Tuesday, January 31, 2012

City Hall rally today protesting the epidemic of school closings and DOE's broken promises to Jamaica HS

There was a rally today, organized by the Coalition for Educational Justice, protesting against the mayor's wrecking ball policies and school closings.  Speakers included NYC Comptroller Liu, Public Advocate De Blasio, Manhattan Borough President Stringer, former NYC Comptroller Thompson, parents and students from the closing schools, Advocates for Children, and many others... Here is my speech; video will be posted soon..  

For more on why parents and community members throughout the country strongly oppose the epidemic of school closings, and distrust the top-down "solutions" imposed by them from above, this excellent Public Agenda survey "What's Trust Got to Do With It?"

Theodore Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson, John Jay, Martin Luther King Jr.
John F. Kennedy, John Dewey, Paul Robeson, Louis Brandeis, Thomas Jefferson.
Norman Thomas, Roberto Clemente, Jane Addams, Alfred E. Smith.
What do these names have in common? These are some of the greatest heroes in American history, and sadly, they are also the names of schools that Michael Bloomberg has already closed or plans to close in the future.
What will be the fate of the students at the more than 50 schools that are now on the chopping block?  A spike in the dropout rate, students discharged to GED programs, and/or graduated with a meaningless HS diploma, by means of substandard credit recovery programs, if past history is any guide.
Of course the DOE will promise otherwise, but their promises are worthless.
I have here a letter from the PTA president and the chapter chair of Jamaica HS, to whose students DOE made all sorts of promises in the Educational Impact Statement after deciding to phase the school out.
The DOE promised that students already enrolled in Jamaica in its various programs would continue to have access to the academic classes they need to complete their program requirements.
Yet as the letter points out, students in the finance, computer and pre-engineering programs no longer have access to many of the classes that are required to complete their programs.
There are no longer any honors courses at any level or in any subject at the school.  The DOE promised that the students could take electives at the other schools in the building but this has not occurred.
The DOE promised online coursework, which never happened.  In fact, some of the school’s computers are so old as to be obsolete. 
There is no longer a librarian in the building, and so there is no access to the library; and social studies courses are taught by teachers who do not have the certification in this subject.
The DOE promised that “As the school becomes smaller, students would receive more individualized attention through graduation to ensure they are receiving the support they need to succeed.  Students would also be encouraged to meet with their guidance counselor to discuss all of their options.”  Yet two of the three guidance counselors were excessed & there is only one guidance counselor with over 600 students.  Class sizes are have grown even larger; with science, math and English classes at 30 or more.  As the letter says, 
“It is clear to anyone who examines the EIS and then looks at the reality of what is occurring at this school that these students are not being given the supports that the DOE promised, and is their right to receive. Their ability to go onto college and/or be ready for a career has been seriously compromised. … The DOE has betrayed the hopes and dreams of Jamaica students, and gone back on their promises.”
Truly, this administration has acted as a wrecking ball on our schools, uncaring, reckless and destructive. And closing schools with this much history behind them is tearing out the heart of communities -- who cherish their schools even as they are struggling as a result of budget cuts, increased class sizes, overcrowding and the elimination of any support from DOE.
There is also a huge amount of hypocrisy behind all this.  I don’t understand how anyone can claim they care about teacher quality and then impose a quota that demands that 50% of all teachers be fired from  a struggling school.  What kind of quality would that ensure? 
There is also tremendous hypocrisy from an administration that prattles on about “parent choice” whenever it wants to push a new charter school into an already overcrowded building; but when it comes to the protests of thousands of parents who ask not to close their children’s school, or the hundreds of thousands of parents who ask them to reduce class size as the top priority on the DOE’s own surveys, they turn a deaf ear. 
In fact, the mayor treats parents with the utmost contempt, and says that we just don’t understand the value of a good education. 
We do understand this well, Mr. Mayor, and that’s why we know that you have utterly failed over the last decade in providing our kids with the schools they need and deserve.
It is time, no,  it is long past time, that we take back our public schools from this megalomaniac billionaire, and give them back to the parents, students, teachers, and community members – who want them strengthened rather than destroyed.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Deadline Mon. Jan. 30 on the state's awful NCLB waiver proposal; please make your voice heard

