The Challenge of the Regents Diploma
The days are numbered for the easier local diploma. As New York's standards rise, will graduation rates plummet?

If one number defines the success or failure of Schools Chancellor Joel Klein's high school reform efforts, it is the city's graduation rate—and here the Department of Education can claim significant progress. Both the city and state (which have historically used different methods to calculate the rate) report that the city's graduation rate has risen by 10 percentage points since 2002, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg gained control of the schools. According to the city, 62 percent of students graduated on time in 2007, the most recent year for which data is available. The state puts this number at 52 percent.

But a potential time bomb threatens this progress. Until now, students in New York have been allowed to graduate with what is known as a "local diploma," given to students who complete the necessary coursework but squeak by on one or more of the five required state Regents exams, getting a score of 55 or better. This option will no longer exist for students who entered ninth grade in fall 2008 and those that follow. The Class of 2012 will have to pass five Regents exams with a 65 or better.

"If nothing is done, we're going to see graduation rates significantly decrease," says Robert Hughes, president of New Visions for Public Schools, the nonprofit organization that has created 140 small high schools. New Visions also serves as a "school support organization," with contracts to provide guidance and support to about 75 schools.

Nearly one-third of the 2007 graduating class—30 percent—received a local diploma, according to the Department of Education (DOE). Small schools, in particular, tend to rely on the local diploma to get marginal students over the finish line.

Even with the local diploma in place, many schools have poor graduation rates. In 2007, 269 schools had graduating classes. Of those, only 103 had a four-year graduation rate of 75 percent or higher. And when the local diploma disappears, that number is likely to go down. If students had been required to obtain a Regents diploma in 2007, only 34 schools would have had a graduation rate of 75 percent or higher. (See the maps below for an illustration of how the school graduation numbers could change if the city fails to make dramatic progress toward the new Regents standards.)
So principals must get more students to graduate—without the local diploma. How will the DOE haul the high schools to this new, higher level of performance?

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Schools Chancellor Joel Klein says the city is ready to meet the challenge. "As you raise standards, people respond and that lifts the system higher," he says. He is encouraged by the fact that test scores have increased in middle school, indicating that more students are entering ninth grade prepared to do high school work. Turnover rates among both principals and teachers—which were high at the beginning of his tenure—have declined, and a more stable workforce will help improve performance, Klein says.
Moreover, he explains, his strategy of closing poorly performing large high schools and replacing them with small schools is helping drive improvement in the graduation rate. "All our indicators show, whether it's first-year credits or Regents passers, that the small schools perform better," he says, adding that he intends to continue to close failing schools.

But others say the city needs to take a more direct approach to school improvement if high schools are to meet the new, higher graduation standards.

"A Looming Crisis"

The NYC Coalition for Educational Justice, an alliance of nine local advocacy groups working with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, has called for wide-ranging changes to meet the challenge. The coalition released a report in February 2009 calling on the city to extend the school day to eight hours; to make a major investment in the improvement of middle schools; to set up summer academies for at-risk students before they enter the sixth and ninth grades; and to give teams of teachers common planning time to work with struggling students.

"Only a path-breaking effort to transform teaching and learning at low-performing schools across the city will generate the dramatic increase in school performance necessary to turn this looming crisis into a historic success," the report says.

Hughes, of New Visions, says there will be political pressure to make the Regents exams easier so that fewer young people fail. He opposes what he calls "dumbing down" the Regents, but he says it's also important to ensure that high-stake exams test areas of competence that are crucial for success in college and life. "We have to make sure the standards are what we really believe students should learn," he says. In some cases, for example, Regents exams test knowledge of obscure facts, he says. "We need fewer, clearer and higher standards," he says.

To meet the higher standards, Hughes adds, the city needs to provide more intensive help to struggling students, including well-focused summer school programs. The city also needs better training and support for teachers. "Current professional development rarely does this and is therefore a complete waste of precious funds," he says.

Pedro Noguera, head of New York University's Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, says the current DOE management structure doesn't offer principals the guidance and support necessary to turn around failing schools. Schools are left to sink or swim on their own, he says.

"They don't have a school-change strategy," says Noguera. "They have a school-shutdown strategy."

Noguera adds that shutting down failing schools is sometimes necessary because schools can become mired in a culture of failure that is hard to change. However, creating new schools that are truly successful takes a lot of work. "It takes more than merely changing the name and dividing the school up," he says. "There continues to be a shortage of good schools for poor children of color in this city."

