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Although the city's schoolchildren aren't heading back to their classrooms for another week, I'm back to work. I'm thinking there won't be too much school-related news until 2008 -- even the DOE wouldn't roll out a new initiative between Christmas and New Year's, right? â€” so for the next few days I'm planning to post about interesting articles and ideas that I just didn't get to this fall.
First up: a recent article in the student newspaper of Stony Brook University about the state of high school science education in New York City. A Stony Brook researcher has been examining what kinds of science courses the city's high schools offer; she found that more than half of high schools did not offer physics during the 2004-2005 school year (I would imagine that the percentage has gone down, given the proliferation since that time of small schools). The researcher also found that a lack of advanced science courses correlates with students' socioeconomic status. Schools with higher proportions of poor and minority students are less likely to offer advanced science courses. On the one hand, this seems intuitive: we know that poor and minority students are more likely to receive inadequate math and science instruction before high school, making them ill prepared to take physics.
But reading articles like this one reminds me that the "soft bigotry of low expectations" is alive and well. An assistant principal at Townsend Harris, which has many advanced science courses, is quoted in the article as saying, "For many of the kids in other schools their goal isn't physics. It's to be able to count their change so they aren't ripped off when they buy food or to be able to read their prescription so they can take care of themselves when they're sick." Those may be the horizons that poor students can see, but their teachers can see farther. Obviously, someone who can't count change can't pass the physics Regents exam â€” but shouldn't that be the goal? Simply getting a kid ready to deal with the daily math he'll face in the work world or in the first year of a basic college program is a major accomplishment in many places â€” but doesn't that still sell the kid short?
The state has released its own list of elementary and middle schools in good standing and in need of improvement under No Child Left Behind â€” and the news isn't great for the city or its progress reports.
The state removed 18 city elementary and middle schools from the list but added 64, bringing the total number of city schools not in good standing to 318. Many schools that received D's and F's on their progress reports are considered in good standing with the state, including at least two of the schools that the DOE has announced it will close this year. And many other schools that received A's and B's made the state's list of failing schools.
City education officials say there is "correlation" between the two lists because as a school's progress report score gets higher, it is more likely to be considered in good standing by the state. Still, the discrepancy between the two lists makes sense; after all, the two accountability systems focus on different things. No Child Left Behind looks only at the percentage of students scoring at proficiency each year, while the progress reports look at individual student improvement over the course of each year. The higher number of failing schools this year on the state's list could have to do with more students being tested, as the Post suggests, or on the fact that the state's requirements are getting stricter each year as we get closer to 2014, when No Child Left Behind expects every child to be proficient on state tests.
The DOE proudly announced earlier this week that 86 percent of the schools given the option of accepting performance pay this year chose to. Thirty-four eligible schools chose not to participate. (The percentage would have been slightly lower had the DOE not included the additional schools it apparently solicited once it became clear that a chunk of schools would abstain from the program.)
By the end of the day tomorrow, each of the schools will have to decide, by committee, whether their merit pay will be shared equally among all teachers or given in varying amounts to teachers who especially deserve it. I'm curious whether any schools will choose this latter option, and if they do, whether their choice will reflect an honest attempt to see the effect of merit pay or cronyism, as Norm Scott at EdNotes Online speculates will happen.
Interestingly, a slightly higher percentage of "A" and "D" schools than "B" and "C" schools given the option to participate chose not to. But of the 19 schools with F's on their progress reports, not a single one opted out of the performance pay pilot. I'm not sure what, if anything, to make of this -- I'm open to suggestions.
In other incentives news, we also learned this week that the city has distributed $740,000 so far through the Opportunity NYC program, although we don't know how much money was distributed because of kids' achievements in school.
When the progress reports first came out, many, including Regent Merryl Tisch, were not happy that charter schools did not get grades. Chancellor Klein said he didn't have the authority or the data to issue grades for charter schools. But now the city has issued grades for more than a dozen of the schools it chartered, and the results are, unsurprisingly, favorable to the charters. Of the charter grades, 79 percent were A's and B's (compared with 62 percent of other schools), and only one school, Peninsula Preparatory Academy in Queens, received an F. KIPP Academy was among the five schools with A's â€” guess the staff retreat in the Carribbean paid off!
The charter progress reports are shorter than those for regular public schools, and "environment" is measured solely by attendance. Because of this, the reports clearly note that "it would be inaccurate to make a direct comparison to the grades assigned to non-charter DOE public schools" â€” but that hasn't stopped the press. The Sun proclaims, "Charter Schools Win Top Grades: Surpass Traditional Public Schools on Progress Reports," and notes that two city-chartered schools had higher numerical grades than any other schools in the city.