The NY State Education Department is proposing to submit a NCLB waiver request to the US Dept. of Education that is posted hereThe deadline for public comment is 5 PM, this Monday, Jan. 30.
While purporting to create more district “flexibility,” it will actually  lead to even more standardized testing, more test prep, more teachers unfairly fired and schools closed, and hundreds of millions of dollars wasted, while our kids suffer from budget cuts and even larger classes.
Please send a message today!  A sample email, adapted and expanded from a letter signed onto by 1/3 of all NYS principals, is below.  The comments should be sent to eseathnktank@mail.nysed.gov, with a copy to the Regents who appoint the Commissioner, and Speaker Silver, who is responsible for the appointment of the Regents.
We have also added a statement, asking the Regents to withdraw their recent unconscionable decision to provide our children’s confidential data to a limited corporation funded by Gates and operated by Rupert Murdoch’s Wireless Generation, even though the state comptroller had vetoed a similar contract this summer and there was a huge public outcry when this was originally proposed.
Please make your voice heard, and do it today!  And please share this message to others who care.

Dear Dr. King and members of the Board of Regents:
As a parent, I strongly disagree with your proposal for a state NCLB waiver and urge you to revise it as soon as possible.
Already my child and other NYC children are subjected to too many standardized tests and too much test prep.  All this focus on test scores is seriously undermining the quality of the education our students receive, with no increase in actual learning.  In fact, with all the emphasis on standardized testing and high-stakes accountability, NYC kids have fallen even further behind their peers in other large cities, as measured by the only reliable assessments known as the NAEPs, according to an analysis done by Class Size Matters
All the additional testing your proposal would generate would lead to even less quality instruction, as well as facilitate the use of unreliable teacher evaluations and justify even more damaging school closings.  In particular I strongly oppose these elements of your proposal:
  •  I do not want additional ELA tests mandated in grades 9 and 10, in order to create more unreliable teacher evaluations or justify more school closings.  I do not want schools held “accountable” for the results of all the other unreliable and often vacuous state tests.
  •  I do not want student test scores used to evaluate teacher education programs -- or individual teachers for that matter.  Any reliable teacher evaluation system should be developed carefully with input from all stakeholder groups, and the evaluation system itself should include relevant feedback from parents, students and other teachers, as well as principals.
  • I do not want proficiency levels on the Regents to be raised, if that means denying students the chance to graduate based on test scores alone.
  •  I do not taxpayer money being wasted by even more testing and data crunching, while our children suffer from school budgets cuts and unprecedented class size increases.  I urge you to provide an estimate of the costs that would incur if your proposal is accepted.  For example, the state of California has estimated the costs of such a waiver to be at least two billion dollars for their state alone.
  • I do not want to “reward” schools based on their test scores, if this means giving schools monetary awards, as this will cause funds subtracted from other schools that are either struggling or do not choose to focus so intensively on test prep.
  • I do not want any of our schools forced to implement one of the four Federal SIG intervention models -- including more school closings, outsourcing school management to a private companies, charter conversions or firing half the staff at these schools.  These policies do not work, are very wasteful, disrupt the need for stable learning environments for our kids, and will lead to higher dropout and discharge rates.  Moreover, these policies are overwhelmingly opposed by parents and community members throughout the city, as well as parents throughout the nation, as shown by a recent Public Agenda survey.
  • Finally I strongly oppose your recent decision to give my child’s confidential data, including test scores and other information, to a Limited Corporation funded by the Gates Corporation and operated by Rupert Murdoch’s Wireless Generation.  Like the NYS Comptroller who vetoed the state’s no-bid contract with Wireless this summer, I have real doubts about the security of such data, the commercial uses to which it will be put, and the fact that you have agreed to provide my child’s data without any input from parents and without my informed consent.    I ask you to renounce and cancel this decision immediately.
Yours, Name, address & school (last is optional)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

More on the invasion of S. Williamsburg by Success Academy charter school

Check out the video below by Darren Marelli, along with Ellen McHugh's account of the hearings to co-locate yet another branch of Eva Moskowitz' charter chain in PS 50 in South Williamburg Brooklyn. 

