers in some years, and at other times (like this year) they may have looked better than they really were.

It turns out that the profile of our students who departed before the last school year was a much less successful one than the profile of the group that left the prior year. In other words, we had to improve less to get apparently lofty gains.

In English Language Arts, we saw an improvement of 18 percentage points from 2011 to 2012, according to the state’s way of reporting the scores. But since many of the students who graduated in 2011 or left for other reasons following the 2010-11 academic year performed poorly on the 2011 exams, the students who returned had a better passing rate by 10 percentage points than the original group. In other words, more than half of our test score gains in ELA could be accounted for by attrition.

Now, I’m not going to say that I’m not proud of our scores or that they are not indicative of a powerful effort by talented and dedicated professionals. I’m not even going to tell you that we didn’t improve our practice last year. I think we have improved in that area every year, because we have been an honest, self-examining, learning organization. But the wide swing in test scores and the state’s failure to describe enrollment patterns when reporting the scores masks the true story of a gradual, continuous march to improvement that is the real hallmark of the growth at Harlem Link.

Best practices often begin as difficult, controversial and seemingly impossible changes to “the way things are.” Strong schools take the time required to plan, assess and tweak new initiatives until they become standard operating procedures. The lack of information provided alongside scores obscures this type of growth, creating perverse incentives for schools to “push out” students who are low performers and to “quick fix” by whittling down large original cohorts to smaller groups of survivors, uncompromised by new admittees.

At Harlem Link, we have resisted these perverse incentives. We have always replaced students who leave, for budgetary reasons (being a small, standalone charter school) and to serve a greater portion of the community starved for high-quality school choices. Each year, we have encouraged some students who are particularly high achieving to leave a year early by helping them apply to competitive public and independent middle schools that only admit in fifth grade, reasoning that we’d rather lose their strong fifth grade test scores than see them lose an opportunity to get firmly on the college track a year ahead of their peers. If we followed the short-sighted state incentive, we would not have urged four of our highest-scoring fourth graders on the state exams in 2012 to apply to and enter the Upper West Side’s highly sought-after Center School. They were admitted and are all attending—a fact that may well push down our fifth grade test scores by as much as 10% next year—and we are thrilled, because we helped four more students living in a high-poverty environment to gain admission to this exclusive public school. We also would not have pushed students leave after fourth grade in years past to embark on the independent school track by attending the East Harlem School at Exodus House and the George Jackson Academy in lower Manhattan.

In the context of reform
This issue has been raised before in the blogosphere, but not in a thoughtful manner. Instead, it has been wielded as a weapon by those who are against the current strain of education reform. It has been used to defeat the straw man argument that charters are silver bullets and to denigrate the success of networks like KIPP, which is another organization that deserves no such uninformed criticism. (Each year, KIPP asks itself several questions in its annual internal reporting, including, “Are we serving the students who need us?”)

Because it is potentially embarrassing and might burst the balloon of so-called charter education miracles, this issue has also (to my knowledge) been ignored publicly by my colleagues in the charter community. There are many groups of charter schools that go happily on their way winnowing down their large kindergarten classes, educating fewer and fewer students in each cohort each year, not adding new students and narrowing down their challenges as they deal with fewer and fewer “survivor” students well. And those charters that benefit from network infrastructure and economies of scale can balance their budgets even while shrinking six to eight kindergarten sections down to three or four fifth grade sections.

I’m not passing judgment on those networks. As a charter school founder who has been running a school for almost 10 years, I still believe that the charter experiment has been a profoundly positive one for the communities where such schools have flourished. What I want is for the public to have some understanding of the context behind test scores, so alleged miracles can be put in their proper place, and year to year statistical swings that have nothing to do with a school community’s actual performance can be put into their proper perspective.

Hypothetical (with some assumptions): survivorship bias in action
In the example below, compare two schools that start out with similar student profiles. School A replaces each student who departs. School B does not.

Each year at both schools, a greater percentage of academically struggling students than successful students leave. Each year at both schools, neither school is adding any value since no individual’s test scores are changing.

Because the entering students at School A are similarly academically disadvantaged to those who depart, its scores do not change. School B’s scores improve more than 20 percentage points—simply by virtue of attrition, the decision not to enroll new students, and the mix of which students are taking the test each year.

School A = Enrolls new students continuously
School B = Does not enroll new students

School A

Passing students added40555
Failing students added60151515
Passing students leaving0555
Failing students leaving0151515
Total Passing Students40404040
Total Failing Students60606060
Pct. Passing40.0%40.0%40.0%40.0%


School B

Passing students added40000
Failing students added60000
Passing students leaving0555
Failing students leaving0151515
Total Passing Students40353025
Total Failing Students60453015
Pct. Passing40.0%43.8%50.0%62.5%

This post also appeared at GothamSchools.

