Monday, December 31, 2007

My 10 New Year's Wishes

In Asian cultures with their twelve continuously cycling animal years, the coming year will be the Year of the Rat. According to the Chinese zodiac, Rat Years are considered years of renewal, where hard work yields the best opportunities for new ventures and fresh starts. This coming year 2008 is also an "8" year, an equally positive sign capitalizing on that culture's luckiest number (it is not simply a coincidence that the Beijing Olympics will conduct its opening ceremonies on 8/8/08). With these doubly auspicious portents in mind, herewith are my ten New Year's wishes for the NYC public school system: its principals, teachers, support staff, and most of all, its students and their families.

1. That folks at the DOE will remember that the true purposes of education – to learn the lessons of history, to inspire a sense of curiosity and wonder, to teach respect for and tolerance of others, to develop sound minds in sound bodies, to create lifelong learners and readers, to develop good citizens and intelligent consumers – have little or nothing to do with standardized test scores.

2. That parents will be treated with the respect they deserve, that their concerns will be not just listened to but acted upon, that they are consulted with before decisions are made and actions taken, not after.

3. That DOE higher-ups learn that the phrase ”consulted with” does not mean “lectured at,” “remained in a room with,” or “put up with listening to for form’s sake.”

4. That schools and their principals are given the resources they need for effective education – proper educational facilities and technology, adequate space and staff to place students in classrooms of 20-25 rather than 30-35, and adequately paid teaching staff given time for collaborative lesson planning, appropriate mentoring, and professional development support.

5. That good teachers are recognized (and yes, rewarded) for being educators in the broadest sense, not simply for being the most effective proxies for Kaplan and Princeton Review.

6. That the DOE throttles back its persistent campaign to politicize education through massive public relations efforts, selective reporting, misinformation, and misleading or inappropriate comparisons.

7. That the DOE ceases its corporatist, condescending, and philosophically degrading view of learning as something that only occurs through such financial incentives as bonuses, direct payments to students, and free cell phones. This worldview embeds the worst aspects of American commercialism and materialism into what should be our most idealistic national enterprise – the education of our children – and promotes the distinctly uncharitable lesson of “What’s in it for me?”

8. That the DOE finally submits itself to the same notions of accountability it espouses for its schools through open access to and independent review of school-related data. Self-congratulatory press releases and PowerPoint presentations generated from selectively chosen data of its own creation and control do not constitute public accountability.

9. That some people who matter – the Governor, U.S. Senators, State legislators, Congressional representatives, City Council members, Borough Presidents – will display the political will to declare the DOE’s present course and its safe harbor under “Mayoral control” as currently constituted no longer acceptable for New York City’s public school children.

10. That all our children have a wonderful 2008 in which, despite the DOE’s best efforts to the contrary, they not just perform well in standardized math and reading exams but revel in the rich multiculturalism of their surroundings, take as much pride in their City’s role as immigrant sanctuary and the one genuine example of the American melting pot as they take in their own heritages, and progress toward becoming open-minded and other-centered world citizens.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Bloomberg Testing Mania Decried by Public Advocate

New York City Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum issued an analysis and statement today in support of parents complaints about excessive testing. The analysis confirmed what parents are seeing -- that eight year old third graders are now faced with twelve standardized tests, made up of two state tests and ten Bloomberg-mandated city tests.

For the full statement click here. See press coverage here in the Sun and here in Newsday. In the press coverage, DOE spokesman Andrew Jacob adopted the condescending tone that has become standard when the Bloomberg adminstration addresses parent concerns.

The new standardized tests are part of the DOE's "accountability" initiative, the primary thrust of the administration's education reforms.

While state governments, Congress and presidential candidates are questioning the wisdom of excessive standardized tests, the Bloomberg administration continues to hew to its extremist positions. DOE Chief Accountability Officer Jim Liebman has overseen both the sharp ramp-up in standardized testing and the system to assign letter grades to schools based on the test results. The letter grading system has been widely criticized by parents, teachers, academics and our political representatives. Gotbaum's report is welcome scrutiny of the similarly misguided testing regime.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

DOE Announces New Administrative Positions

December 26, 2007 (GBN News): The NY City Department of Education announced today the creation of five new high-level administrative positions. In a statement to reporters at Tweed Courthouse, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said that the creation of these positions will continue the process of bringing what he called “sound business practices” to the Department. “These new job titles should be recognizable to anyone familiar with the business world,” the Chancellor said, “and the positions are designed to maximize output and to further enhance the efficient delivery of educational services to our consumers.”

The new positions, their functions, and their salaries are:

Chief Pupil Compaction Officer: Responsible for determining class sizes, and maximizing efficient use of classroom space. $187,366.

Chief Pedagogical Incrimination Officer: Directs the legal unit which assists principals in terminating tenured, experienced teachers. $178,500.

Chief Communication Interception Officer: Responsible for confiscation of cell phones from students. $181,000 (on a two year plan).

Chief Largesse Disbursement Officer: Determines DOE administrative salaries. Also responsible for negotiating no-bid contracts with consultants and standardized test companies. $1,364,879.

Chief Obfuscation Officer: Heads the PR Department division responsible for explaining all DOE restructuring issues to the public. $191,000.

Mr. Klein was asked what sort of qualifications he is looking for to fill these new positions. “We are seeking qualified people who can do the best job educating our children,” the Chancellor said. “This means we are looking for substantial experience in the business or legal professions. But a year or so of previous teaching experience would not necessarily be a disqualification, so long as it was just a stepping stone to their real career.”

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer On Problems with Gifted and Talented Policy

The following letter was issued to Manhattan public school parents following the approval of the G&T policy at the November meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy. Information on the policy can be found at the Department of Ed G&T here.



December 10, 2007

Dear Manhattan Public School Parents:

On November 26, 2007, the Panel for Educational Policy voted on proposed changes to the New York City Department of Education's (DOE) Gifted and Talented (G&T) Program. As some of you may already know, my appointee to the Panel for Educational Policy, Patrick Sullivan, voted against the proposed changes. While I am strongly supportive of increasing equity and access in G&T, I believe this proposal is marred by the same lack of concern for parental input and problems of poor implementation that often plague DOE efforts. The proposal was passed by the Panel and is therefore now policy. I nonetheless want to share with you the reasons that Patrick and I felt it necessary to vote against these changes.

  • The DOE appears to be poorly prepared for the changes in G&T enrollment, despite widely reported failures in the admissions process last year and an expected doubling of applications this year to over 25,000. For example, the department has not analyzed last year's applicant Otis Lennon School Abilities Test (OLSAT) scores to plan where new seats will be required. Given that certified G&T teachers will be hard to find on short notice and facilities are not yet identified, I am concerned there will not be the required programs in place.
  • The proposal by DOE changes the cutoff score for admissions to G&T programs from the top 10 percent of applicants (90th percentile) to the top 5 percent (95th percentile). This higher cutoff score for admissions raises the very real possibility that a number of current programs will not be filled to capacity and will therefore be closed, leaving parents with fewer programming options.
  • Under the new timeline for the admissions process, parents will not be notified of admissions decisions until May 31st. This late notification severely restricts parents' ability to choose between DOE G&T programs and independent, Catholic, and charter schools--many of which require parents to accept offers of admission prior to May 31st. The new G&T policy, therefore, actually undermines parental choice, purportedly a key component of DOE reforms.
  • The Bracken School Readiness Assessment (BSRA) and the OLSAT will be the two assessments that will be used to evaluate students for admission to G&T programs. The OLSAT, which DOE has stated will comprise 75 percent of each student's score, is a test for which students can be prepped, and materials are marketed to parents for this very purpose. There is a real risk, then, that children whose families can afford to purchase prep materials will have an unfair advantage over students whose families cannot afford to do so.
  • The plan offers assessments to all Kindergarten children which will help increase access by allowing an entry point to G&T programs for those families that may be unaware of the opportunity. But I am concerned about the requirement that all children must be tested. Parents who prefer that their child not be subjected to standardized testing at this young age must be allowed to opt out of G&T testing.

