The Farce and the Hope of New York City’s Annual School Report Cards

Failed public schools will be Pharaoh Bloomberg’s legacy to New York City. It will be his pyramid if you will, built on the sweat and misery of the educators and students he has held in captivity for so long.

The Department of Education released the annual report cards for elementary and junior high schools this past Monday.

These report cards routinely have wild differences in school grades from year to year. The rubrics are always changing, leaving principals and teachers in the dark on how they will be assessed.  Having had to endure the annual release of school report cards under the Bloomberg regime, most NYC educators would probably admit they are no less arbitrary than a roll of a die. Both of them have six possible outcomes that all seem equally likely. Neither changes in the school program nor the way one shakes the die before rolling can secure a particular outcome.

I know another high school teacher in one of Bloomberg’s small schools sharing a building with four other small schools. Students routinely score horribly on state exams, well below the citywide average. The administration is mired in incompetence. The principal is a nepotism case. Teachers are mostly inexperienced and the work environment is toxic. There are no advanced placement classes. Yet, the school has never received any other grade but an A.

At the same time, the school in which I teach scores well above average on state exams, has several AP classes and a flourishing special needs programs. Any way you slice it, my school should have much higher grades than the other one. Yet, we have never received an A. Instead, we have bounced between Bs and Cs.

This point is demonstrated in New York State’s Quality Review assessment. Azi Paybarah explains in his article that the QR is based on a “two- or three-day school visit by experienced educators who visit classrooms, [and] talks with school leaders as part of their evaluation of the school.” Schools are rated in many different categories on a rubric with four possible outcomes. From lowest to highest they are “underdeveloped”, “developing”, “proficient” and “well developed”. It is a more in-depth and comprehensive assessment than the city’s report card system. The most recent Quality Review for my school resulted in “well-developed” and “proficient” scores across the board. For the school of my colleague, it was mostly “developing” with maybe one “well-developed”. This disparity between state and city assessments of DOE schools is pretty common.

Not too long ago, a neighbor of mine was asking me about possible high schools for her 8th-grade son. I mentioned a few schools I considered good off the top of my head. She gave me a quizzical look and said she had never come across any of the schools I mentioned in her research. Apparently, she was thumbing through the city’s high school directory and only considering schools with an “A” rating. The way the DOE simply labels schools with letter grades lends itself perfectly to parents quickly scanning the list for the highest rated schools.

I told the parent that, rather than looking at the city’s letter grade, she should take a look at the state’s Quality Review. She appreciated the advice, although it is a tough sell to the majority of parents like her who work many hours a week. As Paybarah explains again, the QR “has a few charts and check-boxes. They’re relatively [heavy on] words, and lack easy-to-consume indicators like letter grades. They require more work from parents, in other words.”

To be sure, no attempts to assess schools are perfect. But imagine you are making a decision as to where you will spend the next four years of your life, whether it is an apartment, a college or a job. Would you make your decision based upon a pile of esoteric charts where the thinking is pretty much done for you? Would you want those charts to be the only basis for a simple letter grade? Chances are that you would not. Chances are you would try to track down first-hand accounts, read some sort of in-depth expert reviews and visit the place yourself. Chances are that you would synthesize these pieces of thoughtful information in order to form an opinion. After all, nobody wants to be stuck in a place in which they will be miserable for so long.

Knowing these circumstances, one would think that the DOE would come up with a more stable rating policy for its schools. What can a parent honestly tell about a school that gets a C one year and an A the next year? The DOE rates schools every year. It changes the rubrics just as often, leaving administrators, teachers, students and parents in the dark about what exactly is expected of them. Schools are not compared with every other school in the city. Instead, they are compared with a small cohort of schools. Many times, these cohorts include charter schools, schools located in much better neighborhoods or schools that are part of Bloomberg’s “showcase schools” that get a disproportionate amount of funding. Some schools have art and music while other schools have many online classes. Are these differences accounted for when the DOE rates schools? We do not know, since the DOE has been anything but forthcoming about how schools are measured.

Would it not make more sense for the DOE to take a page from the QR’s playbook and rate schools every three years, or at most every two years, to determine if a school either maintains its gains over a longer period of time or has instituted policies that create improvements over the long haul? Rating schools every year by ever-changing standards is not the type of system that encourages administrators to think long-term.

Much can speculated as to why Bloomberg decided to approve a rating system of this nature. The obsession with annual ratings measured in bar graphs and statistics, along with the stress on constant “improvement”, is straight from the business world. It is the corporate managerial philosophy brought to New York City’s schools by a mayor who seems incapable of thinking in any other terms but corporate. Short term gains measured in numbers is what drives not only the Bloomberg education regime, but the entire education “reform” movement. It is a strategy that encourages short-term thinking throughout the entire system, from DOE officials all the way down to students. It is the same type of short-term thinking that encouraged the reckless Wall Street speculation responsible for the economic slump in which we are currently mired.