For equity's sake, I'm glad the charters are getting grades, but in reality, how much will they matter to the hundreds of families waiting for spaces to open up in charter schools that are often more disciplined and academically oriented than neighborhood schools? The charter schools' strong showing does little to dispel the notion that lots of test prep will equal a high grade in the city's accountability system. As Julie Trott, head of Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School, which got one of the two highest grades in the city, told the Sun, "We just basically are super, super serious about academics and don't play at all." Parents don't need a grade to tell them whether that's an environment they want for their child.
Still, given how little information is available about charter schools that isn't generated by the schools themselves, charter school reports strike me as more useful than those for regular public schools. We'll soon have more information; according to the Sun, the state has agreed to have all charter schools receive grades next year.
The DOE has just announced "new measures to improve transparency and detail in class size reporting." Using improved means of data collection, the DOE will start publishing class size reports so parents can know on a grade-by-grade, school-by-school level how large classes are. Now that sounds like the kind of report parents might actually trust when deciding where to send their kids. Of course, they'll have to wade through an Excel file with more than 16,000 entries to get the information they want.
Nowhere in the press release is there any indication that the DOE has intentions of reducing class sizes beyond what principals choose to do on their own, with the help of the DOE's "targeted class size reduction coaching program." But perhaps the improved transparency is a concession by the DOE that parents think class size is important? That would be a major shift from earlier this year, when the DOE worked hard to downplay parents' calls for smaller class sizes in the Learning Environment Surveys.
Anyone who thinks the New York Times has been soft on the DOE in recent years should take note: Sam Freedman is on the job. His column today addresses the question of "How a Middle School Can Be 'Dangerous' and Still Get an A." Freedman takes a look at South Bronx Academy for Applied Media, which got an A on its progress report but also holds a slot on the state's list of "persistently dangerous" schools.
Former teachers describe a place where they spent more time putting out fires and deflecting profanities aimed at them than teaching. It's true that teachers who have left a school may have competing reasons for wanting to go to the press with their complaints â€” but the school's Learning Environment Survey bears out their assertion that the school isn't safe. Principal Roshone Ault said the school got its "persistently dangerous" designation because she reports every incident, but teachers said they were dissuaded from reporting some incidents. (Ault, formerly a teacher at a charter school that was closed due to poor performance, was the subject of a Times article last year about the new wave of young principals.)
At South Bronx Academy, which opened in 2005, 13 of 16 teachers were brand new last year, and Freedman said half of teachers fled the school in the last year. The progress reports don't take teacher retention into account. James Liebman told the Times that "many teachers flee schools that are in the midst of reform and instilling a 'culture of accountability,'" though how a new school can be in the midst of reform is not clear. What is clear is that in the bizarro world of DOE-2K7, teacher attrition, widely understood to seriously inhibit school success, is actually a good thing.
Freedman doesn't contest the fact that the progress reports adequately measure what they're designed to measure â€” year-to-year improvement, especially among the most needy students. But his column points out, as many others have, that the progress reports don't measure many of the factors that teachers, parents, and students think are most important.
For a thorough and thoughtful rundown of the issues surrounding the progress reports, check out a new article in City Limits Weekly by regular Insideschools contributor Helen Zelon. Using the City Council hearing on the progress reports as a starting point, Zelon takes a look at how parents use the grades, the relationship between the grades and school closures, and the role of parents in the DOE's reforms generally. (Here's a hint: it's not meaningful.)
Add a laundromat in Flatbush to the list of places where the Office of Accountability held "consultations" when finessing the progress report plan. The Sun today reports that DOE officials promoted the reports and the Learning Environment Surveys at laundromats and dentists' offices after thinking "Where are people going to be?"
It sounds like the DOE just strolled in and started chatting up customers without any warning to the businesses. If Wash and Read owner Harriet Williams had known DOE officials were coming to her laundromat, she probably would have tried to be there â€” she told the Sun "several of her questions about her daughters' education have not been answered over the years," including why her application to transfer one child from a failing middle school was denied.
Anyone who expects to come away from a New York City public middle school tour with a â€œTHIS IS THE PLACE FOR MY KIDâ€ feeling should adjust expectations. Iâ€™m told this does happen to some parents â€“ and to some kids â€“ who feel instantly comfortable after brief visits.