Finally, I am well aware that public school parents, as represented by their Community Education Councils (CECs), had little input into these important policy decisions. This lack of community and parent involvement continues to be a key issue under the current system of school governance and needs to be addressed as mayoral control is considered for renewal in 2009. Please be assured that my office will continue to monitor DOE's implementation of the new policy and the effects it has on Gifted and Talented programming. To that end, please keep my office apprised of G&T related issues specific to each of your districts.

Very truly yours,
Scott M. Stringer

Manhattan Borough President

PHONE (212) 669-8300 FAX (212) 669-4305

A (Newly Updated) Holiday Fantasy

Twas the day after Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanzaa/…,
When all around Tweed,
Not a creature was stirring, no one to take heed,
Empty stockings were hung by the chimney without care,
For surely BloomKlein and Jim Liebman were there,
The city schoolchildren were nestled all snug in their beds,
Hoping to go back to school without dread,
Of their schools being closed, their teachers sent home,
And parents and children feeling sad and alone,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
That even BloomKlein and Liebman would know something's the matter,
Away to the window they flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash,
A host of pale figures, in ghostly gloom,
Looked menacingly down on Liebman, Klein and Bloom,
There were ATRs and teachers from rubber rooms,
Also children fed up with crowded classrooms,
Angry parents who knew it was not for the best,
For their children to be facing more high stakes tests,
Oh, BloomKlein and Liebman, the fates for you,
Will be in the hands of this ghostly crew,
If you don't care to heed the results of their poll,
You'll find it's the end of Mayoral control,
BloomKlein and Liebman just sprinted away,
Too scared to face this another day,
Twas clear they were frightened to the core,
We won't have them to kick around any more.

Happy Holidays from GBN News!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Daily News Editorial Demonstrates Equine Osculation Skills

An editorial entitled “Heads of the class” in today’s NY Daily News is as much jaw-droppingly astonishing for its unabashed toadying to Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein as for its blatant belittling of teachers at 33 NYC public schools. Better perhaps that it be titled, “Kisses of the ass.”

Better suited to The Onion, the NY Post, or Fox News, this editorial once again demonstrates the stubborn media tendency to conflate student learning and good teaching with performance on standardized exams. The piece begins by congratulating teachers at 205 schools for their determination “to raise achievement among their students” by voting to accept the Chancellor’s privately funded pay-for-performance plan. The editors then demonstrate their weak vocabulary and overly colloquial style by adding that, “Teachers will get extra dough if their students improve by specified amounts on standardized tests.” "Dough?" Is this how a major metropolitan newspaper models English to its younger readers?

Having declared their position without the slightest sense of concern over turning public schools into mini-Kaplan and Princeton Review test preparation machines, the editors turn their sights at the close of this shameless piece on the 33 schools who rejected the Chancellor’s pay-for-performance plan. No attempt is made to explain those teachers’ decisions, no mention is made of their position that bonuses linked almost exclusively to standardized test results will weaken children’s education by encouraging excessive teaching to the test. The Daily News not only refuses to laud these teachers for their principled positions and their obvious belief in education as something more than two standardized tests per year, they refuse even to acknowledge the possibility of an alternative view, one not driven by simple human greed.

Worse, the Daily News editors take the opposite tack, the one followed by the Limbaugh’s and O’Reilly’s of the red meat, Red State world. It’s called ad hominem, literally “against the man,” and it means attack the opponent’s person, not his/her argument. They first observe that, “…the staffs of 33 schools declined to compete for bonuses.” Note the choice of words – not “chose not to accept” or simply “voted against,” but “declined to compete.” Oh, the cowardice of those weak-kneed, so-called educators! The horror! The horror! [Memo to Daily News: the last is a reference to Conrad's Heart of Darkness -- probably not found in a standardized exam question.]

Apparently feeling their critique still lacked adequate punch, the editors directed their final ad hominem flourish at those weak-kneed, sissy educators. With all the intellectual power they could muster, they administered their most devastating coup de grace. "How dumb can you get?” they asked. My ad hominem answer to those editors' question? Look in the mirror.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Charter School Report Cards: Apples, Oranges, and DNA

Yesterday’s glowing announcement of the “pilot test” release of School Progress Reports for 20 charter schools should hardly come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the DOE’s steady, five-year march toward privatization. “Charter Schools Outshine Others as They Receive Their First Report Cards,” hails Jennifer Medina’s report in the New York Times. Medina quotes the DOE’s Michael Duffy that, “As a group, they skew higher,” as he simultaneously took a backhanded slap at public schools by stating that accountability in charter schools is “baked into their DNA.”

The DOE’s pilot test Progress Reports rated 20 schools – eleven elementary or K-8 schools and nine middle schools. One school, Opportunity Charter, originally received an F, but the DOE has since retracted their Progress Report grade. They assigned letter grades to thirteen of the remaining schools: five A’s (middle schools all), five B’s (elementary or K-8 all), two C’s, and one F. Of the remaining six, their total scores as computed from the reported components (School Environment, Student Performance, Student Progress, and Closing the Achievement Gap (Additional Credit) suggest approximate letter grades of two more A’s, one B, one C, and two D’s. Overall, roughly 68% A’s and B’s, 16% C’s, and 16% D’s or F’s.

Leaving aside bias factors in the DOE’s demonstrated predisposition toward charter schools and the lack of class size data that might well correlate with and explain some of the skewing, a slightly deeper look at the DOE’s Progress Report data reveals several interesting facts.

-- School Environment comprises 15% of each school’s score, but for the charter schools, this measure consists entirely of Attendance. As a result, in seven of the 20 piloted schools, attendance accounted for over 20% of their cumulative scores, and in three of those schools, it accounted for well over 30%.

-- In seven of the nine middle schools, their peer indexes (the average of their students’ Grade 4 NYS ELA and Math exam scores) exceeded 3.0, and an eighth school came in at 2.97 (the lowest, Opportunity Charter, had a peer index of 2.54 and also happened to rate an F grade before it was retracted). Overall, these nine charter middle schools had an average peer index of over 3.13 (3.21 if we also drop Opportunity Charter out as the DOE did), suggesting that these schools succeed in part by siphoning away stronger students from other schools.

-- The four middle schools that rated letter grades of A had the following peer indexes: 3.45, 3.39, 3.36, and 3.34 (the fifth was 2.97). By comparison, the Clinton, Wagner, and Sun Yat-Sen middle schools in Manhattan had peer indexes of 3.53, 3.58, and 3.30, respectively, and the five middle school only (Grades 6 – 8) schools in District 4 had peer indexes of 2.82, 2.86, 2.87, 3.20 (Isaac Newton), and 3.65 (Manhattan East, on East 100th Street).

-- In what seems a near statistical miracle, the three KIPP schools each reported Attendance rates of 98.0%.

