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Yesterday, the New York Times went after the progress reports in an editorial titled "Grading the Grades." It said pretty much everything I think (and much of what I said the other day):

The new system "does a valuable service to students, and teachers, by holding schools accountable for both overall performance and for how much progress students make from one year to the next. But Mr. Bloomberg should ditch the simplistic and counterproductive A through F rating system. It boils down the entire shooting match to a single letter grade that does not convey the full weight of this approach and lends itself to tabloid headlines instead of a real look at a school’s problems.

Last week, I heard from a couple of people that I was too generous in my appraisal of the progress report initiative. I don't know that I was. I said basically what the Times said — that the idea is a good one but the execution has big problems — and parent advocates were pleased with the Times editorial. Still, I admit that I am just getting up to speed on the theory and history behind the growth model of evaluating education, which is what the progress reports are based on. But the Times points out that while growth models are currently beloved by education researchers, they expect to see three years' test scores factoring into the computations — and the DOE used only one to judge elementary and middle schools. In their haste to show results (or to push initiatives through before they can be challenged?), the chancellor and mayor have compromised their reforms and created what parent leader David Bloomfield suggests could be considered a "crazy experiment gone bad."

Like Seth and the Times editorial board, I do think there is value to the growth model — as I said, parents should be able to know whether their schools are helping their kids make progress. And I still believe that a high-performing school may not score high on a growth model "improvement index." If a well-designed measure showed that, schools and parents would be more likely to take the news to heart. It seems that an "improvement index" that factors into a school's entire grade, if there must be one, at a much lower weight, would make more sense. I do think a single grade is reductive and distracting and unnecessary. At any rate, I agree with the Times that a "more subtle and flexible" school evaluation system is needed. Given our current leaders' inability to handle even the most reasoned criticism, I'll be pretty surprised if we see that.

Middle School Muddle: Toss the grades

Written by Liz Willen Sunday, 11 November 2007 11:34

Toss The Grades: For More Details, Try the Quality Review Reports

(If you can slog through them, that is)

When it comes to selecting a District 2 middle school for my fifth-grader, I have no intention of ruling a school in or out based on the latest letter-grade from the New York City Department of Education. The progress reports and accompanying grades are misleading, difficult to understand and culled from criteria that say much about the DOE's priorities - improving test scores- and little about mine as a parent.

I had a hard time taking the letter grades seriously when I learned the Tribeca Learning Center, my son's amazing elementary school, got a C.

And I would happily trade the A at Clinton, where my oldest son attends middle school, for smaller class sizes, a music program, a soccer team and a well stocked, staffed and open after-hours library.

So, I'm not disturbed that some of the fine schools we are seriously considering for next year -- like IS 89 -- received a D, or that the impressive Manhattan Academy of Technology, or MAT, got a C on its report card.

I sat down with the report cards this week to see what I might learn. The data and the methodology confused me, although it was clear that heavy penalties fell upon schools where test scores for the lowest performers failed to rise.

I switched to reading the quality reviews, like this one for MAT, and found much of the language in the quality reviews unfriendly to parents and filled with jargon: Does the average parent, for example, know what it means to "build and align capacity?" - or why that matters? Or care if "professional development activities are in place to address differentiated instruction and to create a seamless curriculum?"

Despite the jargon, overall, I found the quality reviews far more useful for parents, because they contained sections entitled: "What this school does well," or "What this school needs to do to improve."As for the report cards, here's a tip I gleaned from my colleague Veronika Denes, a Ph.D. who directs research and program evaluation for the National Academy of Excellent Teaching at Teachers College and understands data better than anyone I know.

Veronika and colleagues spent more than a day trying to understand the methodology behind the reports, until they discovered online a simplifying tool that the DOE created for educators.

It's 28 pages long.

Dear Chancellor Klein,

My name is Seth Pearce. I am a senior at LaGuardia High School and a member of the NYC Student Union, a citywide, student-run and -created education advocacy organization. I am writing to you to express both my support for your new school progress report program and my criticism of some of its parts.

At last week's NYC Student Union meeting, students from schools around the city discussed the progress reports. Some students supported them and others didn't. There was, however, a general agreement on the need for accountability in our schools. These progress reports bring added accountability and transparency to our city's schools. They help give valuable information to our city's parents. The most important benefit of the progress reports might be increased involvement from these parents who now have a clearer view of what's going on their children's schools.

While I support the principle of the progress reports, I also believe that the system needs revision. A large problem with your report card is the small amount of influence the Learning Environment section has on the overall score. Attendance is also as a major indicator of school performance. Students who go to bad schools will probably go to school less often and vice versa. If students are in the habit of going to school it is more likely that they will progress academically and proceed to the next level of education. Surveys should also play a larger role because parents, students and teachers have the most direct insight into the schools output.

