The April 14 edition of The Wave carried my report ("Report Cards For Schools Under New DOE Plan") of the press conference last Tuesday where schools Chancellor Joel Klein announced a new accountability plan to give schools letter grades from A to F that will be based on both quantitative measures such as performance of students, attendance, school safety and "community engagement and satisfaction (based on forthcoming parent, teacher, and student surveys," and non-quantitative factors such as "how effectively schools create environments conducive to teaching and learning." (Ok, so I plagiarized my own article. Why write it twice?)
This being my first reportorial role where I would have to just get the facts ma'am and not rant and opine (very difficult for me to do), I took it very seriously, even taking along one of those long skinny notebooks so I looked like a real reporter.
Upon arrival at the Tweed Courthouse, the noted DOE monolith, and having my Wave press pass scrutinized very carefully by the young press office person (there are an awful lot of them) I found myself sitting four feet across from Joel Klein and Deputy Chancellor for Teaching & Learning Carmen Farina (who not long ago sent a letter castigating a publication for quoting me, referring to me as a person who compared the DOE to the Taliban - I actually said the school systems of Kabul and Baghdad would recover sooner than ours would from the BloomKlein "reforms"). The DOE's Chief Accountability Officer James Liebman, who would be in charge of the new system, accompanied them. On leave from his duties at Columbia Law School, he did not seem to have a complete understanding of how schools really run. (If all these lawyers want to be involved in education why don't they try teaching for a few years?)
The 30 or so press people (including cameras from the major TV media) were treated to the usual presentation of charts galore showing how schools will be judged against their peers in relation to criteria such as free lunch (an indicator of income), ethnic grouping, ELL, and Special Ed. "For the first time we will be comparing apples to apples," said Klein.
Well, not exactly. More like comparing an apple from an orchard to an Apple computer. Somehow, class size will not be judged as a factor, along with a bunch of other criteria - like teacher retention rates in a school. (I'll get to this one next time.)
Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters, a parent advocacy group that promotes class size reduction as a key element in improving education (an item always ignored by BloomKlein) has framed a series of questions on the initiative. I only have room for a few but email me if you want to see all of them ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) or better yet get on her 2500 plus mailing list ( email@example.com, www.classsizematters.org).
"Schools have widely different class sizes, and some principals have the authority to cap enrollment and class size, while others don't. How can you fairly grade schools on the outcome without controlling for the size of classes, which is a significant determinant of academic achievement? Also, according to research, student success is not just affected by current class sizes, but also the class sizes they experienced in past years, which puts them on a different trajectory of learning; how will you account for these factors?
" Will charter schools be evaluated in these reports? Will you evaluate them differently, given the fact that charter schools are able to cap enrollment and class size?
"Apparently, student background will be partly controlled for, in terms of SES background and earlier test scores. But for students entering middle and high schools, will you also look at their previous attendance records and how many were held back previously? These are also factors that need to be controlled for, lest schools which have entering students with much lower levels of attendance or those who have been held back in the past will be penalized for accepting these students. Students who have earlier been retained have a much lower probability of graduating from high school, over and above their test score levels, according to research. How will you attempt to control for these differences in terms of evaluating school performance?"
Great job Leonie, as usual.
One of the ingredients of the new plan - tests will be given every 6-8 weeks on skills such as "predicting outcomes" with the results in the hand of teachers in a matter of days. Here's an outcome I'll predict - No Way. It takes months for the results of standardized tests to come back and these are standardized tests. How will they be graded? "They'll be scanned," Klein responded. "Or children will take the test online."
Huh? I practically leaped out of my seat at that one, knowing full well the state of computer access in most schools for most children. I asked Klein how and when would teachers access this enormous amount of data (let's hopefully assume that teachers are not going to be asked to actually enter all this information) considering the time constraints in their days and the often lack of computer access, especially during their lunch hours when lines are most tied up. He deflected that, mumbling something about a principal who can get online any time he wants to. Let's guess what he's really thinking: Good teachers will use their time at home at night to check all this information and those that don't will be labeled unsatisfactory, undedicated and rendered unemployable.
As a follow-up I asked why schools were only being rated on children's skills and not knowledge in areas such as social studies and science. I raised the point that under this system a school could get an "A" even if none of the children knew that the Civil War came after the Revolutionary War or indeed it they even knew there was a Civil War. Klein gave the stock response that they need to know the skills first, a line I heard for 20 years from my principal (also someone who barely taught) when our school basically did test prep all the time to the exclusion of learning things in the content areas. I looked over at Carmen Farina, a real educator and supposedly a great teacher for many years (no matter what you think of her policies we should respect people who spent years in the classroom) and wondered what she was thinking. Did I see a glimmer of agreement with what I was saying?
Aah! Just my imagination.
"How do you respond to experts who say that the more high stakes are imposed on test results, the less objective and reliable they are as a gauge of actual student achievement," asked Leonie Haimson? I have my own question: Why would we expect the DOE to address the concerns of experts?
Which leads to a final question from Leonie: "Will there be any accountability system proposed for those running Tweed?"
From gadfly to reporter
- for one day only
As I was packing up after the press conference, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Klein. He shook my hand and said, "I see you have gone from being a gadfly to a reporter." Sorry, Mr. Klein. Only on Tuesdays.
Leading children astray
A high school principal in office for less than a year, a graduate of Klein's training ground (The Leadership Academy) where principals are taught how to break the contract and harass teachers, observed a teacher and after the teacher left the room informed the kids that their teacher was not good and she was trying to get rid of the teacher. The students were outraged and responded with a petition to support their teacher.
Governor's Island and regards from Bromme
I took a tour of Governor's Island arranged by Leonie Haimson who is lobbying for the use of the facilities there to be used for schools. Only a six-minute ferry ride from Manhattan, this Victorian-like village under the shadow of the Manhattan skyline has enough buildings to relieve some of the serious overcrowding in the school system where charter schools are being shoved into already overcrowded high schools. For information check: http://www.govisland.com/Oct05Presentation .
Former District 27 Superintendent Matt Bromme, now at Fordham, was on the tour. It was the first time I had met him and we chatted about the East New York neighborhood we both grew up in, Rockaway and the school system under the BloomKlein umbrella. He still reads the Wave and sends everyone his regards.