Given the obvious selectivity of the charter middle schools, the lack of intake information about charter elementary and K-8 schools, the absence of reporting on many charter schools, and the inaccessibility of charter school class size data, it seems disingenuous at best for the DOE to claim that charters “skew higher” from a sample of just 13 schools that the DOE itself chose for letter grade assignment.

All this is not to say that charter schools do not do good work in motivating and educating their students. Just once, however, it would be nice if the DOE would release enough data in format and content for independent voices to evaluate its public relations claims and provide a real basis for comparing apples to apples. Sadly, nothing in the past several years suggests that all those well-paid DOE executives recognize the differences between apples and oranges. Apparently, it’s all just fruit salad to them.

Update: here is an excel file with the charter school progress reports and their components.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Principal Gets Bonus, Pink Slip

December 19, 2007 (GBN News): Principal Marcia Burns of PS 399 in Staten Island thought the performance bonus she received this week was probably too good to be true. Unfortunately for her, she was right. The envelope she received from the DOE did indeed contain a notice informing her that she had earned a $25,000 bonus based on her school’s superior test scores in the past year. However, in the very same envelope was another notice – this one telling her that, due to the “F” grade her school earned on the recent Performance Review, she will be terminated effective at the end of the semester.

GBN News was able to catch up with DOE Accountability Czar Jim Liebman (no small feat considering his fleetness afoot) to ask him how two such contradictory notices could have come at the same time. “There’s actually nothing unusual about this,” Mr. Liebman said. “We do this all the time. By putting two notices in the same envelope, we save a great deal of money on postage; money that can now be returned to the classroom.”

Ms. Burns was philosophical about the whole situation. “The DOE giveth, and the DOE taketh away,” she told GBN News. “I just didn’t expect that both would occur simultaneously.”

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Document: DOE Did Consult Parents

December 18, 2007 (GBN News): There has been a great deal of skepticism over the claim by NY City Department of Education Accountability Czar James Liebman that the DOE has “directly reached over 20,000 parents in conversation about explanation of the Progress report and associated accountability tools”. Even with the release of a list of the numerous venues where parents have been engaged, such as laundromats and subways, doubts continue to persist. However, GBN News has obtained a DOE document detailing significant instances of parent consultations, which went beyond just the Progress Reports to encompass other DOE policies. The document appears to lend credibility to DOE claims that these consultations actually influenced Department decisions.

The document details three particular examples of decisions and policies that were shaped through parent consultation. One involved the DOE ban on possession of cell phones in schools, and arose from a consultation in a laundromat in Glen Oaks, Queens. The document states that a DOE official spoke there to a Mr. James Bryce, who gave his address as Creedmore Psychiatric Center and who claimed to be a parent of “at least dozens of children”. Mr. Bryce, according to the document, stated that he had to drop out of school because “cell phones ringing all day in class were out to get me and were trying to ruin my test scores”. It was apparently the concern that other students could be similarly afflicted that convinced Chancellor Klein to step up the confiscation of cell phones in random scanning.

Another important consultation involved Mayor Bloomberg himself, and resulted in the major school bus cuts of last winter, and more recently the reduction of special education busing. The Mayor consulted with Mr. Jeeves Bond, a parent of two who also happens, coincidentally, to be Mr. Bloomberg’s SUV limo driver. After hearing Mr. Bond frequently lose his temper at the large number of school buses blocking the city’s roads, the Mayor realized that this “road rage” problem could be solved simply be reducing the number of buses on the city streets. When the consultant firm of Alzarez and Marsal told the DOE that such reductions could even save money, it only confirmed the desirability of the cuts.

Finally, the document shows that the firing of a popular principal, Isaiah Wallace of MS 422 in Brooklyn, was actually the result of a consultation with a large number of people who overwhelmingly felt that he should be canned. At a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden, Chancellor Joel Klein consulted with a capacity crowd of nearly 19,000 people, many of them parents. He heard the clear consensus of this group as they chanted in unison, “Fire Isaiah”. The Chancellor realized that the group could only have been referring to Mr. Wallace, because his school had received an F on the recent school Progress Report.

A source at the DOE confirmed to GBN News the authenticity of this document, and maintained that it proves Mr. Liebman had been telling the truth when he asserted that thousands of parents were consulted by the DOE. However, the source refused to confirm or deny that the DOE plans to soon replace the district CDEC’s with local movie theater audiences.

Jedi vs. the Sith at the December PEP meeting

Last night’s meeting in the Bronx was devoted to the DOE answering questions from members of the Panel for Educational Policy.

Patrick Sullivan, the appointee of the Manhattan borough president, had prepared questions on a range of important issues including class size, overcrowding, charter schools, special ed, low achievement in middle schools, cell phones, SLTs, and others. The responses to these questions and the ensuing discussions were surprisingly illuminating. There were also a few questions submitted by Brooklyn rep Wendy Gilgeous (who wasn’t there to hear the answers) and one from Mayoral appointee Richard Menschel. None of the other ten members of the panel bothered to submit a single question.

Neverthless, Patrick’s list was comprehensive, and he asked astute follow-up questions and debated the Chancellor and other members of his SLT (Senior Leadership Team) on several points. He effectively engaged with Chancellor Klein, Linda Wernikoff, Marcia Lyles, Chris Cerf, Kathleen Grimm, and Garth Harries. As my nine-year old son would say, he was like a Jedi warrior, fighting off a whole army of Siths.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • In response to a question on class size, when Klein was droning on that what’s really important is teacher quality, Patrick pointed out that one of the main reasons qualified teachers leave our schools to work elsewhere is the fact that they can have smaller classes almost anywhere else, which deprives our kids of an experienced and effective workforce. Even Klein had to concede Patrick's point.
Though all the DOE officials had seen the questions in advance, Chris Cerf seemed especially shaky in his responses on the two questions that Klein sent his way.
  • The first involved the new, somewhat bizarre new management structure, in which district superintendents have been instructed to spend 90% of their time on the road, coaching schools outside their districts on how to analyze and improve test scores. Patrick asked whether this wasn’t a violation of the consent decree in the Kruger/Sanders lawsuit, and whether it was a waste of valuable time, forcing them to spend hours traveling all over the city.

Cerf argued that there was no violation of the consent decree since supers still would perform all their statutory responsibilities, including appointing and evaluating principals, and fulfull their disciplinary responsibilities. (But how well? And based on what knowledge?) He also said that the fact that supers are working outside their own districts was based on their own preference, since they had said it would put them in an “awkward” position to evaluate the schools they were supporting (why?). He added that this redefinition of their roles was not necessarily permanent, and would be re-evaluated each year.

In response, Patrick pointed out that their new duties would make it impossible for supers to achieve their core mission, including grooming new principals, and that one could argue that the district superintendent's role was essentially eliminated. He added that he thought that this was a grave error, since many important problems are not getting resolved, but are “bubbling up into the political apparatus” – and that the whole structure doesn’t make any sense, even on a temporary basis. He compared superintendents to divisional regional VPs in the corporate world – and said that they should have a deputy to perform the sort of data analysis involved in the accountability initiative. Chris Cerf said that he “respectfully disagreed”.

  • Patrick also asked him how many people were employed in the press office, what were their salaries, and why it was appropriate to spend taxpayer dollars having them tape Diane Ravitch and prepare a dossier against her, which smacked of a “Soviet-era approach to stifling dissent.”

