Dear Commons Community,
A New York Times editorial (see full text below) today recommends that Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Farina fine-tune the public school evaluation system initiated in the prior Michael Bloomberg administration. The evaluation system based on calculating a letter grade (A thru F) for each school has been criticized as confusing and not transparent mainly because parents as well as most people outside of the NYC Department of Education, cannot figure out what these grades mean.
The A-to-F school evaluation system is a small element of the issues that need fixing in our public education system. There are far more important concerns that should be a priority for the new administration. First, the establishment of universal pre-K should remain a central focus. This has the potential of significantly improving education for all children in New York City. Second, a thorough review of the testing mania that was imposed on the public school system be revisited with an eye towards developing new and fewer assessments of teaching and learning. And to establish pedagogical practices that do not depend upon teaching to the test. Third, the Common Core curriculum has elements that may prove beneficial but its rushed and poor implementation has cast grave doubt on its usefulness. To be fair, the implementation was imposed by John King and the New York State Board of Regents. Regardless, the local school systems including New York City need to clean-up the public relations nightmare created at the state level and implement curriculum improvements whether the Common Core or something else that can advance the education of all students.
In sum, de Blasio and Farina should concentrate on improving teaching and learning and defer spending significant energy or resources on salvaging a flawed school evaluation system.
Getting an Accurate Fix on Schools
New York Times (January 26, 2014)
New York state test data to be released later this spring will include sobering news for Mayor Bill de Blasio and his new schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña. The data show that only one in four New York City students who started high school in 2009 and graduated in 2013 performed well enough on the Regents exams to meet the state definition of college readiness. Racial and ethnic breakdowns are not yet available. But they are likely to mirror last year’s statistics, which showed striking racial disparities: Only about 11 percent of black and about 12 percent of Hispanic graduates were deemed college-ready.
Mr. de Blasio, who has had a field day bashing his predecessor over this problem, must now find a way to solve it by ramping up the quality of education for poor and minority children. For starters, the city must preserve, at least in part, the controversial school evaluation system that Michael Bloomberg introduced in 2006.
Mr. de Blasio has rightly decided to junk the simplistic, deeply unpopular A-through-F grading system that is used to rate schools. But there is much about the evaluation system that’s worth preserving, including its tight focus on the issue of equity, which means holding schools accountable for how well they educate poor and minority children who are too often written off and left behind.
Historically, the rankings compared a school’s test scores with those of the district as a whole. But under that system, demographics ruled the day; wealthy schools invariably were ranked at the top and poor schools at the bottom. Commendably, the Bloomberg administration devised a way to control for demographically driven differences that enabled it to reach the bedrock question of how much a given school actually improves student learning from year to year. Despite its imperfections, the system found that schools with similar populations of poor and minority children posted vastly dissimilar results. This, in turn, allowed officials and teachers to zero in on a school’s weaknesses, with positive results. The data show that over the last two years, nearly 80 percent of the lowest-performing schools improved their ratings after receiving help in the areas where they were weak.
The A-through-F rating system has several deficiencies. First, it lacks transparency; many people find it hard to understand how reams of complex information are crunched down into a single grade. Second, when people think of letter grades, they think of an overall quality rating, not a rating based largely on special factors. As a result, parents, lawmakers and others were confused when a school at which the overwhelming majority of students were performing well received a mediocre rating because it saw less improvement than schools at which students were not doing as well. It would be better to do away with the overall grade and continue to report a separate rating for each relevant metric — say, one each for overall performance, success with disadvantaged students and so on.
The Bloomberg administration acknowledged shortcomings in the evaluation system, especially at the elementary and middle school levels, where too much weight had been given to testing and too little weight to nontest indicators of school performance (thus forcing weaker schools to spend far too much time teaching students how to take tests). The new evaluation system must give significant weight to how well schools are preparing students for the next level and keeping children on track for college readiness.
The report cards can be improved and revised. But their basic purpose — providing a plausible system for measuring student progress — cannot be abandoned. If it is, city officials will never know how well students are doing until, on graduation day, they find that too many of them do not have the skills they need to go to college.