Chancellor Klein says he is confident of the power of his current approach, which has been delivering higher test scores and graduation numbers. And school closures are core to this vision. He relies on a market-based system of high school choice where eighth graders and their families select up to 12 high schools they wish to attend. Schools with too many empty seats can find themselves on the closure list.

"I am always looking at the fact that people seem to want certain schools and not other schools," Klein says. "That's one of the real indicators I take into account when I make decisions about closing schools. It's basically a supply-and-demand pattern." He also acknowledges that this strategy is geared toward systemic change rather than helping any particular principal succeed. "This is about improving the system, not necessarily about improving every single school," he says.

So it is up to the principals themselves to get the help they need in order to succeed. And in this realm too, there is a marketplace of services to assist principals with management challenges, such as preparing more students for graduation.

In the past, principals could turn to their superintendents and a large district staff for help with anything from improving instruction to hiring teachers, designing special education programs or organizing summer school. Now, principals operate with more autonomy while being held accountable for the performance of their students. They choose their own "school support organization" (SSO) to provide the management advice and teaching supports formerly provided by the old district system, and principals hire the SSOs with their own school budget. These 11 SSOs are a mix of DOE offices and nonprofit organizations, such as New Visions, each of which offers a unique approach and menu of services. Their prices vary, but they charge schools an average of $38,000 a year.

Eric Nadelstern, the DOE's chief schools officer, says these are important players and proof that the city has a school-level reform strategy. The agencies provide oversight and support that principals can trust, he says.

"My SSO teams are in the schools on a weekly basis, using authority they have earned," he says.

Helping principals keep up is a big job. School leaders are judged on a variety of measures, such as the number of students promoted from ninth to 10th grade. They are expected to actively experiment in their schools, using "inquiry teams" to come up with teaching approaches that produce real gains. Principals point out that the DOE is expecting a fairly high level of sophistication from its leaders and teachers, many of whom are new and inexperienced. And these numbers, carefully tracked by DOE, can swing wildly with each new wave of ninth graders. "We got a B on our Progress Report," says Carron Staple, principal of Health Opportunities High School in the Bronx. "We are very proud of it, but at the same time we are very scared of it. Every year, you get new kids and you never know."

Principals interviewed by the Center for New York City Affairs have mixed reviews of their SSOs. Some principals make good use of the help SSOs offer, others have been frustrated by the quality of support they provide. One young principal in Brooklyn, generally a supporter of Klein’s reforms, wonders aloud if the SSOs are simply a cheaper way for the DOE to abandon its school support obligations. "At the end of the day, it is totally, totally, totally on us."

How One School Does It

Nonetheless, there are principals who say they receive substantial support from their SSOs. Rashid Davis, principal of the Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy, a new small school in Kingsbridge, works with New Visions, taking advantage of real-world academic coaching from system veterans who can discuss anything from test performance to budgeting and procurement.

Davis runs a small school serving mostly low-income students, many of whom arrive with skills well below grade level. He has managed to get the school to a 90 percent graduation rate, with nearly all of the kids earning a Regents or Advanced Regents diploma. He has used a variety of strategies to accomplish this, including an extended school day, which gives students access to remedial programs as well as Advanced Placement classes that would otherwise have been impossible to schedule.

New Visions helps schools build curriculums that will improve Regents graduation rates and assure success in college. This means improving academics, supporting college access and "thickening" the curriculum so that it is more challenging and engaging to students, says Beverly Donohue, vice president for policy and research at New Visions. She says principals like Davis prove schools can pull this off. "There is not one solution here," she says. "It's knowing what has worked elsewhere that helps."

Davis has done well under the current management system, which he says gives him the freedom to innovate. He received an A on his latest DOE Progress Report. But he points out that plenty of other principals struggle to get good numbers and suggests that the DOE needs a different approach for those leaders. "Giving principals the autonomy to run their school when we are in crisis is problematic," he says. "You have to take serious action and you have to impose serious consequences if you really, really want to accelerate change."

Raising expectations is critical, he adds. "When I took over the school, I said to parents, students and teachers that I do not recognize the local diploma. And when you establish that as the culture of the building, the kids believe it." The current system offers a local, a Regents and an Advanced Regents diploma, and most observers say that of the three, achieving the latter is the only reliable indication that a student is prepared for success in college. Davis says the DOE should be willing to provide one clear mandate for all students. "We need uniformity," he says. "As long as there is a three-tier system, you are saying it's OK. So there shouldn't be a three-tiered system."