South Williamsburg is largely Latino, but Moskowitz has spent millions in advertising, recruiting and plastering the subways in the north section -- the gentrified part of district  -- with ads for her charter school, featuring mostly little white faces.  This, combined with the fact that her charter chain enrolls very few English Language Learners, and the community was never asked if they wanted her charter in their midst, has enraged many elected officials, activists, clergy and residents.

And we're back; another public school, another charter. This is getting monotonous, repetitive, scary, demeaning, pick a descriptor. There are co-location hearings such as this at least once a week in NYC and they run under the radar. Large scale newspapers never send reporters, small ethnic papers send young Jimmy Olsen type cub reporters, fresh from school and without knowledge.

We were in the well-lit auditorium of IS 50, in Los Sures, the beating heart of Williamsburgh. Nine people were on the dais: two from the local CEC District 14, two from the SLT, two from the CCSE, the principal from the high school, a representative from the DOE Division of Portfolio Planning and a representative of the SUNY Board of Trustees. There were a requisite number of assistants from the DOE sitting attentively in the front row. And next to them were two men with camera in hand, microphone extended, catching every word, filming every member of the panel on the stage or speaker in the well. Whispers in the audience let me know they were from Eva's Success Academy public relations shop. 

The DOE rep began the meeting intoning the standard speech about the reasons we were here. None of us were surprised. We could read too. That's an issue with the DOE. Most of their employees think we (the public) only come with stupid. Not a brain among us.

He introduced the panel and began the public period of the meeting. While we were listening to him there was some action among the members of the panel. The principal of the high school heaved a sigh and whispered that she was glad she'd be out of the building in the fall.  The SUNY rep busily scribbled notes, rarely lifting his head and startled when asked a question.

Over fifty individuals had signed up to speak. Many of the speakers were long time residents of the area. They spoke English and Spanish to a sympathetic crowd. There were cheers. There were standing ovations. There are four elementary schools within walking distance of PS 50, but there was no high-performing junior high school. This plan would lead to further polarization in the community.
Progress Inc. produced 1,000 signatures protesting the charter school. Councilwoman Reyna received a standing ovation when she told the crowd that she would work to oppose the move. Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez sent a representative who promised that Congress would be looking at this co-location plan. A young man read a poem blasting the plan. Many asked hard questions: "What does it take?" What does it take for the DOE to hear us? What does it take for the DOE to hear the neighborhood and not Eva? Only one person favored the proposal for the charter school: one young, woman who was a resident of Williamsburg for about three years. It was heartbreaking.

Then a shiver of excitement went through the room. Occupy was outside. The people's mic made an appearance. In the back there was a bit of scuffle between two burly members of the security team the DOE folks travel with and some protestors. Quickly a huge banner on three poles was unfurled : "Success Academy = Vampires". The security people wanted the banner down. The poles were dangerous. To keep the peace, and keep the banner up, the poles were removed and some protesters held the banner.

But hanging in the air, over all of the excitement and between all of the shouts, were ugly strings of words. "We will take over the school." "We will go to jail." It's come to that. Threats, not plans: not plans that include the community, not plans that end social inequalities, not plans that build a school.

What does it take? -- Ellen McHugh of Parent to Parent and the Citywide Council on Special Education

Note: a mistake in the published EIS requires another meeting on this co-location. The vote by the PEP has been delayed until March 1, 2012

The decline of science education in NYC high schools as shown by the falling number of Intel submissions and semi-finalists

These posts about the decline of independent science research at NYC high schools – especially at the less selective non-specialized high schools – were written and researched by NYC parents Steve Koss and Melvin Meer.  For earlier posts by Steve on this discouraging trend, see here and here.
This year's list of Intel Science Talent Search semifinalists has just been announced, and the news for NYC public schools is both good and bad. On the plus side, Stuyvesant HS appears to have regained some of its former Intel mojo with 13 semifinalists, its best year since 2003 when it scored 19 semifinalists. In the last four years, Stuyvesant's numbers had been 11, 10, 9, and 5 (last year), creating a substantial drag on NYC public schools' traditional solid performance in the Intel competition. 
Bronx Science scored 8 semifinalists this year, the same number they had last year. It is worth noting that even for these two science-oriented schools, their average number of semifinalists in the five years before mayoral control were 13.67 for Stuy and 10.33 for Bronx Science; in the nine years from (January) 2004 - 2012, the Bloomberg years, those numbers have been 9.67 (down 29.3%) for Stuyvesant and 6.56 for Bronx Science (down 36.5%).

