10:02 am Oct. 5, 20121
When the city's Department of Education released its annual letter grades for public elementary and junior high schools on Monday, it also wanted people to know that not much had changed.
"Grades remained stable across the city and for individual schools, as 86 percent of schools did not change more than one grade from 2011; 97 percent of schools were within two grades," said the D.O.E. statement.
Yet the city's recently revamped system, by some other measures, had shown itself, again, to be anything but stable.
Anna Schneider, a reporter with the independent web site Inside Schools, wrote, "our analysis of the 102 schools that earned D’s or F’s on their Progress Report this year shows that severe instability persists. Of those failing schools, 24 earned A’s and B’s on their 2010-11 Progress Reports. P.S. 241 in Harlem, for example, went from a C in 2009-10, to a B in 2010-11 to an F this year."
The headline of the article: "Many failing schools were on top last year."
It's a confusing system, in other words, and while the grades may measure progress of a sort, they often seem detached from the relative quality of the schools they're meant to assess.
It's at odds in that sense with some of the other high-profile initiatives of the proudly technocratic Bloomberg administration, whose organizing principle is supposed to be data-driven accountability, and which has shown itself perfectly capable of coming up with grading systems that are relatively stable and comprehensible, and therefore useful.
The restaurant-safety grading system, for example, has its flaws, but it is not hard to grasp, for the purposes of informing the public and motivating restaurateurs to meet certain standards.
Yes, there's inevitably more to take into account when issuing progress reports schools than when evaluating a restaurant's compliance with the health code. According to the D.O.E., the letter grades are "based on student progress, performance, and student attendance, as well as feedback from parents, students, and teachers about their schools." New data is also taken into consideration, like accelerated courses taken, and "new information about how each middle school’s graduates go on to perform in high school."
"By measuring how well our schools prepare students for high school," city schools chancellor Dennis Walcott said, "the Progress Reports set the right goals for success in these formative grades."
But the result has been a system in which ratings of schools that are in many ways similar diverge wildly. The grades may be useful as a motivational tool for school employees. And they're certainly useful as leverage for the administration, which is in constant combat with the teachers union and which can effectively deunionize poor-graded schools by shutting them down or reorganizing them. But the progress reports are of little use to parents looking for information on whether a given school is, on a basic level, good.
In April, Michael Winerip, the Times' "On Education" columnist, looked at two schools in the South Bronx: P.S. 30 and P.S. 179. They have comparable student populations, test scores and are located within two blocks of one another.
One got an A and one got an F. Why?
"By focusing on student achievement scores, I can make the case that there is little difference between the two, certainly not A versus F," he wrote. "By focusing on how much each student’s test scores have improved, the city can make the case that P.S. 30 is significantly better."
"PS 234 [got] a bright red F on student performance even though more than 80 percent of the students ace the state exams," wrote Pamela Wheaton of Inside Schools.
The city's formula changes over time, necessarily, and the state formula for assessing schools has been tweaked as well.
(The city's chief academic officer, Shael Polakow-Suransky told the Wall Street Journal that this year's data "has stabilized as a result of the unusual year" in 2008, when the state test scores were so easy that 97 percent of students got As or Bs.)
In an effort to keep the city's school grades from being affected collectively by the state's changes, the D.O.E. even began grading schools on a curve.
"Now, the top 25% of schools are A schools, 35% will get a B, 31% get a C, 7% a D and 2% an F," the Journal's Lisa Fleisher reported.
But some people at ground still see the system as irrational, even, in some cases, when the schools they're associated with seem to have benefited from the recent changes.
I spoke to a principal at one city public that was awarded an A this year.
"It's crazy," said the principal, who asked not to be named out of concern that the administration might take it out on the school. "It's absolutely crazy. Next year, I can get a B."
The principal, who has been in the same job for more than three years, said that the school had previously gotten a B and, the year before, a C.
"It's still the same school," the principal said. "Same teachers, same students."
I pressed for an explanation. Surely something had changed in that time.
Something had, the principal said. After the C, the school hired a part-time teacher to work with high-performing students. That ensured they didn't fall behind as struggling students got additional help in the classroom.
But the principal downplayed the significance of this change, contending that it was ridiculous for the school to have jumped a whole letter grade as the result of hiring one part-time teacher.
"I take no credit nor responsibility" for the letter grades, the principal said.
Referring to the formula used by the administration to determine the schools' grades, this principal said, "I call 'data' the new four-letter word."
Noah Gotbaum, a critic of the administration and member of a Community Education Council in Manhattan, said the letter grades, however they're calculated, primarily served to give the administration more discretionary power over the fate of individual schools.
"This allows the D.O.E. to do whatever they want," he said.
The rankings, he said, afford them powers ranging from shifting funding to different schools, to requiring that a school share its building with a charter school.
(To be fair, another critic of the administration offered that the D.O.E. is actually "too fucked up" to manage a conspiracy that intricate.)
Gotbaum, who is eyeing a run for public advocate next year, said he disagreed with the whole idea of giving letter grades to schools at all, and said the problems are larger than the grades can possibly indicate.
"Thirteen percent of minority kids in New York City high school are college-ready after four years," he said. "That's not a teacher, that's not a school, that's a systemic problem."
Gotbaum wants to see more emphasis placed on Quality Review reports are based on a "two- or three-day school visit by experienced educators" who "visit classrooms, talks with school leaders" as part of their evaluation of the school.
The result of those visits is a document that is nearly the polar opposite of the letter grade system. It has a few charts and check-boxes. They're relatively words, and lack easy-to-consume indicators like letter grades. They require more work from parents, in other words.
Here's a 2010 QR report, for I.S. 25 in Queens, where I attended many, many years ago: "Relationships among staff and students are very supportive and result in an orderly and secure environment that promote the social, emotional and academic growth of students."
On their school progress report, I.S. 25 got a "B."
Lisa Donlan, the head of the Community Education Council in District 1, which includes the East Village and Lower East Side, said the grading system was originally created as a good-faith reaction to a national push to judge schools solely on students' standardized test scores.
That was one feature of the No Child Left Behind law that President George W. Bush signed in 2002. But Donlan said after seeing how the law worked, "many people, like myself, pushed back."
Donlan said she initially supported the idea of grading schools by using the administration's more complicated formula, but has come to see them as unreliable.
When I asked whether she was happy with the Manhattan school her own children used to attend, she said, "Absolutely, and many people are happy with the school now. It got a D this year and a C last year."
I contacted the D.O.E. several times for comment but none was available. Also, several messages for Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, who chairs the Education Committee and personally intervened to stop an underperforming school in her district from closing, went unreturned.