Tuesday, February 26

CEJ demands answers on 8th grade promotion policy; DOE officals mum

Dozens of parents, advocates and students representing the Coalition for Educational Justice crowded the foyer of Fashion Industries High School tonight in Manhattan to hold a press conference calling for middle grades reform. The boisterous conference, which featured speakers who included City Council Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson and Brooklyn Borough President (and possible mayoral hopeful) Marty Markowitz, among many others, set the tone for the DOE’s first public hearing on the proposed 8th grade promotion policy, held at the school tonight.

CEJ’s plan for middle grades reform was in the works before last month, when the DOE announced the 8th grade promotion policy, which speakers tonight called “punitive” and “a classic case of blaming the victim.” Once the DOE announced the new policy, which sets formal guidelines for retention of failing 8th graders without making clear how the department will intervene to help struggling students, the CEJ plan became all the more timely. The five-point plan calls for increasing the middle school day by 90 minutes; enhancing the Lead Teacher Program; adding counselors to middle schools; reducing class size; and starting a summer program for 6th graders.

Speakers at the press conference connected the promotion policy with the recent budget cuts. Jaime Estades of the Alliance for Quality Education said, “8th grade retention will do nothing without well-funded programs to implement changes.” Several items on CEJ’s platform have been made impossible by the budget cuts; principals told Insideschools that they are cutting extra time for tutoring, and the Lead Teacher Program is on the chopping block centrally.

After 200 or so CEJ representatives and allies, including dozens of small children apparently bused to the scene by the community group ACORN, filed into the auditorium for the formal presentation, DOE officials presented a stultifying PowerPoint on the promotion policy. With slide titles such as “Why preparing students for high school is critical” and “Students prepared for high school perform better once there” — things no parent in the room needed to be told — the slideshow seemed designed to “smoke parents out,” as one advocate suggested to me.

Indeed, the DOE presented little new information. Students who score at Level 1 on state math or reading tests in 8th grade or who do not pass all four of their “core” courses will be required to attend summer school, and those who do not meet those standards after the summer will not be promoted. The DOE has made special plans for students who have already been retained at least once before 8th grade: if they make a sincere effort to improve their scores and grades during summer school, they’ll be “promoted on appeal with intensive remediation” to high school. The DOE’s presentation also addressed students with special needs — their promotion requirements will be set by their IEPs — and English language learners, who will face progressively onerous requirements the longer they have been in the country. Students who have been in the country more than one year, for example, must pass all core subjects, score a 2 or higher on the state math test, and make gains between January and June on the state ELA exam.

During the public comment portion of the evening, which stretched on for hours as many CEJ members took the microphone, many speakers noted that “no one here tonight is in favor of kids going to high school unprepared” but questioned how the new promotion policy will actually help students.

Advocates for Children Executive Director Kim Sweet said, “The proposed policy fails to offer meaningful help to address the root problems of middle grade failure and provides no assurance whatsoever that struggling students will get the help they need.” Instead, she said, the policy “merely erects one more barrier [struggling students] have to cross in order to continue their education,” already a challenge for the many overage students for whom the DOE lacks programs and services. AFC is a member of CEJ.

Norm Fruchter, director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform's Community Involvement Program, which has incubated CEJ, asked for evidence that the retention policies in grades 3, 5, and 7 are working and noted that the results of an evaluation of those policies contracted in 2004 were never made public. If those policies work, he asked, “How do 18,000 students not get there?” (The DOE estimates that 18,000 students would be eligible for retention.) He also asked why the DOE is rolling out a policy that all evidence suggests is likely to cause more high school dropouts as students become overage and remain far from graduation. A later speaker called the plan “a dropout strategy.”

Pedro Noguera, an education researcher who has also signed onto CEJ’s plan, was more pointed. He asked, “Is there any research that you know of that supports what you’re doing?” The DOE officials, who hadn’t spoken except to remind speakers of their time limits, did not answer.

There are four more DOE hearings on the promotion policy scheduled for the next two weeks. See the Insideschools calendar for details on dates and locations.

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