It would be semi-comical if the only impact of these school report cards was a few million misled parents. Unfortunately, the stakes are much higher. Not only are principal and teacher bonuses tied to these ratings at many schools, but they also play a large role in determining whether or not a school closes. By the time Bloomberg is out of office, he will have closed over 100 schools in his 10 years as mayor. One of those schools might have been Bushwick Community High School if not for the heroic activism of its students, teachers and administrators. Bushwick Community is a “second chance school” for students who have not received a high-school diploma by the time they are 18. I wonder what schools Bushwick Community was measured against for its report card? Is there a fair way to compare Bushwick Community to any list of cohorts in NYC?

This is why so many teachers, students and parents see the DOE’s report cards as bludgeons with which to destroy schools in the most impoverished communities. As Michael Winerip explained in an article earlier this year, the schools that receive the lowest grades tend to be in the poorest communities. Consequently, these are the same communities that have seen their schools hollowed out in favor of charters. The few DOE schools that serve middle class or affluent students, or schools whose buildings are not attractive enough for charter school operators, tend to get higher report card grades. People who say there is a conspiracy here to suck the resources from the neediest students so they can be handed off to the private sector might not be off base. The ever-changing manner in which schools are measured, combined with the DOE’s refusal to clearly explain their grades, certainly do nothing to dispel these conspiracies.

In the past, criticism of the DOE’s school report cards have united teachers, students, parents and administrators. Whether it is a school like Bushwick Community whose very existence was threatened by these grades, or a school like mine who clearly should have received higher than some of the schools getting As, everyone can agree that it is an injustice to punish schools for performing poorly when what is expected of them is kept a big secret. As educators, we would never assess our own students like this. As parents, we would be derelict in our duties if we failed to lay out clear expectations for the children we raise. Yet, for Bloomberg, Walcott and the corporate junta who seized control of our school system 10 years ago, they operate with total impunity. The accountability Bloomberg promised for himself has never materialized and never will as long as he is in office. As the old saying goes, the fish rots from the head. If NYC’s school system is rotting, we know exactly where to look for the cause.

Finally, as an exercise of pure speculation on my part, the school report cards might be another reason why Bloomberg refuses to sign a new contract with the United Federation of Teachers. As it stands now, NYC has a deadline of mid-January to approve some form of assessment that will count for 20% of the new teacher evaluation regime. If that deadline is not met, NYC risks losing millions in federal Race to the Top funds. It seems that this assessment will only be agreed upon once a new contract is squared away. With Bloomberg’s apparent stance of leaving a new teacher contract for the next mayor, it seems pretty unlikely that NYC will even come close to that January deadline.

Is this because he fears that laying out a simple and clear teacher evaluation will throw a monkey wrench into his secretive school report card system? After all, if these assessments measure both students and teachers, how would he not be required to factor them into the school report cards? I cannot imagine having an assessment like this and keeping it outside of the school report card rubric. If state exams like Regents factor heavily into them, why not these local assessments? Bloomberg might fear losing some control of the biggest bludgeon he has at his disposal to privatize the school system. A collectively bargained citywide assessment clearly written in the contract is anathema to the fluid and clandestine school grading regime being used now.

As much as we understand that Bloomberg’s school grades are hokum, maybe Bloomberg’s intransigence on this issue is a blessing in disguise. Without a new contract with a collectively bargained local assessment, we get no Race to the Top funds. This means, in all likelihood, that NYC would have effectively opted out of Race to the Top. Sure, this makes it easier for Bloomberg to close more schools by continuing these arbitrary school report cards. But this is nothing we are not already used to in NYC. In fact, the victories at both Bushwick Community and Grover Cleveland High School might be signs that Bloomberg is losing momentum on this front anyway.

It might be asked how I can support a course that will not only deny our schools millions of dollars, but serve as an excuse for Bloomberg to cut school budgets even further. I can support it for a few reasons. First of all, we are getting federal funds now and getting budget cuts all the same. There is no reason to assume that getting RTTT money will change this dynamic. I do not assume this because, second, the cost that it will take to implement the local assessments mandated by RTTT will probably equal if not outstrip any funds the city gets. After all, Bloomberg will use local assessments as an excuse for some more wasteful no-bid contracts to education data companies like Wireless Generation (or whatever they are calling themselves now). We have no reason to believe that one red cent of any RTTT money will find its way into the classroom. In the end, RTTT would be a net loss for NYC. Not only will the students of NYC be denied the money, but RTTT mandates will turn their schools into non-stop testing factories.

In the end, the devil that you know is always better than the devil you do not know. We know where Bloomberg is coming from in regards to education and it seems most New Yorkers are catching on as well. On the other hand, RTTT is a federal monolith that will merely add another major front to the war being fought to save public education in our fair city.

So maybe, for once, Pharaoh Bloomberg’s stubborn incompetence will turn out to be a good thing. Wishful thinking? Maybe. Let us wait and see.

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