The most alarming result of this year's Intel competition results is that Stuyvesant (13), Bronx Science (8), and Staten Island Tech (1) were the ONLY NYC public high schools with a semifinalist. The entire rest of the NYC public high school system -- including such traditional STS achievers as Townsend Harris, Murrow, Cardozo, Midwood, and Susan Wagner--had no semifinalists.
Of course, this is only the culmination of a trend that has been readily apparent since Mayor Bloomberg test- and data-driven school policies have practically driven all but the most basic, Regents-required science instruction from our classrooms. The six years before Bloomberg (January 1998 - January 2003) averaged a bit less than six Intel semifinalists per year from public high schools other than Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, and Staten Island Tech. Above is a chart showing the numbers since Bloomberg took over.

While this year's total number of semifinalists shows an improvement over the past several years, even the 22 spots earned by our science high school students is less than it was in all but one of the six years prior to Bloomberg/Klein. For the rest of the city's public high schools, Intel STS appears to be virtually out of reach any more.  
Michael Bloomberg has single-handedly managed nearly to kill advanced science research for most of NYC's public high schools, where once those students' achievements were one of our city's (and those kids') greatest sources of educational pride.   As only George Bush could put it, "Great job, Mikey!!"  -- Steve Koss
 Here's an excerpt from a report I put together last year, with numbers, for our Community Board (Q11).  Queens parents might also want to take notice of the very few specialized high school seats there are in Queens (only 100 entry ones each year) compared with each of the other boroughs.  Queens is a very significant exporter of students to the other boroughs and travel times can be outrageous.

One of the reasons that the City is doing so poorly over the Bloomberg years is that there are many fewer Intel Science submissions from New York City schools lately.  Consider the school by school data  (chart to the right).
These results illustrate the deterioration of science education in the New York City high schools over the last 13 years.  It is bad enough that our brightest kids are not winning in the semi-finalist contest.  Clearly they are not even submitting in the numbers to which we had become accustomed.  That takes faculty mentoring and encouragement that seems no longer there.  -- Mel Meer

Concerns with the MDRC study on small schools released today

MDRC released a  study today, which the NY Times writes “appeared to validate the Bloomberg administration’s decade-long push to create small schools to replace larger, failing high schools.” The report mentions the current controversy over the massive number of school closings, here in NYC and across the country, and thus there may be a political element in the timing of its release:

MDRC’s findings about SSCs are relevant to current federal policy on high school reform, particularly the U. S. Department of Education’s School Improvement Grants (SIGs) for failing schools. Reforms funded by SIGs include school transformation, school restart, school closing, and school turnaround. SSCs straddle several of these categories since they are typically replacements for schools that have closed and they operate as regular public schools.

This is the second MDRC study to conclude that students who attended the new small schools had significantly improved outcomes.  The first MDRC study, released in 2010, looked at students who entered these schools in 2005; this one adds students who entered in 2006 to that group.

I have a lot of reservations about using this study or the previous study to justify the small schools initiative and especially to justify the current massive round of school closings.  I am no expert in statistics, but my concerns revolve around these issues: 

1-      Though the study points out that the small schools were supposedly “unscreened” and evaluates their results by comparing the outcomes of students who applied to the school through lotteries,  compared to those who lost the lottery, it  ignores that the students who attended these small schools were far less high-needs on average, as evidence by their lower rates of English language learners and special needs, as shown by this Annenberg study by Pallas and Jennings.  In fact, they were allowed to openly exclude special needs students during the first two years. Thus even with a “lottery” for admissions, there are substantial peer effects for students who are grouped with higher-achieving students which this study does not mention.  (This is also a problem with many of the charter school studies, like this one, which tend to ignore peer effects.)

2-      The results in terms of higher graduation rates and college readiness (based on Regents scores and credit accumulation) ignore how in NYC, teachers and principals are able manipulate these in ways that do not reflect real learning (especially as teachers grade the Regents of students in their own schools, and in these schools, their own students!)  It has also been alleged that the small schools pioneered the now widespread and largely discredited practice of “credit recovery.” With newer teachers at many of the small schools, who did not have a memory or tradition as to earlier practices, it may have been easier to pressure these teachers into employing such methods.

