New York Times educational columnist Michael Winerip has documented what he calls an “Invisible Line Between ‘A’ and ‘F’” on New York City school report cards. In an article published at the end of April, Winerip compared two similar South Bronx schools, located “two blocks apart,” one which inexplicably, at least to the uniformed reader, received a grade of “A” and the other, equally inexplicably, which was graded “F.” According to city officials, the reason for the sharp disparity in grading despite nearly identical poor student scores on standardized examinations was that the “A” school had shown statistical “improvement” while the “F” school student performance on the tests had measured a slight decline. Winerip estimated that the difference between the “A” and “F” grades were the result of relatively small shifts in student scores, an average of two or three questions per student on one of the standardized tests. In addition, although progress reports are supposed to take into account the social and economic status of students attending the schools, “an analysis by The New York Times indicates that schools with the most middle-class students get the best grades. Schools with wealthier students are three times more likely to get an A than schools serving the poor, which are 14 times more likely to get a D or F.”
Despite the failure of the data-driven assessment of students and schools to meaningfully distinguish between functioning and non-functioning schools and their teachers, The New York Times recently endorsed a proposal by Education Secretary Arne Duncan that the states, in order to receive federal funds, “create rigorous teacher evaluation systems that not only judge teachers by how well their students perform but also – when the results are in – reward good teachers while easing chronic low performers out of the system.”
As proof that this type of evaluation system would actually work, the Times cited a study by a group called the “New Teacher Project,” which is supposed to be a “Brooklyn-based policy group.” The New Teacher Project, according to its website, is actually an advocacy group turned into profit making business promoting its product, untrained teachers. It was founded in 1997 by Michelle Rhee, with the goal of “preparing professionals without a traditional education background” or any training or long term commitment into the schools. Since then Rhee served temporarily and controversially as the chancellor of Washington DC schools. In 2010, she founded a group misnamed StudentsFirst, a political advocacy organization that is trying to break the teachers’ unions and end tenure.
The New Teacher Project website brags that under its current Chief Executive Officer, Ariela Rozman, “TNTP has nearly doubled in size and tripled in revenue” and “operates in more than two dozen cities and states, including most of the country's largest urban districts.” Rozman of course has no background in education on any level, something the Times editorial failed to comment on. She started at the New Teacher Project as Vice President of Marketing. Before that she led the Online Marketing group for PlanetRx.com.
After rereading the Winerip article and the Times editorial I looked at the report cards for a group of New York City high schools I am familiar with to see what I could really learn about the quality of education and the quality of teaching in these schools from the report cards.
Manhattan’s Hunter Science High School is one on New York City’s best small public high schools. To be admitted, middle school students must submit a writing sample, have higher scores on the standardized tests, and grades of 80 or above in core subjects in middle school. Seniors take classes at Hunter College-CUNY and the school has far more applicants than seats. Ninety-two percent of its graduates go on to college and according to the City University of New York 58.9% of its graduates require no remediation, nearly three times better than the city average. The school has very few special needs students or students who are not literate in English, a fact that cost it on its school report card, where it earned a B rather than an A.
In Queens, Benjamin Cardozo High School, one of the last remaining large schools with over 4,000 students and a highly desirable school also only got a grade of B. This is despite the fact that it has a college enrollment rate of 71.6%, over twenty points higher than the city average and a CUNY college readiness index of 56%, again almost three times the city average. Cardozo, which is overcrowded because it is so popular with Queens families, is operating at 140% capacity. However, its popularity is hurting its grade. It only received a grade of C on “school environment” and a grade of C on “student progress” because although its performance far exceeded citywide averages, it was deemed to trail “peer schools.”
Brooklyn’s Midwood High School has similar strengths and problems as Cardozo and as a result only earned a grade of C. My step-daughters both attended its Med-Sci program. Midwood, with a student population of over 3,800, has a college enrollment rate of 60.5%, almost forty points higher than the city average and a CUNY college readiness index of 56%, again almost three times the city average. Once again its popularity with local families is its problem. Its building is packed and one website that evaluates schools says “students who aren’t self-motivated can get lost.” Another problem is that Midwood is really two schools in one building, a very selective special admission school and a zoned school that is required to admit all local applicants.
After looking at the Hunter/Science, Cardozo, and Midwood High School Report Cards, I decided to see what a New York City “A” high school looks like.
Among the schools graded “A” where W.H. Maxwell Career and Technical Education School in East New York Brooklyn and High School for Service & Learning at Erasmus in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Maxwell received a grade of A for effort despite the fact that only 16.5% of its graduates go to college and only 1.3% are deemed capable of doing college-level work by the City University of New York. Curiously, Maxwell received an overall grade of D in 2009 with an F for student performance. By 2010 its overall grade rose to B, although its student performance grade remained an F. Part of the reason for this miracle of improvement was that the city’s Department of Education twice changed the peer group that Maxwell was being compared with. According to an Insideschools.org review, Maxwell has serious problems with attendance, an absentee rate of about 25% per day, and an unusually large special education population. City education officials evidently recognized that something was wrong with their report card rating system because in January 2012 Maxwell was listed as one of the high schools slated to be closed, the only one with a grade of “A.”
The Erasmus school had only 44.9% of its graduates going on to college and only 7.8% of them evaluated as capable of doing college-level work without remediation. According to an Insideschools.org review, “The High School for Service and Learning, one of five small schools on the Erasmus Hall Campus in Flatbush, deploys a number of adults to keep watch on issues outside the classroom that could affect students. That, along with a no nonsense approach to discipline and extra academic support, helps many students graduate who otherwise might not . . . The city gives high marks to schools that graduate struggling students on time, even if they are not well-prepared for college.”
New York State has a parallel report card system for schools, teachers, and administrators. A summary report of first report cards for teachers and administrators was recently released. The data was for teachers of math and English in grades 4 through 8, about fifteen percent of the teachers statewide. The State Department of Education discovered that based on student test performance, 84% of these teachers were either effective or highly effective and only seven percent were ineffective. There were similar results for principals. Roger Tilles, the Long Island representative on the State Board of Regents, concluded, “It is clear that this process will make some companies very rich. I wonder if the money spent on this would be better spent on things that we know improve student learning – lower class size, extended school day and year, inclusion of more arts instead of reducing it.”
So, what do school report cards and rigorous teacher assessments really tell us? They tell us anything the politicians and business leaders who are trying to wreck the public schools and then make money off of their carcasses want them to say.