Cerf said that there were only 12 members (!) of the communication office, with a budget of $1.3 million, which he argued was not excessive given a total education budget of $17 billion.

( But do any other city agencies spend nearly that much?)

Cerf also said it was totally “appropriate” to tape Diane (though he refuted that it had happened more than twice), and to prepare a document tracking her positions (though he said there was no dossier). Diane was a very prominent commentator, he said, and had supported several policies and then had seemingly turned against them once adopted by DOE. He said there were no other critics who were being tracked in this way, although Richard Menschel humorously suggested that the DOE should also be “keeping an eye" on Patrick.

  • On the cellphone ban, Patrick asked the Chancellor why the Mayor was so condescending and dirisive to public school parents, in his suggestion that the only reason a child might want call home is to ask what was for dinner. Klein had no convincing response, except to say that the Mayor did not intend to be condescending.
There was a lot more said on both sides, and it is a pity there weren’t more people there to hear it.

A unique evening at the PEP, where, for once, the serious concerns of parents got equal time with DOE blather. Hats off to Patrick!

Tweed's consultation with parents, or lack thereof

Mike Meenan of NY1 had an excellent story last night about the Chancellor’s failure to consult with any Community Education Councils before closing schools in their districts – contrary to the language and the spirit of state law, which says the following:

"The chancellor shall consult with the affected community district education council before... substantially expanding or reducing such an existing school or program within a community district.”

Yet Klein never bothered to do so in this case – nor in previous years. James Liebman said that these decisions were made because of long-term educational failure over many years -- yet several of the schools being closed are in good standing with both the state and federal government.

Liebman also claimed in his testimony to the City Council that he had conferred with many experts, union officials, and other “educational and community leaders” who provided “valuable feedback” during the development of the school grading system. Several of those cited in his testimony contradicted him later that same the day, including Ernest Logan, the President of the the principal’s union, Amanda Gentile, a VP of the UFT, and Ann Cook from the Consortium for Performance Standards.

His testimony also included the statement that his office had “directly reached over 20,000 parents in conversation about explanation of the Progress report and associated accountability tools.”

Yet according to an article in today's NY Sun, these sessions included visits to Laundromats and trips on the subway! It turns out that DOE employees had handed out flyers about the parent surveys at many of these places -- but there's no evidence that any real “consultations” or “conversations” about the school progress reports took place, and it’s not clear how many of the 20,000 people they supposedly contacted were actually parents.

Check out this list, provided by the DOE, which include not only visits to laundromats, but also a dentist office (each time supposedly involving 50 parents), and assorted trips on the #1,#2, #3, #4 trains – and just so the IND didn’t feel left out, also the E, F, G, V, and the R trains.

Many of these direct “conversations” appear to have occurred during trainings of parent coordinators – who after all, are not necessarily parents themselves.

In short, another incredible product of the unaccountable Accountability office at Tweed.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Voices in opposition to the school grading system grow louder

Diane Ravitch has an oped in today's NY Sun about the new school grades:

Is the grading system accurate and reliable? Did the grading system identify the worst schools? Is the closure of the lowest-performing schools likely to improve public education? Could the Department have taken other actions that might have been more effective than closing schools?

The answers to all of these questions, she suggests, is no. Diane also provides an important critique of the whole notion that simply closing schools is the best way to make significant progress:

Nor is it enough to turn out the lights. Schools are not a franchise operation. They are deeply embedded community institutions. They should be improved with additional resources, smaller classes, and additional training for educators. The starting point in reforming schools is to have a valid evaluation system that correctly identifies the schools that need extra help. It may not be easy to transform the schools that are in trouble, but if we want a good public education system, there really is no alternative.

Indeed, this is an essential element
of the school reform process for which Tweed no longer feels accountable -- their responsibility to provide the support and resources schools need to improve.

See the show on PBS about the NYC school grading controversy, including parents and principals at some of the schools that got low marks, and one that got high marks, talking about the meaning and impact of these grades. The show also includes an interview with the Chancellor, in which he attempts to explains the "F" that PS 35, the Staten Island neighborhood school received, despite having 98% of students at grade level in math, by comparing it unfavorably to Anderson School – a highly selective gifted and talented school.

The interviewer, Rafael Pi Roman points out that William Sanders, the father of value-added accountability systems, told him that the sort of one year’s test score gains that the NYC grades are based upon are not meaningful. Klein responds that nevertheless, the school grade is a positive motivational factor in getting schools to work harder on improving test scores.

You can also listen to audio clips from the City Council hearings on the school grades from December 10, now posted on You Tube:

Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum , who says out that closing schools unilaterally, as the Chancellor has done, without first consulting Community Education Councils is potentially illegal.

City Council Education Chair Robert Jackson (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), who aggressively questions James Liebman on many issues, including whether the DOE reached out to parents sufficiently.

Council Member Lew Fidler of Brooklyn, who flunks the school grades for their lack of transparency. (Part 1 and Part 2.)

And Council Member John Liu , who is masterful in showing that these grades are derived primarily from the results of only two tests -- though Liebman keeps trying to argue that these are really "multiple assessments" given out over "multiple days." (Part 1 and Part 2.)

Finally, watch the Channel 2 news segment featuring the hearings and showing Liebman fleeing from parents, now also posted on YouTube.

UPDATE: see also this article in City Limits:

Saturday, December 15, 2007

How true student progress can be measured by Debbie Meier

Debbie Meier, famed education reformer and founder of Central Park East, was quoted in the recent Daily News article about the current principal of CPE High School, who urged teachers to pass at least 65% of their students, whether they deserved it or not.

In the article, Debbie pointed out how the new school grading system devised by Jim Liebman encourages such practices, by giving higher grades to schools the more credits students gain each year.

Here she provides more illumination about how the original schools she founded, unconnected to CPS High School, defined student progress through projects and portfolios, and how this vision of education works against the sort of empty credit accumulation that the new grading system encourages:

Central Park East in question, and Principal Bennett, are unconnected to either the CPE elementary schools or the now defunct Central Park East Secondary School. It had a nice fifteen year history and then ended its life--on a downer.

Amusingly, the entire thrust of CPESS, based on Ted Sizer's book Horace's Compromise, is that modern high schools are about credit accumulation, not becoming well-educated, learning to use one's mind well. Thus CPESS did not count credits or courses past, and one could graduate having failed every single course.

Its "evidence" was based on putting together seven (originally 14!) portfolios of work and defending that work before a committee that consisted of faculty of CPESS, family, peers and outside experts! Over and over; demonstrating both the quality of one's work, and one's capacity to explain and defend it in a conversational setting. It sometimes also included a set on-site task as a kind of additional check on validity and on process.

It was designed to prevent the kind of cheating CPE H.S. engaged in, and which all schools and students subtly do by the very nature of the way they are organized.

For reasons best known to I don't know who, CPE High School, and something now called CPE Middle School, have insisted on using the CPE name! But they make no claim whatsoever to be following in the Coalition, Sizer, CPESS tradition. They are traditional to-the-core, and are so intentionally.

The nice thing is that a former student saw the News story and wrote me about his life. He was a special ed kid who now teaches special ed!

And he remembers us well enough to tell us all the things we'd most like to hear about what we did for and meant to him.