3-      The study ignores that the small schools on average were allowed to have smaller classes and were far less overcrowded than the large high schools, which legitimately could have led to better results.  The class size at the small schools during these years were from 13 to 20 students per class, according to the PSA first year report, compared to 30 or more at the larger schools.  If the higher needs students in the larger schools had been provided with smaller classes, very likely their chance of success would have been improved substantially as well.

4-      Yet the study doesn’t examine how the opening of the small schools had a negative impact on the system as a whole, by flooding nearly large high schools with the most disadvantaged and academically challenged students, leading to even more overcrowding, larger class sizes, and damaging their opportunity to learn, as reported by many observers and confirmed by the New School’s report, The New Marketplace.

5-      The MDRC study deals with only a subsection of the small schools that were oversubscribed and required a lottery for admissions, so like the charter school studies which use a similar methodology, their success rate may not be representative of small schools overall.
6-      It study ignores the reality that these so-called random “lotteries” may be far from actually random. The MDRC study compares the baseline characteristics of students who “won” the lotteries to those who lost, in a  Supplemental Table 1, which purports to show that both groups were “virtually identical”; but the comparison does not include students who required collaborative team-teaching or self-contained classes; does not include  prior attendance rates, a key factor that principals often examing when selecting students; and does not differentiate between free and reduced price lunch students.  The table also does not include data on previous rates of suspension.  According to an earlier evaluation done by Policy Studies Associates. the ninth graders who entered the small schools had far better attendance records (91% compared to 81%), and were less likely to have been suspended as 8th graders compared to students at the schools they replaced.

Even in the categories the MRDC study does compare, there are greater numbers of higher achieving students, though the differences are not statistically significant, according to the model used.   Most strangely, the table compares the baseline data for four cohorts – entering ninth-graders from the 2004-2005 to 2007-2008 years; while the report compares outcomes for only the first two of these cohorts, students who entered these schools from 2005-6 and 2006-7. This is despite the fact that that the need level of students increased significantly after that point – and likely, the challenges faced by these schools as well.  See the above chart, for example, from the Annenberg study by Jennings and Pallas.

I have no idea why the MRDC study lumped together all these cohorts to examine their baseline characteristics, even as they only compared the outcomes for the first two, but it may considerably bias their conclusions.  Indeed, more than half of the middle and high schools being closed by the DOE this year for poor results are small schools that were founded after 2003.

7- There are several ways in which, especially in the early years of the small schools initiative, principals were able to manipulate the admissions process to get the students who were more likely to succeed, even though by definition these schools were supposedly “unscreened” and used “random” lotteries for admissions.  See this excerpt from a published study by Jennifer Jennings, who embedded herself with three small schools between March 2004 and September 2005: 

My observations revealed that many schools used applications, mandatory information sessions, and much stronger language to deter unwanted applicants. For example, 12 unscreened schools shared a similar application requiring that students provide the most recent report card and two letters of recommendation, one from an eighth-grade teacher and one from a guidance counselor, assistant principal, or principal. The application also asked for the student’s test scores, retention history, and involvement in advanced courses during the eighth grade. Finally, the application included additional questions requiring a narrative response….
The district’s application system provided opportunities for unscreened schools to choose higher achieving students. Through this computer system, each school received a list of students applying to the school, although the school did not know whether the student ranked it, for example, 1st or 12th. ….
The district’s application system provided opportunities for unscreened schools to choose higher achieving students. Through this computer system, each school received a list of students applying to the school, although the school did not know whether the student ranked it, for example, 1st or 12th. This data file included each student’s English-language-learner and special education classification, reading and math test scores, absences, grades, address, and junior high school. Schools were told to identify students who made an ‘‘informed choice’’ by assigning them a 1, while students who did not make an informed choice but the school was willing to accept were assigned a 2. If the school did not fill all of its seats with students making an informed choice, additional seats would be filled by students in the second category.  The Department of Education prohibits unscreened schools from using student performance data to select students. Nonetheless, both Marlena and Anna [pseudonyms for two principals of small schools] learned through their relationships with other principals that such regulations were loosely enforced….
 In addition to the English language learners and full-time special education students whom new schools had a waiver to eliminate, Renaissance [pseudonym for one of these small schools] eliminated part-time special education students and chose only those with 90 percent or higher attendance. Excel eliminated full- and part-time special education students and chose students with attendance rates of 93 percent or higher. 
There are many more revealing insights in the Jennings study about how the small schools were able to deflect over-the-counter students and counsel out low-performers to achieve better results, despite the fact that they claimed to be non-selective.  (Update: I have removed the link to the paper at the author's request; the abstract is here.)
All of these concerns  should provide one with reservations about the validity of the MDRC study and especially its apparent endorsement of the mayor's policies.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Resolution on busing, with FOILed data showing DOE granted more busing thru safety variances to private school students