I would also like to say that while standardized test scores deserve a place in the progress report they are given too much value in this system. While they provide some insight into student performance, they are inadequate and distract from the real business of education: teaching and learning. Emphasis on these tests also devalues the roles teacher and student. Furthermore, the need for constant progress to succeed in their progress reports is unrealistic for high performing schools and can actually distract them from the great work they are doing. In my mind the importance of progress for these purposes should be taken on the sliding scale determined by a school's previous performance, e.g. progress would more important for low performing schools.

Thank you for taking the time to hear a student's opinion. If you ever want to read some student commentary about our school system, check out the NYC Students Blog or stop by at one of our Monday meetings.

Have a nice day,

Seth Pearce
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

8th Grader Izzy: The interview and the invisibility cloak

Written by Admin Saturday, 10 November 2007 14:45

Sorry for the lack of posts lately, but work has picked up its pace and barely have time to breathe anymore!

I got a call last week informing me that I passed the first test to get into the small school in my neighborhood, so I was eligible for the final step to determine my admission: an interview. Unluckily, it was at 3 p.m. on a school day, and as I only get out of school at 2:10, I really had to get to the school fast.

So one cab ride and several anxious minutes later, I was sitting in a small lab room with a cheerful interviewer. I sat up straight, grinned, and gave it my all. By the end, I was pretty sure I had him hooked! If I get in to this school, I have decided that if I don't get into the specialized high school of my choice, I'm pretty sure I'll go there.

* * *

I just have a quick explanation for my readers out there. You may have realized that I have avoided naming any of the schools in my posts, and there is a reason behind that: Because this is a public blog, I wouldn't really enjoy having my chances at a certain school lowered based on something that I wrote about it. By not naming the schools, I kind of have an "Invisibility Cloak" that allows me to say whatever I want about any school and not get judged on it.

The Money Mom: Who will fund your grant?

Written by Admin Thursday, 08 November 2007 08:02

In my last post I discussed how the first step to getting a grant is identifying what the biggest "grantable" needs are at your school. Once you’ve decided the priorities at your school, the next step in finding grant funding is identifying the funders who are right for your project.

What funding category does the project fit into? Is it Arts--a visiting playwright, poet or printmaker, a spring musical, trips to museums? Is it Literacy--visiting historical sites and then writing about them, or buying biographies for classroom libraries? Is your grant for a Capital Expense--permanent physical improvement to a space, like planting a garden or renovating a community room? Is it Environmental Stewardship--studying where city water comes from, or connecting science curriculum with local parks?

There are often different funding organizations to help schools in each of these categories, and it’s easier to find them if you know which category your grant fits into.

Student Action: NYC Students get in on the blogosphere

Written by Admin Wednesday, 07 November 2007 11:13

Last month, the New York City Student Union officially launched the NYC Students Blog, the first ever student-run blog about the NYC education system. In doing so they have joined the many teacher blogs; organizational blogs, such as this one; and the NYC Public School Parents Blog to contribute to the discussion on many of the important issues in our City's schools.

Ashu Kapoor, a senior blogger from a Queens small school:

For too long, students have been left out of the decisions made about our education. This blog will begin the task of giving students a real voice in our schools. Students are most affected by the successes and failures of our schools and deserve some say in the policies made about them.

The NYC Students Blog currently features nine student bloggers who represent every borough and many different types of schools. So far these students have tackled issues such as student government organizations, the Contracts for Excellence debate, recycling efforts in New York City's schools, and changes in sex education around the city.

I'll continue to post the highlights from the NYC Students Blog (as well as my own original content) here at Insideschools, but if you get the chance please check us out at (and blogroll us if you feel like it!) . We're really excited to contribute a student voice to the issues that so affect us and look forward to working with the rest of the education blogosphere to continue these conversations and improve New York City's schools.

What's new on Insideschools

Written by Admin Wednesday, 07 November 2007 11:07

Check out the new articles up on Insideschools: we have coverage of Monday night's G&T public meeting; new advice columns from our college counselor, psychologist, and Judy; and, of course, lots of new school reviews.

Plus, take our poll on the progress reports and G&T proposal!

Progress report grades useful; Insideschools more useful

Written by Admin Wednesday, 07 November 2007 03:54

Eduwonkette is spending the week trying to crunch the numbers on the progress reports and so far, she's found some interesting information about the racial breakdown of schools and scores and about the characteristics, such as the proportion of experienced teachers and the percentage of students receiving part-time special education services, that don't appear to relate to schools' grades.

I'll be paying attention, as always, to Eduwonkette's analysis and what parents have to say, but here's my take on the progress reports: It looks like most crummy schools got mediocre or bad grades, and lots of great schools got good grades. The many outliers suggest that you'd be foolish to treat these grades as anything more than they are -- one more piece of information, among many, to use when looking for a school, and an opportunity to take a look at how your school is helping all kids, or not.