---Debbie Meier

Friday, December 14, 2007

Playing the Blame Game

Erin Einhorn reported yet another story in today’s NY Daily News about Principal Bennett Lieberman’s “dumb down your classes” staff memo at Central Park East. (For the original story, see the NY Daily News article or my previous posting on this site, "Campbell's Law: No, It's NOT Soup.") According to her story, at the same time Lieberman was getting dressed down by High School Superintendent Francesca Pena and Chancellor Joel Klein, he was busily chastising his own teaching staff for releasing his memo to the media. The Daily News reported that Lieberman accused the unknown whistleblower of “causing harm to the school and giving students the impression that [he] thinks they’re dumb.”

The reason for emphasizing students' pass rates, even at the expense of threatening teachers and suggesting that they lower their expectations, relates directly to the DOE's new Progress Reports. On high school reports, three major factors in a school's ratings are the percentage of students in each of the 9th, 10th, and 11th grades who accumulate ten or more credits in a given year, since this is seen by the DOE as highly predictive of graduation. Of course, pass rates and credit awards are not determined by a common standard or test and can be manipulated at the school level by "dumbing down" classes, thereby increasing the school's Progress Report score and its corresponding letter grade.

Rather than simply admit to an error in poor wording if not outright bad judgment, Leadership Academy graduate Lieberman goes after the individual who had enough courage in his or her convictions to take his outrageous memo public. It’s encouraging to know that many teachers in the system still believe in their kids and their vocation, who reject notions of merit pay based on high-stakes testing and are willing to help shine a light on such travesties as inflated pass rates by dumbing down classes. Maybe there still are reasons to hope, to know that there are many teachers who just want to be left alone to do what they do – inspire and teach.

On the other hand, the Leadership Academy appears to be teaching its principals-to-be the same invaluable leadership skills demonstrated by veteran practitioners like Chancellor Klein and James Liebman: create systems and metrics, relevant or otherwise, to hold everyone else maximally accountable while foreswearing any accountability of your own. As one pithy aphorism says, “To err is human. To blame it on someone else shows management potential.”

Mitchell Sets Sights on DOE

December 14, 2007 (GBN News): The ink is barely dry on former Senator George Mitchell’s report on steroid use in Major League Baseball, and already he is reportedly turning his attention to a new target: The NY City Department of Education. Sources at the DOE told GBN News that Chancellor Klein has been embarrassed by massive criticism surrounding the new school Progress Reports, and he has been hard pressed to explain the discrepancies that have resulted in some schools getting A’s on their progress reports despite having been put on the state list of failing schools.

Mr. Klein is said to have decided that the only way such struggling schools could have performed so well is if their principals had bulked up on steroids. “To go from ‘failing school’ to an A grade in such a short time is like a player going from 16 home runs to 41,” the Chancellor was said to have told Mr. Mitchell. “We know that kids’ test scores depend on how good the principal is,” he went on to say. “What else but steroid use could have led to such a rapid gain in principals’ performance?”

While the use of certain steroids is not explicitly banned by the DOE, the Chancellor is said to feel that any principal using them would have a competitive advantage in a system where schools can be closed and principals fired if their schools fail. “If anyone is going to have an unfair advantage,” Mr. Klein reportedly said, “It’s the charter schools and small schools we create, not some principal whose head has outgrown his hat size.”

Mr. Mitchell will work closely with the Chief Accountability Officer, Jim Liebman, who will analyze ARIS computer data to provide clues as to potential suspicious activity. It is unclear what if any penalties will be assessed if wrongdoing is found. However, one source at the DOE said, “It’s not out of the question that some of those A’s could end up with asterisks.”

Ed. Note: Of course, the preceding is parody. In all seriousness, the Mitchell report is a long overdue wake-up call to Major League baseball and the sporting world in general. If only there could be a “Mitchell Report” on the DOE and Mayoral control, not for steroid violations, of course, but for violations of parents’ trust.

Mark Weprin's City Council Testimony

The following is Assemblyman Mark Weprin's magnificent testimony before the City Council Education Committee on Dec. 10:

Good morning. I am Mark Weprin and I represent the 24th Assembly District in Eastern Queens. As a father of two public school students and a champion of New York City public schools, I submit the following testimony to the New York City Council on the subject of the New York City Department of Education (DOE)’s recently released school progress reports.

The progress reports are an attempt to inform the public about the
performance of New York City public schools. While I agree with DOE’s
focus on academic excellence, I take issue with its methodology and its
failure to fully explain the assessments to the public. The grades,
which were supposed to provide parents with valuable information, have
mostly generated confusion, and the media has exacerbated the situation
with fuzzy terminology: DOE’s Progress Reports have been regularly
referred to as report cards, which is a misnomer. The grades are meant
to show schools’ progress – which is not the same as school quality –
and they do not achieve even that much. While I support evaluating
public schools, I believe that DOE’s recent attempt falls far short of
its goals.

The first problem is that the category of “student progress” accounted
for fifty-five percent of a school’s grade, and the DOE equated student
progress with changes in test scores from one year to the next. So a
school in which the students scored the same for two years in a row is
considered to have shown no progress, even if most students did well
both years, while a school in which the students’ test scores increased,
even if they remained low, gets points for improvement. This method of
grading unfairly penalizes high-performing schools such as those in
Eastern Queens.

Even worse, DOE’s definition of academic progress is based on the idea
that high-stakes standardized tests accurately assess how much students
have learned, but there are several reasons to doubt that premise. As I
have often stated, the extreme emphasis on test preparation has taken
away from real learning in classrooms across the City. So if the
students in a school increased their test scores from one year to the
next, their “improvement” is just as likely to be a result of excessive
test preparation drills as a reflection of academic progress. And if
higher test scores stem from more time spent on test preparation, they
may in fact indicate that less learning has taken place.

On the other hand, a decrease in test scores could mean that a few
students were not feeling well on the day of the test, or that they
happened to choose the wrong answers on a couple of multiple choice
questions. If students’ scores went down from third grade to fourth
grade, maybe it’s because the third graders take each State test for two
days while the fourth graders spend three days per test. (New York’s bar
exam is only two days.) Test scores can decline for a number of reasons,
but the change does not mean that students and teachers in a school are
suddenly performing at a lower level than they did the previous year.

I also have serious reservations about the surveys of parents, students,
and teachers that the DOE used to evaluate the portion of a school’s
grade that reflects “school environment.” Every community has a few
naysayers who are always full of criticism. Unfortunately, they are the
most likely to submit surveys and to influence others to share in their
negativism. Such individuals can have a disproportionate impact on the
school’s grade.

The blatant inconsistencies in the grades reveal how ridiculous they
really are. Some schools that did well on their Quality Reviews did
poorly on the Progress Reports; some schools that were listed as among
the most persistently dangerous in New York received A’s and B’s from
DOE. What are parents to think when they receive such contradictory

I have no qualms about the concept of issuing progress reports for New
York City schools. Any institution that uses taxpayer dollars must be
accountable to the public. But a single letter grade cannot possibly
represent everything the public needs to know about a school and its
progress. Fair evaluations would take into account student safety,
parent involvement, teacher qualifications, art and music offerings, and
the school’s learning environment. Feedback from parents and teachers
should come from large groups of survey responders who filled out clear,
intuitive questionnaires. Most of all, we should not rely on scores from
high-stakes standardized tests. Changes in test results from one year to
the next do not reveal what we really need to know about our schools:
how hard teachers and principals have worked and how much students have
learned. The Progress Reports are not report cards, and the DOE grades
simply are not accurate assessments of our schools.