The DOE unilaterally eliminated middle-school busing from many areas of Queens and Staten Island that have no public transportation, and this may have contributed to the death of at least one public school student.  Along with some news clips, the data on how few safety variances the DOE has granted in authorizing busing in hazardous areas is here, FOILed by Michael Reilly of CEC 31.  What's somewhat shocking is how DOE has approved more safety variances authorizing busing for a greater proportion of private school students than public school students.

Here is the resolution introduced by Dmytro Fedkowskyj, Queens representative to the Panel for Educational Policy, asking to create advisory committee of stakeholders to oversee the process of granting busing variances, which was tabled  rejected  by the mayoral majority of appointees on the PEP at the last meeting.  Correction from Dmytro: the resolution was "tabled it until the next PEP meeting based on the conversation that PEP members had when it was introduced for business. It will be back on the agenda next month if we can't come to an agreement. I am hopeful that DOE will take action before the next meeting."

Panel Recommendation to the Chancellor that the Department of Education Create the “Safety Hazard Advisory Review Program (S.H.A.R.P.) for Office of Pupil Transportation Hazard Variance Applications – Dated January 18, 2012

Whereas, a joint NYC independent Budget Office and NYC Board of Education report stated “The proportion of general education pupils in public and private schools who currently ride yellow buses varies considerably  across boroughs”; and
Whereas, the Department of Education (DOE) eliminated certain school bus variances in September 2010 which disproportionately affected students in specific areas within the New York City, particularly in Queens and Staten Island; and
Whereas, the DOE Office of Pupil Transportation (OPT) stated at that time that individual variance applications would be reviewed and granted where appropriate; and
Whereas, according to DOE hazard variance application and approval data covering the period from January 2010 through September 2011, 1,130 applications were submitted (881 by public schools and 249 by private schools) but only 177 were approved citywide (108 or 12% for public schools and 69 or 28% for private schools) ; and
Whereas, 1,028 of the variance applications submitted during this time period (468 or 42% from schools in Queens) and (560 or 50% from schools in Staten Island) – the two boroughs acknowledged to have the greatest need for yellow bus service in the IBO/BoE report; and
Whereas, Queens submitted 468 applications with only 42 approved (18 or 5% for public schools and 24 or 34% for private schools) while Staten Island submitted 560 hazard variance applications and only 123 were approved (82 or 20% for public schools and 41 or 27% for private schools);
Therefore be it RESOLVED, that the Panel for Educational Policy, within its power under State Education law, recommends that the Chancellor authorize the DOE’s Office of Pupil Transportation to implement the following Safety Hazard Advisory Review Program (S.H.A.R.P.) to establish a standard operating procedure for reviewing hazard variance applications, while providing transparency to the variance process:
• Establish school district advisory committees by May 2012, based on a Community Education Council written request whose primary function will be to establish clear and concise criteria for granting hazard variances.
• The criteria for granting hazard variance could be modeled after a NYS Education Law 3635 (b) which establishes Child Safety Zones
o A list comprised of identifiable road hazards would be established
o Each road hazard will be assigned a point value
o Lack of adequate public transportation will also be allotted points
o In order to grant a pupil transportation hazard variance, a clearly defined total score must be achieved
o Each grade level will require a specific number of points to meet the eligibility requirements for a hazard variance.
• Each school district wanting to create S.H.A.R.P. committees would be comprised of nine (9) representatives; (3) Community Education Council members, (1) DISTRICT Community Superintendent, (3) DOE representatives from the Office of Pupil Transportation, (1) DOE Office of Parent and Community Engagement and (1) respective Borough President designee.
• Each S.H.A.R.P. committee will collectively analyze the conditions and grant hazard variances by majority consensus.
• Each S.H.A.R.P. committee will meet twice yearly. (September and February). DOE, OPT and individual schools will advertise the hazard variance application process in June of the preceding school year.