The grades could encourage families who might seek out schools and programs outside their zone to consider their neighborhood schools, which would be good for those schools. But with real choice an illusion except in a very few scenarios, I'm wondering what impact the grades will have on parents. Most schools' reputations are pretty entrenched, although I can imagine that the grades might affect how fast up-and-coming schools up and come. Maybe, as Ms. Frizzle says, the grades are best left as a tool for schools.

I think the grades do say something — about how hard schools are pushing their kids — that no other available data say. Schools that are moving their kids forward despite starting at a disadvantage should be recognized for doing so. And schools that are "coasting" because their kids are middle-class and school-ready should know that that's not enough.

But with 85 percent of the grades based on test scores, it's only improvement on test scores that will count. It's clear that pretty much the only way for schools with B's to get A's next year is to improve kids' test scores, often only marginally. NYC Public School Parents has noted a few schools, such as IS 318 in Brooklyn and IS 289 in Manhattan, that have already said their lower-than-desired grades won't make them add more test prep. But many other schools may make another decision, to their students' possible detriment. And I can imagine that at top-rated schools, glee will soon give way to anxiety as administrators realize that to preserve their grades, they'll have to improve upon already excellent performance.

A comprehensive school grading system that looks at student improvement is itself an improvement over looking at straight percentages of students scoring at various levels. But issuing a single grade based on improvement and test scores is reductive and demeaning to teachers — that's a position I've heard from many people. And it drives to the sidelines discussion of other important features of school performance: has the school worked to increase parent involvement? has the principal instituted a more democratic structure that's keeping teachers in the school? is a new arts program engaging students who feel alienated by too much testing?

I think the new grades make Insideschools' qualitative reviews and parent comments even more vital, and I hope parents aren't so distracted by their school's grade that they lose sight of what schools should do to get kids excited about learning.

At this point so much has been said all over the Web about the progress report grades that I don't know what I can add. For once, the Times, the Post, the Daily News, and the Sun were editorially united; they all critiqued the plan by identifying good schools with low grades and lousy schools with high grades. Parents at desirable schools that received low grades are up in arms and the DOE is threatening failing schools with "consequences" that could include closure or principal replacement -- but as the Times notes this morning, despite the chatter, it's not at all clear right now what the grades really mean for parents or even for schools.

Here are a few especially sensible comments I've read about the grades. In the comments, feel free to nominate your own candidates for the Non-Hysterical School Grade Analysis Award.

On the New York Times City Room blog, a teacher writes,

This system for rating schools is the most complete and fair way they have ever been rated by the city or state. ... Grading schools may help the city understand how its educators are faring at the difficult task of bringing the thousands of under-educated students in NYC up to grade level. It does not, however, give parents much relevant information about what school is actually best for their child.

A recent PS 87 parent writes,

I think it’s great that the administration is assessing schools based on various criteria. These evaluations can supplement reputation, impressions based on visiting, and test scores alone for judging the quality of a school. And they’re not only a useful resource for helping parents to evaluate schools–they should help schools like P.S. 87 identify ways of improving. On the other hand, the emphasis on “consquences” for poorly performing schools is disheartening. Are these schools supposed to be scared into performing better? Shutting down a weak school will only increase the overall quality of NYC’s education if weak administrators, teachers, and students disappear. But that doesn’t happen–they are simply moved elsewhere!

And one more from the New York Times:

Why is this new grading system the “linchpin” of the Bloomberg/Klein administration? ... The schools, through NCLB, already are measured for Adequate Yearly Progress. So, why millions and millions more that could have been spent IN the classroom, to come up with this incredibly flawed methodology?

Louise at Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn writes,

What does it mean?

Something and nothing. You know your school and you know whether it's any good or not. No report card score is going to tell you anything that you don't already know.

Ms. Frizzle, a blogger who teaches at a middle school that received an "A" grade, writes,

One thing that sticks out in my head is that there is supposedly a computer program designed to help schools analyze their results to determine which actions are likely to achieve the greatest improvements in the data. (The idea is to prevent situations where principals throw a ton of resources at a problem identified in the school environment survey, improve that result, but find out later that because of the weighting it made very little difference in the overall school report). So you need a program to help you analyze the analysis? That seems like a waste of resources to me. Find a way to report data so that it is clear and comprehensible and paints a picture of what needs to change. Otherwise, it’s just more numbers.

Four NYC students finalists in top science competition

Written by Admin Tuesday, 06 November 2007 07:32

How about some non-G&T, non-progress report, uncontroversial news to get us through the day? Four students from the city's public schools have been named finalists in the prestigious Siemens Competition in Math, Science, and Technology; each will receive scholarships of up to $1,000. One finalist attends Stuyvesant, and the other three go to Francis Lewis High School in Queens. Nine other city kids were named semifinalists -- from Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Hunter, NEST, and Midwood. The kids have one more round to make it through before the national finals, held at the end of November at NYU; the top prize is a $100,000 scholarship. New York City hasn't had any winners since 2003, when the grand prize winner was a Stuyvesant student whose research focused on the biochemistry of memory in the brain.