Assemblymember Mark S. Weprin

56-21 Marathon Parkway

Little Neck, New York 11362

Telephone (718) 428-7900

Facsimile (718) 428-8575

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Campbell's Law: No, It's NOT Soup

Thirty years ago, sociologist Donald Campbell made a seemingly obvious observation that became known as Campbell’s Law. As Campbell phrase it, “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” To put it more simply, the more you base decisions like promotions, firings, or bonuses on a particular number or set of numbers, the more likely it is people will either cheat or otherwise try to game the system.

Cheating is, of course, nothing new in education, nor is it just students who do it. In fact, there’s a long and sad history around the U.S. of teachers and administrators manipulating standardized test results to inflate scores or protect their jobs or their schools’ reputations. Now the NY Daily News reports today that the Principal at Central Park East High School issued a memo to his staff last month suggesting that they scale down their expectations of students in order to raise pass rates and credit accumulation. Coincidently, yearly credit accumulation by 9th, 10th, and 11th graders just happen to be among those treasured metrics on the DOE’s new Progress Reports that assess every NYC public school with a letter grade of A, B, C, D, or F.

Central Park East rated a low “B” on its Progress Report and a “Proficient” on its Quality Review. Principal James Lieberman is quoted in the Daily News that, “Really good things are happening here.” Of course, students like senior Richard Palacios tell you the real truth, noting that 65% of his classmates don’t even show up for school and that only three or four of the 15 kids in his math class routinely appear. Perhaps Lieberman’s recourse for such low attendance is correspondingly lower expectations. Teachers were reportedly outraged over their Principal’s memo.

Perhaps most disappointing in all of this is that the offending school, Central Park East HS, is the City’s icon of alternative schools since its founding in 1985 by Deborah Meier. This news brings a particular sting, the kind of chagrin one might feel upon hearing that the clergy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral were skimming 10% of the collections for use at OTB.

Sadly, we are all getting inured to these types of stories under the DOE’s perverted notion of accountability based on single, high stakes tests. Teaching to the tests and excessive prepping for the tests to the detriment of other subjects and activities, variable scaling of test results to manipulate pass rates, dumbing down the standardized tests by lowering p-scores, steering students to correct answers during test administration, post-test erasures and corrections made by teachers and principals, and so on. As long as 85% of a school’s Progress Report rating derives from test scores, you can be sure schools will focus on those tests to a fault, even to the detriment of other subject areas, and that the resulting pressures will lead to broken rules and broken trust. We’re going to be seeing a lot more of these stories between now and the end of the Klein era.

Head-Banging Over Progress Reports – At Least It Feels Good When You Stop

Common sense would suggest that in the ideal world, the DOE’s new Progress Reports would serve two major constituencies: parents and school administrators. Testimony at the City Council Education Committee hearing on Monday, December 10 made it clear that these report cards receive an “F” of their own with regard to parents who simultaneously find them too simplistic and yet due not understand how the grades were derived.

The very next day, I observed first hand at an SLT meeting my son’s school’s efforts to figure out how to interpret and respond to their grade. On that score, I can only conclude that the Progress Reports deserve an “F” for school administrators’ inability to convert the products of a $3 million DOE investment into something actionable.

Since my son's high school received a letter grade of “A,” albeit just barely, the meeting agenda item was stated as, “Discuss ‘A’ rating and its implication: How do we keep it?” Our Principal, an AP, five or six teachers (two of them in math!), the UFT chapter leader, four parents, two students, a DC 37 representative, and a CBO representative sat in a classroom for nearly an hour striving to answer that question. The result? Not only did we discover we really had no idea, we also realized we had far more questions than answers, such as:

-- Our school received over 10 points in “additional credit,” but that came from the nature of how the school works. It was unclear how to get more credit in this category, whether this was academically meritorious, or even how many more points we could actually get.

-- We realized that we do not understand what 4- and 6-year weighted diploma rates are, why ours are 170.7% and 195.6%, respectively (how do you graduate 195.6% of your kids?), or what the maximum percentages could be.

-- We did not understand what "Average Completion Rate for Remaining Regents" or where the percentage associated with it came from.

-- We did not understand the peculiar score system associated with our school's "Weighted Regents Pass Rate," numbers like 0.98, 1.28, 1.48, 0.94, and 1.0. What do these numbers mean, and how do they get improved? Do they reflect students passing Regents at different levels, such as below or above 85%? We don't know.

-- SLT members persistently confused our bold-faced "score" in these categories with actual Regents pass rates, thinking that the Progress Report data must be incorrect.

-- No one in the room understood how the peer groups were actually formed, and only one or two of us knew who some of the schools in our peer group were.

-- No one in the room knew about the 2/3 vs. 1/3 weighting split between peer group horizon and Citywide horizon until I (a parent, not a DOE employee or Principal) explained it to them. And I only knew because I heard it in Jim Liebman’s testimony at the Education Committee hearing the day before.

We spent so much time asking questions and realizing how little we knew about this system, we did nothing to answer the original question about how to maintain our grade. A group of intelligent, committed, and genuinely caring teachers, administrators, and parents beat their collective heads against the Progress Report wall for over an hour and came up with nothing about how to make the report actionable. Frustration edged into cynicism as opinions were expressed that "this too shall pass," that as soon as Bloomberg is gone, Klein will be gone and this report card system with it, so why worry about it.

The DOE has produced a system that grades schools while giving them (and us as parents on the SLT) little or no guidance in how to interpret it and absolutely no idea how to respond. This is a management failure of the first order, particularly given the ultra-high visibility and stigmatizing potential of a single letter grade.

Despite everything, my son’s high school is happy to have an “A” and be able to wave it around like a gold ribbon in front of 8th grade parents at open houses, as well they should. If anyone has taught us about PR, it's this Chancellor. Still, in my heart of hearts, I know the grade is virtually meaningless and is giving our school's well-intentioned administration absolutely no help in guiding itself toward doing better. I am convinced that we as an SLT will collectively develop our own much better sense of what we need to do than this inane Progress Report system is telling us.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

James Liebman on the run

On Monday, at the City Council hearings on the school grades, James Liebman, the chief accountability czar and former law professor, faced fierce criticism from Council Members. No wonder; his testimony was evasive, full of misleading statements and outright errors.

Liebman went on to make many questionable statements, among them, that a school at which "hundreds of children on average lost 10 percent of a proficient level in a year almost certainly has a significant problem."
Instead, experts say that one year's gain or losses in test scores at the school level is 34-80% random, and unrelated to the amount of learning taking place.
Liebman also claimed that factors related to overcrowding and class size were taken into account when devising the grades, when they clearly weren't.
In his testimony and power point, he claimed that he had consulted with many groups and experts, including the United Federation of Teachers, the Council of Supervisors and Administrators (the Principal's Union), CPAC, Community Education Councils and the NY Performance Standards Consortium in devising these grades.

Ann Cook, the co-chair of the Consortium, later testified to the fact that this was untrue. Her group had asked for and gotten a meeting about the interim assessments, but the topic of the school grades never even came up.

Ernest Logan, President of the CSA also denied that he had ever been consulted, and laughed when Jackson asked him this question. (See this letter from Logan to the Chancellor, about the many flaws in the school grades.) The UFT VP, Aminda Gentile, said they had “conversations” with DOE about the school grades, but there was no consultation.