- Dmytro Fedkowskyj, Panel for Educational Policy, Queens Representative

Monday, January 23, 2012

On teacher evaluation: the responsibility of the media to dig a little deeper

The mainstream media has contributed heavily to the rampant public confusion over the teacher evaluation debate in recent weeks.  Most recently, on Sunday the NY Times featured two superficial accounts of this issue.   
The first, by Nick Kristof, told a familiar if touching story about an Arkansas school librarian named Mildred Grady, who bought  some books by a favored author and slipped them onto the shelves to appeal to one particular at-risk student who later became a judge--to prove the  notion that good teachers can change lives.  This story was apparently first told in a Story Corps 2009 piece on NPR radio.
Kristof concludes that this example reveals how “we need rigorous teacher evaluations, more pay for good teachers and more training and weeding-out of poor teachers.”   
Not so fast.  The so-called “rigorous” system currently being promoted by the state and the mayor would base  teacher evaluation largely on unreliable test scores, combined with the opinion of a principal only, without any assurances that the sort of librarian described in this story would ever be recognized as “effective” and indeed could be “weeded-out” herself – as many librarians have already, due to recent budget cuts.
In fact, Kristof's column could more easily be used to buttress the other side of the debate: showing the many imponderable ways that teachers – and librarians – transforms lives that are unquantifiable; and that cannot be captured in the sort of reductionist systems now being imposed on states throughout the country because of “Race to the Top” and the support of corporate executives like Bill Gates, who claim that the major cause of school dysfunction is incompetent teaching. 
The other NYT column that ran Sunday was written by Ginia Bellafante and entitled “Petty Differences Mask Consensus on Teachers”.  It was just as misleading as Kristof’s, implying that the differences in the positions taken by the state and the city versus the teacher unions on the teacher evaluation system were trivial.  
Nothing could be further from the case.  NYSUT, the state teacher’s union, sued the state in court and won, because Education Commissioner King had subverted their agreement to include multiple measures for teacher evaluation.  Instead, he wrote regulations that would allow districts to use state test scores as 40 percent of the evaluation system, rather than the 20 percent that the union had agreed upon.  More importantly – and missing in most press accounts – is the way in which King devised a rubric that would make it impossible for any teacher who did not succeed on the test score metric alone to be rated “effective” – no matter how highly he or she was found to be through observations or any other means. (See the judge’s ruling here.) 
The differences between the city and the UFT are just as fundamental.  The NYC Department of Education obdurately refuses to allow any independent appeal of a negative subjective evaluation by a principal – no matter how obviously wrong it might be.  Many  principals have shown themselves to be unfairly give poor evaluations to teachers in recent years, under the system of "principal empowerment," with little or no oversight from DOE. 
Nothing in this system would protect great teachers from vindictive principals or inherently volatile value-added test scores – and in fact, DOE has built in to its school funding system a poison pill that incentivizes principals to fire experienced teachers, since they have to pay for their higher salaries out of their school budgets.
Both authors fail to recognize that the current evaluation system being proposed could hurt teacher quality and undermine the quality of education our children receive, by causing teachers to focus even more on damaging and inane test prep over reallearning – something that is already severely damaging our schools. 

Neither author bothers to mention the fact that over one-third of the principals in New York state strongly oppose the evaluation system the state is pushing…which one principal calls "nutty" and which will calls for even more ridiculous  and expensive assessments in all subjects, including music and art.