Category: Uncategorized
by Steve Evangelista

The Best System We’ve Got
I had the most amazing experience in early April: the chance to sit down with teachers at my school and have an open conversation about the role of standardized testing in education policy today.

As always, I started planning for this hour-long seminar by thinking backward from an assessment, in this case the promised 2015 rollout of the Common Core-related PARCC exam in New York, one of two dozen or so states that are contributing to this test’s development.

What I learned in my session didn’t surprise me; my faculty members are insightful and passionate about their work, but they have no better answers than I do when it comes to two key questions:

  1. What better idea could replace high stakes testing and fill the gaping policy void it currently occupies?
  2. How do educators stanch the overwhelming tide of teacher and student “fear and punishment” that has grown around the testing culture?

The words “fear and punishment” come from one of two texts I used to frame the discussion, a recent blog post by John Merrow decrying the prevalence of test prep throughout the land in these weeks leading up to state assessment frenzy. I juxtaposed Merrow’s angry words with those of conciliation of a teacher named AmaNyamekye, who last year wrote an essay describing her changing attitude towards standardized tests, now that she has had a chance to analyze how they could actually help her practice.
Nyamekye came to the same conclusion I did: the wave of standardized testing has hurt all of us, but the power to use it rather than cower from it is within us as educators. Besides, in doing the important work of distinguishing low achievement from high achievement among students, and high functioning schools from ones that are hurting children, it’s the best system we’ve got. Until we can make it better (enter PARCC?), we need to use it for all it’s worth.

An Absurd Obsession
For charters, the subtext of any thinking in this area is the reality that the decision, made for all charters at a maximum of every five years, whether to dissolve our school will be based on exams that the state is about to discard because, well, the testsaren’t good enough. It’s absurd irony worthy of Jean Paul Sartre.
The richness of this irony includes one reason the state is tossing the exams: Reformers fear that current exam formats have narrowed the curriculum to such an extent that test prep is now trumping authentic good instruction. As one of the flag bearers of the crusade against test prep, Mike Schmoker, laments in his recent book, Focus, “Scores can be artificially pumped up on a diet of 500-word passages and multiple-choice drills (which many students live on)” (pp. 114-115). In other words, obsession over state tests has hampered good instruction.

The problem of test prep has now invaded even early childhood, an age group which had been spared the indignity of obsession over high-stakes multiple choice exams under No Child Left Behind. The New York Times reported last week on a disturbing trend emerging from this year’s round of kindergarten test results for admission to public school Gifted and Talented programs: Test prep is beginning to determine the winners and losers even at this level.

I am haunted by a conversation I had with a senior vice president for accountability during our authorizer’s annual visit this past winter. (Let’s call him Bob.) I was describing to him the sacrifices we have made for the first time this year in order to meet certain state test targets that are requirements in our charter–or, less mildly, to game the system.

As Bob knows from his many visits to Harlem Link over the years, we have always followed the principles embedded in our mission and our charter, even if doing so meant that we can’t guarantee hitting all of the testing targets. For example, we have:

  • …maintained strong teachers in the lower (non-testing) grades for stability and consistency, even as we grew and added upper grades. Building an upper grade program has taken years, just as it has in the lower grades, but we have had less time to do it because we began with only kindergarten and first grade and grew slowly.
  • …distributed resources disproportionately to our lowest achieving students (often meaning, our newest enrollees), not the ones who are “on the bubble” of passing the arbitrary state testing bar. As a result, we have fewer kids than we’d like achieving the passing rate, but a great number of students ”almost there.” Those don’t count in the binary land of accountability, and neither does our significantly smaller percentage than state averages of the lowest achieving scores that has resulted from our interventions.
  • …resisted the temptation of buying off the shelf curriculum that other highly touted schools use to get “teacher proof” test scores. Instead, we prefer authentic curriculum that is home-grown, guided by standards and student data, and written collaboratively by teachers and administrators.

The principles in our charter that have guided these decisions include the centrality of teacher voice in curriculum; child centered instruction; democratic leadership, meaning genuine input from all levels of the organization; and an interest in developing teachers and building a team over time.

So what was I saying to Bob? This year–in publicly available decisions made by our board of trustees in consultation with our staff–we have admitted fewer students in the upper grades, in three cases this year turning away students who had left the school in the past and tried to re-enroll mid-year; put social studies curriculum development in the upper grades on the back burner to focus on the testing subjects (New York State stopped testing social studies in 2011); prioritized the students who are close to passing the state test but not certain to do so; and hired (while holding my nose) a famous test-prep company to provide dozens of hours of after-school tutoring for those prioritized students.