Betsy Gotbaum, the Public Advocate, also criticized the unreliability of the school grades, and said that the Chancellor's decision to close schools without consulting first with Community Education Councils is against the law. She cited the state law, (2590-h) , which says that the Chancellor has the authority to:

Establish, control and operate new schools or programs…or…discontinue any such schools and programs as he or she may determine; provided however, that the chancellor shall consult with the affected Community District Education Council before substantially expanding or reducing such an existing school or program within a community district. (The law is posted here.)

Yet, she added, this has not happened in this case. "And the truth is, I can't think of an example where it has happened."

When asked by the chair of the Education committee, Robert Jackson, Liebman admitted that CECs had not been consulted before the announcement to close schools. Instead, they had been consulted afterwards, "entirely consistent with the process that has applied for the last several years."

Did he believe that parents should be consulted? Liebman said that the process that was used "was sufficient and adequate and very comprehensive."

Jackson said this response was "totally unacceptable", and if this was the direction the chancellor is going, he is in "big trouble." Liebman also claimed that the method he used was very "transparent" with very "clear rules" and that the results of the Quinnipiac polls showed that parents understood the methods used. (!!)
Liebman kept returning to the results of this poll in his defense, though it turns out that only 143 public school parents were polled.

City Council Member Lou Fidler was concerned that stigmatizing schools with failing grades will likely accelerate the decline of these schools, rather than helping them improve. Melinda Katz said it best: In her 14 years as an elected official, she’s never seen an agency so sure they’re right, when all the parents she has spoken to believe they’re wrong.

John Liu was very effective, asking Liebman repeatedly if the 85% of each school's grade was not just based upon a single measure, the results of a test taken once a year. Liebman kept on evading the issue, saying these grades were not based on one measure but actually "many measures" from a "series of assessments" that take place over a "series of daysm" and that each assessment "cuts across many hundreds of different items, and many skill areas." Liu pointed out the fact that its still only one test!

Finally, Liebman blurted out, "Life is one test" and everyone booed. Liu concluded that not only was Liebman trying to obfuscate, but that that his entire testimony was an obfuscation.

At the end of Liebman's three-hour testimony, the Chair, Robert Jackson, politely requested that he step outside the hearing room to receive petitions from Time Out from Testing and Class Size Matters, signed by nearly 7,000 parents, calling for a halt to the school grades. (Thanks so much to those of you who signed.)

In preparation, we filed out in an orderly fashion, (see above photo from the NY Times) but rather than have to confront us directly, Liebman slipped out a side door, out the back exit of City Hall, and ran away from us like a thief in the night, as we tried to catch up. He then entered the private gates to Tweed, but refused to let us in.

Liebman’s flight from parents was captured on video on many of the nightly news shows. As Lisa Donlan was quoted as saying in the Daily News, all this is symbolic of DOE’s arrogant and dismissive attitude. "He wouldn't even stay to hear our questions ... after we sat for three hours and listened to his testimony."

Here is an excerpt from today’s Times story, “Defending School Report Cards, Over a Chorus of Boos”:

“Mr. Liebman, whose title is chief accountability officer of the Education Department, ducked out a side door, leaving parents to chase him out the back of City Hall to behind the Education Department’s headquarters at Tweed Courthouse.

There, several education officials ran in circles for several minutes to avoid Jane Hirschmann, the director of Time Out From Testing, an advocacy group, as well as parents and reporters.”

Later in a phone interview, Liebman claimed to Times reporter that “he had not deliberately avoided the parents.” This claim is about as trustworthy as the school grades themselves.

See also article in Daily News, Escape from NY parents, the CBS newsclip here and NY1 here.

The CBS story repeats the erroneous statement that Liebman has met with Time out from Testing “many times”; in fact, according to Jane Hirschmann, head of the group, he has refused to ever meet with them.

I also gave testimony posted here about how unfair, inaccurate and destructive these school grades are, and entered into the record the comments criticizing the school grades from many of you, including parents, teachers, and at least one retired principal, that were posted online at our petition.

Update: Erin Einhorn of the NY Daily News pointed out today in Only in NY schools can get an 'A' & 'F' that of the 26 SURR schools on the state failing list, nine got As or Bs.

"The city can do whatever they want to do, but at the end of the day, I think the public deserves better," said Merryl Tisch, the vice chancellor of the state Board of Regents and a longtime supporter of Mayor Bloomberg.

Assembly Member Jim Brennan on the DOE Progress Reports

As reported here earlier, two members of the State Assembly testified at City Council hearings on the Progress Reports Tuesday. As the Assembly must decide whether to renew mayoral control or replace it with something else, their thoughts are always relevant. News accounts of the hearings did not mention their testimony, most likely because the press was covering the escape of Chief Accountability Officer Jim Liebman from the Council chambers that occurred simultaneously with the testimony. Here is the first part of Brennan's testimony:

Councilmember Jackson and members of the committee, it's a pleasure to share some thoughts with you about the Department of Education's progress reports. I'm Assemblymember Jim Brennan, representing the 44th Assembly district in Brooklyn. Currently, I chair the Assembly Standing Committee on Cities and I have served on the Assembly Education Committee for 23 years.

In a November 20th e-mail that Chancellor Joel Klein sent out to Department of Education faculty members, he stated, "After almost five and a half years as chancellor, I know you can't point to a single number, be it a test score or graduation rate, to prove success or failure. The whole picture is important." Yet, in his November 14, 2007 letter to the editor of the New York Times, he defended the school progress reports by stating, "Everyone knows what A and F mean. Summing up all relevant measure with a single, simple grade draws sharp attention to the great work at many schools and the stagnation that might otherwise escape notice elsewhere."

His first statement seems more applicable to the New York City school system. The DOE has reduced teacher, student and parent surveys, attendance, test scores, one-year changes in test scores, and weights these variables differently, to come up with one letter grade. This "reductionism" has produced results that, for many individual schools, seem on their surface to be utterly irrational and have caused bewilderment, confusion, and rejection.

The State and City of New York already have an assessment and accountability system. The State Education Department calls it the "status" model, and parents, educators and the general public all understand it simply as scores on tests, broken down into levels of proficiency or lack thereof. Whatever its shortcomings, it's generally understood. On top of this, we have the Federal and State "No Child Left Behind" standards, which already hold schools accountable for making adequate yearly progress for the whole school as well as Black and Hispanic children, Asian children, Native American children, English language learners, special education and economically disadvantaged students. The State has a system called School Under Registration Review and we also have School Report Cards, which provide lots of information for parents and educators. The Department of Education has a history of closing poorly performing schools, and principals currently already have evaluation standards in their contract that allow for their removal. The core standards in all of these accountability systems are, of course, test scores. The validity of this system has been under debate for many years.

Along come the DOE's progress report cards. Only 30% of the grade is based on the old performance test score, the remainder is based on criteria completely new to the City and State, 55% on one-year changes in test scores and 15% on surveys and attendance. The main component of the new model, the one-year test score change - the "growth model" - did not get vetted by any other public body other than the DOE. There was no public hearing on the inputs and assumptions into this statistical model, there was no vote by the Panel on Educational Policy, there was no review or approval by the State Education Department and its own division of Assessment and Accountability. I believe concerns had been expressed informally that New York City's new system would produce results inconsistent with the existing system that might cause confusion and consternation. It is my understanding that the SED has never seen the guts of the new statistical system - the growth model, its inputs, its assumptions, its complex weighting. We have no knowledge of whether the new system controls for the probability that measuring test results within one year would fluctuate within a certain range up or down and that therefore no conclusions school quality could be drawn from such results. Last week I sent a letter to the State Education Department asking they review the validity of the statistical models used for DOE's progress evaluations.