Both also apparently support the same prescription of merit pay for teachers, as though this is a given: “Paying good teachers more is important — and the mayor, admirably, has committed to doing that” writes Bellafante. Both ignore the fact that merit pay has never worked to improve outcomes for kids, and that in 2011, NYC just axed its program that cost $75 million, because of null results.  
So why in his State of the City address did the mayor now propose an even more expensive merit pay proposal , that will cost $250 million to implement; at the same time that schools have suffered huge budget cuts and our kids are crammed into the largest class sizes in eleven years? 
When challenged on Twitter to provide evidence for such heedlessness, both Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson and Andy Jacob of The New Teacher Project pointed to a New Year’s Day front-page story in the New York Times by Sam Dillon, which featured an interview with a DC teacher named Tiffany Johnson, who had received a big bonus from DC’s new Impact evaluation system.  Ms. Johnson said that her bonus might persuade her to teach longer.  When it was pointed out to Wolfson that this article consisted of anecdote not evidence, Wolfson responded on twitter that this was “good enough for him.”
At the time the DC Impact article was published I criticized it for the way it completely glossed over the fact that the vast majority evaluations of teacher merit pay have had negative results; though I could not have guessed that a single flawed article would lead the mayor to make such a wasteful proposal.
Now praise for this bonus system from the very same DC teacher, Tiffany Johnson, has been recycled repeatedly several times. On Jan. 9, she was interviewed on local DC TV;
And two weeks after the NYT article, she was quoted again in a story in the Daily News, making the very same points.
 Of course, one teacher’s comments do not prove anything, and unfortunately, there will apparently be no actual evaluation of the Impact system because the DC Schools Superintendent could not agree on a methodology with Roland Fryer, the researcher who had been selected for the task.  Fryer had found no positive effects of the previous NYC merit pay program.  This lack of a study doesn’t look to me that the people in charge have much faith that the Impact system could prove itself through actual results.
 After Gov. Cuomo joined in the charge in his budget address, and threatened to cut state aid from any  district which did not impose a new test-based evaluation system within a month, the howls from the editorial boards at the major dailies have grown even louder, inveighing against the unions for resisting whatever bogus evaluation system the state or the city have the yen to impose.  
 On Sunday, the Daily News spread spread more misinformation by publishing an oped by a teacher who wrote that her group, the Gates-funded Educators for Excellence, looked at all the failed merit pay programs, and found “that the efforts that have failed either didn’t offer a compelling enough incentive or linked bonuses to school-wide results and not individual performance.
Again, this is complete misinformation.  The best study of a  merit pay program in the nation was of the Nashville program that provided bonuses of up to $15,000 to individual math teachers whose students saw the greatest gains in their test scores – very similar to what Bloomberg is now proposing.  This study showed no results in terms of improved student achievement or teacher retention.
At least the News oped was accompanied by a far wiser column by Arthur Goldstein, veteran teacher at Francis Lewis HS, who pointed pointing out how merit pay would likely incentivize teachers to focus on test prep even more or even tempt them to cheat: 

“These days, we work in a pressure cooker environment, in which test scores are almost everything. Ridiculous credit recovery programs render credit meaningless. Media outlets feign shock when they discover predictable “erase to the top” style scandals where scores are fabricated.  What do they think will happen when teachers are asked to raise grades to the exclusion of everything else we do?
….We are role models. We inspire kids. We teach them to speak out, stand up, to express themselves. That will be particularly tough if we’re all placing knives in one another’s backs chasing bonuses.”
We have also posted the account of Stephanie Black, a teacher who quit DC schools because the Impact system threatened to make her become less of a teacher than she yearned to be.
In a recent Scholastic survey funded by the pro-merit pay Gates Foundation, teachers overwhelmingly rejected performance pay, with this coming in last of nine proposals to help retain good teachers.  In another national survey by Public Agenda, merit pay again came in last – with only 12% of teachers saying that ‘tying rewards or sanctions to teacher performance” would be a “very effective way” to improve the quality of instruction in our schools.
 In contrast, 86 percent of teachers told Public Agenda that reducing class size would be “very effective” way to improve teacher quality – a proven reform that is rejected by the same corporate reformers, like Mayor Bloomberg and Bill Gates, who relentlessly promote merit pay.
If columnists like Kristof, Bellafante and others really respect teachers and want to dip their toes in the education debate, they should take a serious hard look at the research. They have a responsibility to dig a little deeper before drawing broad conclusions  –lest our children’s education be furthered damaged and millions more wasted on policies that have repeatedly failed in the past.