We made undeniably positive changes as well that were part of our organizational plan and independent of the state testing pressures, such as modifying roles on our leadership team to give leaders more time to focus on instruction and revising lesson planning expectations across the school. But clearly, as I was telling Bob, our top priorities this year have been guided by the coming high stakes tests and the somewhat artificial achievement targets we agreed to meet when we were chartered.

“You must have mixed feelings about that,” Bob told me.

“Yes. Of course. While I like our general direction, I’m not satisfied with the aspects of our school that don’t show up on the state tests, and I want to increase our enrollment, not limit it. The tests are emphasized to the point of being a distraction.”

Bob and I have had many of these conversations over the years. But now that we have actually taken steps to follow the recipe, narrowing the curriculum and joining the testing frenzy, I felt the humanity behind Bob’s icy glare.

“Look,” he said. “I agree with you. I can’t defend this system.

“But it’s the best one we’ve got.”

Category: Uncategorized
by Steve Evangelista

The sky is falling!
That’s what some observers would have you believe after the scores students around New York State attained in standardized tests plummeted this year. At Harlem Link we do not want to confuse a sense of urgency with a counterproductive panic. We know that only long-term and comprehensive solutions are going to fix the problems that have plagued our schools for generations.

Has the state of our national educational program gotten worse? The problems our schools face have been compounded by globalization, the technology revolution and a rapidly changing world, but let’s face facts: Our nation has never provided equitable education, not since compulsory schooling began to take hold in the 19th century. And before then – good luck, unless you were landed, male and white.

Speaking of race, are you worried about a racial achievement gap? (I am.) In my office I have a 1950 issue of Life magazine, on which a white girl graces the cover with the headline “U.S. Schools: They Face a Crisis.” Sixty years later, we’ve had wave after wave of educational reform driven by panic and hyperbolic assessment of this “crisis.”

Reflecting on these facts has helped me put the change in the state test scores this summer in their proper context. In sum, New York State Education Department (SED) commissioner David Steiner and Board of Regents chancellor Merryl Tisch acted with a courage and an integrity rare among public officals when they decided to ratchet down scores that had been demonstrably inflated over the past five to 10 years. They noted in a July press conference that the state tests had become increasingly predictable and unchallenging. The announcement included a promise to overhaul the state exams and make them more rigorous in coming years. Moreover, the Regents and SED would be holding all students to a higher standard for tests already taken this year.

In recent years, New York City’s racial achievement gap had appeared to be steadily closing, at least if you believed the test scores, but overnight that gulf re-appeared in force. Suddenly there were heated reactions in the state educational community about the tests and what they had to say about student achievement. Did anyone really think that things had gotten much better?

The critics were merciless. Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute was quoted in The New York Times the day after the press conference as saying, “The state test is completely unreliable.” Aaron Pallas, a Columbia Teachers College professor, said in a Times article the next day, “We just really can’t trust the state tests for judging whether the quality of education in New York City has really improved.” New York City Mayor Bloomberg appeared ruffled by the sudden drop in scores. “Everybody can have their definition of what it means,” he said. Later, he infamously added: “The last time I checked, Lady Gaga is doing fine with just a year of college.”

The furor reached a head at the August meeting of the city Department of Education’s Panel for Educational Policy (PEP), during which parents protested the drop in test scores and the previously inflated scores so vociferously, bullhorns and all, that the meeting was shut down early.

My view is that for all the reforms, all the changes ebbing and flowing in curriculum and assessment of student achievement, all the fads and the gimmicks, things have not changed all that much since the “crisis” of 1950. Proficiency rates on state tests should not be the goal; student independence and success in higher education and in life ought to be the goal. So I see this drop in test scores as just the popping of another bubble – not unlike the home run bubble created by steroid proliferation in baseball and the stock market bubble created by an unsustainable housing boom. Do these two graphs appear to have anything in common?

Down, up, down again, WAY up, and then, BUST! If I were a betting man, I would bet that the New York City proficiency scores on 4th and 8th grade tests, if plotted over time, would show the same pattern. (I have searched the Internet, but this data is demonstrably harder to find than baseball and Dow Jones statistics.)

As with the dreadful state of the economy, panicking in the face of these test scores will get us nowhere. If we are going to have lasting change, we need to ignore fads and focus on what will bring long-term improvement. In the wake of the housing meltdown, hucksters sprung up to “rescue” defaulting homeowners from their crushing debt, only to be prove to be just another bunch of scam artists. There are no quick fixes. There are no shortcuts.

