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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.
I've been meaning to note for the last week an interesting article in the Times about CUNY's Model City Council program. Kids from around the city, drawn from those enrolled in College Now courses, learn about city governance, represent their districts, and debate the same issues as the real City Council. Recently, the model council voted on the cell phone bill that generated so much friction between the council and Mayor Bloomberg this past summer. But unlike the real council, which voted almost unanimously to give students the right to carry phones to and from schools, the model council was divided, passing the bill by only one vote. Was this a case of kids adopting an exaggeratedly adult mindset, or do many students actually think there's merit to the cell phone ban? I'd love to know.
Just what we need -- another school grading system! The Sun reports today that the state has developed a "growth model" method of evaluating schools that, like the progress reports, depends heavily on year-to-year improvement in student performance.
The new reports, already under development, will go online just as soon as Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings approves it. It will be interesting to see whether the state's reports will have the same flaws as the city's progress reports, or whether state education officials will learn from the brouhaha over the progress reports and improve upon the city's model.
Celia Oyler, the professor who wrote the quiz, doesn't try to hide her disdain for the reports. Here's the extra credit question:
Since these school grades are: so expensive to produce; not based on many important aspects of what many educators and parents consider central aspects of schooling; do not take into account multiple measures of student progress and school quality; do not take into account standard statistical measures of error; and are based predominantly (in elementary and middle schools) on state tests not designed to be used to make year-to-year comparisons of student growth, why are these school grades being used by the Bloomberg/Klein administration?
Two news stories today about grading improprieties remind us of the unintended consequences of placing high stakes on tests and scores.
At Central Park East High School, Principal Bennett Lieberman is under fire for a memo he sent to his staff calling for teachers to hand out higher grades, telling them, "If you are not passing more than 65% of your students in a class, then you are not designing your expectations to meet their abilities." Teachers and students are upset, and Deborah Meier, a founder of the school who now works as an education professor and activist, hypothesized in the Daily News that Lieberman's memo was a response to the progress reports, which give credit to high schools based on how many classes students pass.
Also, Yoav Gonen reports in the Post on the investigation of a cheating scandal at Wagner High School on Staten Island, where an assistant principal engineered an attempt to artificially raise students' scores on June 2006 Regents exams. The report of investigators recommends that the assistant principal, who is now an AP at MS 88 in Brooklyn, be fired, but Wagner Principal Gary Giordano, now the AP's husband, will go almost entirely unscathed. The Post bills the story as an exclusive, but the most recent edition of New York Teacher, the UFT's newspaper, has more details about the testing improprieties, as well as other allegations of wrongdoing against Giordano.
There have always been corrupt administrators, but as pressure to improve performance ratchets up even more, I think we can assume we will see more incidents like these.
A few days ago, walking to the train after an NYC Student Union meeting with some of my fellow students, it struck me to ask, Why has the debate on the NYC DOE's progress report program garnered so much attention? Why have so many newspaper articles been written on it, so many people been riled up about it? It's just a silly report card program, right? Aren't there so many important issues out there?
Well, yes and no.
While there are more urgent issues facing our schools, especially class size, this issue gains its importance because it very thoroughly defines the main theme of Klein/Bloomberg's tenure running our schools: The Search for Results. Under this administration and probably in many other school systems around the country, the focus of broad educational policy is measurable results. These results set the agenda for individual schools and school systems as a whole.
Hopefully, all of us witnessing and participating in this event can use what has transpired in New York as a learning experience on the short-term future of American education politics. Since the first school Progress Reports were released, many education advocacy groups have viciously attacked the DOE, alleging that the reports are a waste of money and encourage a culture of constant test prep.
Many of these attacks have been directed at DOE accountability czar James Liebman. I personally feel that these were uncalled for. The man is trying to create a system that brings a measure of accountability, transparency and, most important, attention to our schools. In that third category, Liebman has unquestionably succeeded.
The progress report debate has brought education issues into the public eye more than any other issue this year. It has stayed in the paper and on the minds of parents, politicians and plain old people. It has inspired questions to be asked and answers to given and has gotten more people thinking about their schools. Without the letter grade, bold and big in the top left hand corner of the progress report (the main qualm for some anti-report card activists), this would have been a non-story and no change would have come of it.
If there's one thing I would like to put out there before the debate begins to die down it is this: The report cards are not inherently evil. They are flawed, but their spirit is important and good. For my school's SLT at least, our Progress Report has given us important information about what can be improved in our schools and has forced us to develop strategies to deal with the areas in which we did not do as well. Hopefully, the progress reports also got more parents informed about what's going on in their children's schools and inspired them to take some action.
As I said, however, the report cards are flawed. Last week several reps from NYCSU went to meet with Mr. Liebman to explain our grievances about the current progress reports. In my next post, I will describe them.
Cross-posted on the NYC Students Blog