In a 2009 presentation, the DoE lists six Guiding Principles that it says it used to shape the formulas behind the High School Progress Reports. These reports assign a letter grade to every school. Here is one of those principles:
Produce outcomes [letter grades] that are not correlated with socioeconomic status, Special Education populations, or other demographic characteristics
That’s a fine principle: schools should not be punished for the academic challenges with which students arrive. But, in reality, the cards do correlate with demographics; the formula is deeply flawed. In spite of all the high-minded principles, the money, and the brains behind them, High School Progress Report grades reflect the academic challenges with which students arrive, rather than the quality of the education they receive.
Certainly this is true for the high schools the DoE wants to close. Primarily, DoE grades schools against cohorts of “peers,” which are schools the DoE claims are demographically similar. A school grades is determined to a large extent by its performance in relation to its peers. When I compared closing schools to their peers, I found that:
• Of the 31 schools that do not serve self-contained Special Education students, 24 were awarded A’s and none got D’s.
• But nearly one third of the schools (29%) were handed D’s if their population consisted of 10% or more of these students. Only 18% of these kinds of schools were rewarded A’s (compared to 77% of schools without these kids).
• That’s 18% vs. 77%. Our statistical expert Rhonda Rosenberg has verified that in the peer groups of closing schools there is a “a significant negative relationship” between a school’s overall Progress Report score and the school’s percentage of self-contained Special Education students. “As the percentage of these students rises, the school’s overall score declines.”
So much for principles. To a significant extent, it’s not quality of education being measured. It’s demographics.
For those wondering what is meant by self-contained, understand that Special Education students are broken into at least two broad categories:
• Low need (LRE) students need some support but can succeed in general education.
• Self-contained (high-need/MRE) students face more significant academic and emotional challenges. In order to thrive, they require intensive support including smaller classes (12 students at most), and significant social, academic and emotional support.
Anyone who has had the privilege of teaching high-need students knows that it can be about the most meaningful and rewarding work that teachers do . But these kids are not statistics. They do not make progress in the same ways that other students do.
The schools the DoE wants to close work with high populations of these students, and the DoE formulas have punished them for it. Last year Columbus had 14%, and got a D. Maxwell with 13% came three-tenths of a point from a C. Smith, with 12%, got a C. Overall, the 14 closing high schools, which all have C’s and D’s, had an average of 8% high need students. “A” schools, meanwhile had an average of 3%, but of the 69 “A’s, a full third of them had none at all.
We already knew DoE managers were shutting schools on our most vulnerable students. And we already knew that they were adjusting their own standard from school to school, and omitting their expensive and intensive Quality Reviews when the reviews didn’t match the outcome preferred by the managers. And, we also knew that DoE had no plan for high-need/self-contained kids once their schools were shut.
But now we know something else. We know that the Progress Report cards are stacked against these schools. DoE didn’t intend this problem, but it did create it. It created Progress Reports that punished schools who served our neediest students, and gave A’s to those that didn’t. Then it blamed the schools and now it wants to close them.
What kind of school system have we become?