In education, we know what works. School by school, change is possible with a committed group of competent educators focused on a clear and compelling mission, a shared community emphasis on student goals, robust home-school communication and, finally, a clear vision to which everyone subscribes to make those elements come to life. Everything else – all the bells and whistles and promises and panics – is just another manifestation of the crisis thinking that, if obeyed, will send us back into yet another false boom and bust cycle.

Category: Uncategorized
by Steve Evangelista

Until we decide as a nation that we are going to ask ourselves tough questions about where our bright young pupils wind up five, ten and fifteen years after they pass through our classrooms –- and act courageously to address the shortcomings we will inevitably find –- educators will continue shortchanging the families we purport to serve.

As the co-founder and co-director of a charter elementary school in Harlem that only this summer graduated its first class of fifth graders, I think about these tough questions as often as I can these days. With school back in full swing, it’s easy to focus only on the 300 charges in front of me, but a recent incident brought questions about the future back to the forefront.

The chaos of dismissal in the first two weeks was winding down. School had been open for us for a week and we had our basic routines down, but the three district schools with whom we share a building were only just beginning their year, adding a new layer of complexity to our dismissal. Still, within 15 minutes of dismissal each bus had the right students, every child had been picked up, the partner after-school program’s escorts had checked their lists twice and were on their way with their small groups of kids. So when my co-director came to me that late afternoon and said, “There’s something you’ve got to see on the fourth floor,” I thought, “Oh, no, and I thought I could finally get some paperwork done!”

When I got up to the fourth floor, where our two fifth grade classes are located, she pointed the way to one of those rooms and I saw what she wanted me to see: three sixth graders, sitting around the table with a social worker and a teacher. After their first day of school at their new middle school downtown, Qiana, Mark and Ashanti had come back to Harlem Link because they just couldn’t stay away. In my letter to them as part of our first graduating fifth grade class this summer, I promised them that we would have our first annual reunion in October 2012, that we would continue to support them and be part of their lives, and never lose touch with them. As our social worker said, “They walked right in like they own the place.” And I responded, “You know what? They do!”

The rapid return of our first few alumni – and the certitude that they and their classmates will continue to return – reminded me of the Roseto Effect, with which Malcolm Gladwell opens his recent book, Outliers. The 1966 Roseto study describes two communities with the same diet, exercise and physical environment but with different patterns of community interaction – and radically different heart disease survival rates. Researchers concluded that members of a community confer a significant physical health benefit upon themselves by spending quality time together, supporting each other, caring about each other.

The smiling faces of Mark, Qiana and Ashanti, a couple of inches taller, but sitting around a table in their old classroom like they were still in fifth grade, also brought to mind another famous author writing about 2,300 years earlier. Aristotle described the four causes of any object, the most metaphysical being the final cause – the thing’s purpose or reason for existing. The final cause of a chair is to allow people to sit. The final cause of our school is to graduate scholars empowered to take an active role in their own learning and citizens who are part of a safe, supportive learning community. The three alumni reminded me of that final cause.

I’ve always believed that it’s only possible to create an environment where powerful relationships between students and teachers develop and where students are engaged in productive learning at school when there is coherent community agreement on the final cause of education. Where the principles of community health, as it were, apply to the very purpose of schooling. That’s why, when I started teaching in the 1990s I was surprised at how little agreement there is on such a basic question as the final cause of a school. I’m not talking about agreement at the federal level, or even the state level. Or district level. I’m talking about how little agreement there often is about the purpose of schooling within an individual school.

It’s the popular fashion today to say that all the problems in schools can be fixed by having great teachers. I discovered early in my teaching career, in my futile attempt to become one of those great teachers that I could only do so much by myself. This concept of community health, of agreement on the final cause, is an essential ingredient to the existence of great teachers. A logical conclusion that should be obvious to anyone who has observed schools in a variety of settings is that a great teacher at your school might not be a great teacher at my school, and vice versa. A great teacher is not so great if he or she is not swimming in the same direction as the rest of the community.

So educators: what happens to students ten and fifteen years after they leave your care? Can you answer that question? If I went up to any random individual who works at your school with you, what would that person say? That’s my test for whether your school community’s final cause facilitates long-term relationships between students and teachers. Unfortunately, given my experience and knowing the pressures and the direction of education reform in our country, I would wager that in most at-risk communities school staff would have a hard time answering the question.

I know that we are on the right track at Harlem Link, because when Mark, Qiana and Ashanti came storming in like they owned the place, one of the first things they asked was, “Are we really having our first annual reunion in 2012?” These three students, and their many classmates with the same attitude, understand that our school’s community goal is focused on their long term success. Would that we had some kind of national agreement on the point.

This post also appears at Dropout Nation.