For full text click here and letter to State Education Commissioner Mills here

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Jets Sign Liebman to 3 Year Contract

December 11, 2007 (GBN Sports): The New York Jets announced today the signing of running back James Liebman to a three year contract worth an estimated $15 million. Liebman, who most recently starred as the “Chief Accountability Officer” for the NY City Department of Education, reportedly wowed team officials yesterday after his testimony at a City Council hearing on school Progress Reports.

Jets Head Coach Eric Mangini happened to catch the 6 PM news reports about the hearing and saw Liebman demonstrate his rushing prowess. In what Mangini called, “The most impressive display of broken field running I’ve ever seen”, Liebman showed he could shake off not only a hoard of parent advocates attempting to give him petitions opposing the progress reports, but a number of print and television journalists as well. The team immediately called him in to offer him a contract.

At a morning press conference, Mangini was optimistic about the team’s chances next year with Liebman on board. “Jim assured us that next year we don’t even need a winning record to win the division,” the coach said. “He told us that if he can do what he did this year with the DOE, all we need is to improve more than the other teams do. With our record this year, that will be a snap.”

The Jets’ new running back showed that he is as adept at “trash talk” as he is at his running game. At the press conference, he taunted this week’s opponent, the Patriots, by saying, “They think they’re hot stuff with their perfect record. Let's see them try to improve on that next year. No matter what they do they'll just be a ‘failing team’.” Liebman is expected to be in uniform for Sunday’s game.

Monday, December 10, 2007

State Assembly Members Appear at Council Hearings to Blast DOE While Accountability Czar Liebman Flees from Parents

There was high drama today at the City Council hearings on the DOE's new Progress Reports. In an unusual occurrence, two members of the State Assembly appeared in person to testify against the "A-F" letter grading system. Assembly Member Mark Weprin of Queens was scathing, saying parents needed to know the system was "irrelevant nonsense". He complained the DOE's testing regime was "turning schools into Stanley Kaplan centers" and "sucking all the arts, fun and interest out of schools".

Assembly Member Jim Brennan of Brooklyn said the State Education Department should have reviewed the Progress Report grading methodology but still has not been given access to the underlying statistical methodology used to assign the grades. He pointed out how the results are often inconsistent with existing state and even city evaluations. He said "my core concern is that the system may have no validity whatsoever".

The Assembly members testified after the Council finished questioning DOE Chief Accountability Officer Jim Liebman. Parent supporters of Time Out from Testing were waiting to provide Liebman with petitions containing 6,700 signatures of parents opposed to the Progress Reports. Liebman slipped out a side door but was chased by parents lugging the boxes of signatures, followed by the press.


More details have emerged on today's events. Council Education Chair Robert Jackson asked parents to present their peition to Liebman outside the Council chambers. Instead of accepting the petition, the crafty Liebman fled through a side door normally reserved for Council use. Undeterred, parent volunteers led by Time Out From Testing director Jane Hirschmann fought a running battle with Liebman's security detail as they tried to present the petitions to him. Check out this account of the fracas at InsideSchools and video footage captured by NY1.

A good day for headline writers: NY Times: "Defending School Report Cards, Over a Chorus of Boos" , Daily News: "Escape from NY Parents" and Post: "Advocates Cut to the Chase".

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The NY City Department of Education: Is It Real or Is It Parody?

Note: It seems that more and more, I hear about readers who mistake certain GBN News parodies for reality. The last thing I want to do is to create confusion among NY City parents; the DOE does that well enough on their own. The following, I hope, will serve as a clarification of my parodies and of their purpose and meaning. Hint for blog readers: If it says “GBN News” at the top of the article, it’s parody. If it doesn’t, all responsibility for inaccurate, misleading or confusing information rests solely with the DOE.

It is both an occupational hazard and an intended purpose of parody that it may be mistaken for reality. I write education news parodies for the NY City Public School Parents Blog as “GBN News”. But when I look at what comes out of the NY City Department of Education these days, I realize that their reality is often more outlandish than my parodies.

The school Progress Reports (“report cards”) that were recently issued are a case in point. In my wildest imagination, I could never have come up with a “grading” system in which schools with positive quality reviews get D’s and F’s and are consequently closed, schools that are on the state failing list get A’s, and a school that received national recognition under NCLB gets a D. The idea is so far fetched that it is not even credible as parody.

Some time ago I wrote a piece based on last year’s fiasco in which high priced DOE consultants Alvarez and Marsal, to save money, had eliminated numerous bus routes in the dead of winter. With little notice, they had stranded countless children in the cold, and told children as young as five that they should use Metro Cards instead of school buses. I reported that in another move by Alvarez and Marsal, “The traditional ‘lunch period’ will be eliminated from all New York City schools, to be replaced by an as yet undisclosed academic activity period.” I had Chancellor Klein praising the plan as eliminating a cost-ineffective program and improving test scores, and Mayor Bloomberg responding to criticism by saying, “Schools are for learning, not for eating”. Some blog readers reported that they actually believed this at first, and one said, “I also think Klein and Bloomberg would do these things”.

In a somewhat darker vein, I recently wrote a parody in which Blackwater, USA was hired to take over school security from the NYPD. The idea, I wrote, came out of a meeting between Chancellor Klein and President Bush, in which “The President was said to have told Mr. Klein that if Blackwater could take over the Iraq war so successfully from the US military, it could do the same for the NY City Police Department in the war against cell phones.” One reader was so disturbed that he actually asked a Deputy Chancellor and a City Council member if the story was true.

In writing parody, I strive to straddle the line between reality and fiction, to demonstrate how porous that line can sometimes be. But while in one sense I feel gratified that these parodies were effective enough to be believable, it is more than a bit unsettling that people have gotten used to a reality so bizarre that they can accept the parody as truth.

For us public school parents, the world of the DOE can only be described as “Kafkaesque”; rational rules no longer seem to apply. Three times in six years, the entire school system was reorganized. Districts were folded into regions, then regions broken back up into districts. Control was centralized, then decentralized again. Parents and educators were consulted - after the changes had already been made.

The DOE treats cell phones like weapons, banning their possession and enforcing the ban with metal detectors. The Mayor rejects the City Council’s authority to overturn the ban because his control of the system comes from the state; yet, when convenient, he rejects state authority because the DOE is a “city agency”.

School evaluations are based on questionable data, which are wrapped up into a single letter grade by an $80 million supercomputer (ARIS); then those grades fuel a punitive system that can cost a principal his or her job, close a school, or inexplicably deny resources to the failing schools that need it the most. Meanwhile additional millions are spent on no-bid consultant contracts, yet funded state mandates to reduce class size, which could truly boost student performance, are flagrantly ignored.

Given all this, it’s really no surprise that my parodies sometimes get taken seriously. But the real parody is what Bloomberg and Klein have done with Mayoral control of the schools. Whether or not absolute power corrupts absolutely, it certainly can divorce those who hold that power from reality. Accountable to nobody, the Mayor and Chancellor take their advice, not from stakeholders like educators and parents, or from experts in the field, but from people in the business world like Jack Welch and Eli Broad.

While some of these educational dilettantes may be well meaning, none of them, including the Mayor or Chancellor, have any background in education. They listen to no one with the educational knowledge or common sense to tell them that their “reforms” are only a parody of sound educational practices. Meanwhile, our children must try to get their education in what has sadly become a parody of a school system.