It just has not been our experience so far. Instead, we climb a ton of stairs, strain to hear our tour guide, lose our tour guide and get separated. I scan walls furiously, gauging artwork, writing and projects at a glance. We enter classrooms ever-so-briefly; never long enough to understand the purpose of a lesson.After every middle school tour, I get a headache and my 5th-grade son complains that the school â€“ no matter how small â€“ is way too big.
â€œI didnâ€™t like it,â€™ he says, as I root around in my pocketbook for a Tylenol. â€œThere are too many people.â€™â€™
I try to explain that the â€œpeopleâ€™â€™ he objects to are hundreds of parents and kids, who show up for the tour armed with questions â€“ usually about getting in. The reason for that is simple â€“ there arenâ€™t enough good public middle schools in New York City, and the best get way more applicants than they can take.
So naturally, tours segue into a barrage of test score and high school queries. Then come the detailed, lengthy scenario questions unique to a childâ€™s individual issues. Mercifully, most principals recognize they probably shouldnâ€™t be addressed in a packed auditorium or hallway and get the tours moving.
The kids ask about sports and clubs. And always, they want to know if they can go out to lunch.
My son looked so unhappy after his last tour that I wondered what he really learns from all these visits. He insisted he really likes seeing the buildings and hearing from â€œthe kid tour guides.
Iâ€™m not blaming educators and parent coordinators for the crowds and chaos. Tours are an added pressure at a time when schools are being judged and evaluated by test scores and student improvement. Their first responsibility has to be to educate the kids already there.
My advice, based on about a dozen tours over two years? Donâ€™t judge a school by the tour alone. Find a way to get back into the building for a different event. Talk to kids, parents and any of the educators who will give you the time in less pressured circumstances.
Call the schools you may be interested in and find out if there is a talent show, performance, PTA event or potluck supper where you might meet staff, parents and kids. Some districts are holding middle school fairs this winter where you can also meet kids and staffers in less pressured circumstances.
Thatâ€™s what we did last week. We attended a talent show at a school with a disappointing tour, but one we know is terrific nonetheless. My son met teachers and the principals, saw the kids in action and had a great time. He came home smiling and optimistic for the first time in weeks. This extra step may feel like a headache but it will save you a much bigger one later on.
By Seth Pearce
1) The NYC Student Union supports the progress report program because it adds a sense of accountability and transparency to our schools and gives principals and SLTs important information about how to improve their schools.2) We believe that students should be involved in revising the surveys to make them more student friendly and informative. In addition, we believe that like the parent survey, the student survey should include a question like "What is the most important thing that could be improved about your school?" We also thought that surveys of teachers, parents and students should carry more weight in the overall school grade.
3) We believe that the Student Progress section should be reduced to at most 50 percent of the grade and more weight should be given to the Learning Environment section.
4) We believe that the weighted Regents pass rate does not say as much about the output of the school as the survey-makers desire and that it should be reduced or eliminated in favor of a larger emphasis on credit accumulation and graduation rates as both of those use Regents scores to determine real student output. It also puts too much emphasis on test prep by giving schools points for trying to make students take Regents earlier.
5) We believe that attendance, though it is a somewhat troublesome factor, should be given more weight because it forces schools to reexamine policies on a day-to-day level and create more incentives for students to come to school. Shanna Kofman, a Staten Island NYCSU representative, pointed out that at Staten Island Tech, the school offers SAT tutoring the day before SAT exams so that students won't stay home to study. This is an important example; this occurs only several times a year but the school cares enough to adapt to the students in order to keep them in class for those few days.
6) Finally, we suggest that a student or students should be included in the evaluation of data collected from surveys and quality reviews, so that the effect of positive and negative aspects of every school can affect the school's report card grade in a way that accurately reflects the way those aspects affect students. Because schools are made up of people of diverse educational perspectives, the teams that evaluate schools must reflect this diversity, and therefore must include students.
The edu-activist community has, to this point, missed out on a great opportunity to revise this system and make it into a more positive factor in our schools. Instead, they have for a large part condemned the program outright, severing a possible avenue of communication between the various constituents of our school system.
I hope that the education community can eventually use this issue to give parents, teachers, and students more influence on the results-based system that seems soon to overtake American education (i.e. keeping the general program but working to decrease the importance of certain elements like high-stakes testing). By refusing to compromise on this we are decreasing the possibility of working together on the more important issues like class size. In this city, compromise matters.