April 19, 2011
For the first time since introducing school support organizations in 2007, the city plans to end its contract with one of them. But unlike when the city closes failing schools, it has refused to publicly release data showing how the network has performed.
(Update 4/20: City officials now say they are planning to publicly release the data next week.)
Replications — one of several non-profit organizations that provide schools instructional and administrative assistance — will not be able to contract with schools next year, a Department of Education official confirmed today. Every year, the DOE ranks how well support organizations and networks are doing based largely on the test scores and graduation rates of the schools they work with. These rankings have been used to close low-performing networks, but this is the first time a support organization has lost its contract because of them. Replications’ founder John Elwell said today that the decision to cut ties with the DOE was a mutual one.
“I was going to ask them to let us out of the contract,” he said.
Elwell said that for two years, DOE officials have been threatening to end the department’s contract with him based on his network’s ranking at the bottom of the list. He said this year 20 other networks placed lower than his in the rankings, but Replications did not do well enough to keep its contract.
DOE officials have refused requests for the rankings, though they have shown them to principals. Former Deputy Chancellor Eric Nadelstern disagreed with the DOE’s decision not to release the rankings showing how Replications’ schools had performed.
“I think the public has a right to know not only how schools perform but also how networks perform,” he said.
Elwell said that while some of Replications’ problems were financial — it was not taking in enough money from contracts to cover its basic costs — he blamed most of the network’s problems on shifting expectations from the city.
“I think it’s a very bad model,” he said. “We’ve become a mini district office with very little capacity. Meanwhile, the accountability is based on the schools improving on the progress report and the quality review, which to be honest, we have almost no control over,” he said.
The model of having a handful of city-approved organizations that contract with schools for instructional help began in 2007. That year, former Chancellor Joel Klein and Deputy Chancellor Nadelstern, who recently retired, shifted the city schools from a system of geographic regions to one of support organizations. The change meant that schools had to contract with one of many groups — either city-approved non-profit organizations or DOE-run ones — for support, rather than being assigned to one of six regional offices.
Last year, the city reorganized how schools get support again. The city’s large service centers, which offered schools assistance with writing their budgets and other back office tasks, were decentralized. Those operational tasks were moved over to the school support organizations, which had primarily been in charge of providing schools with professional development and instructional help. Currently, each support organization oversees a group of networks that are responsible for 20-25 schools.
Initially, Replications had no involvement with either administrative or instructional support. It was a non-profit with the goal of opening good schools by replicating the models of already-successful schools.
“Replications had one idea, which is a good one: if Mott Hall High School works, then let’s do another Mott Hall. And if that works, let’s do a Mott Hall 3,” said Clara Hemphill, senior editor at the New School’s Center for NYC Affairs, who authored a report on school support organizations.
But when the city switched from regions to support organizations, Replications changed, too. It signed up to provide instructional support to the schools it had opened as well as others that chose to a join. A year later, it and other networks were asked to oversee operational support, too.
Nadelstern said he thought highly of Replications’ work opening new schools, but felt the organization had a rough transition to managing them.
“I do think the task of opening an effective school is different from supporting one that’s up and running and that was the transition they had to make,” he said. “To their credit they accepted the challenge.”
Hemphill agreed, but said that Replications’ problems are not unique. Other support organizations are having trouble shifting from providing instructional help to also offering operational assistance, she said.
“The DOE is trying to see if it’s possible to live without district offices and without superintendents and clearly Replications wasn’t able to provide all that stuff,” Hemphill said.
Currently, there are 14 New York City schools that pay Replications a fee for its help. They will have to find new support organizations for next school year.
Elwell said that the end of his contract with the DOE would not spell the end of Replications. The network still has three schools in Baltimore where, Elwell said, he has more authority to change how the schools function by managing a fraction of their budgets and hiring their principals.