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Conflicts of Interest in the High School Progress Reports

What is going to happen in our New York City high schools now that Joel Klein has based 55% of the high school progress reports on the number of courses students take and pass. Consider this: if students don’t pass, the school’s grade will suffer, and punishment may follow. Klein will fire principals and close the schools.

And to make things worse, Klein has also sent out signals that it’s a good thing when schools find creative ways to give a student credit. For example, Klein instituted a policy of seat-time credit (credit recovery, as it’s euphemistically called) wherein students who fail a class because they didn’t do much work can hand in a project of some kind to a different teacher after the course is over, and have that grade reversed.

Any one of these things (the progress reports, the punishments, the seat time credit) is problematic in and of itself. But together, they constitute a conflict of interest that invites – nearly forces – schools to grant kids credit when credit is not due. That may sound like an extreme assessment, but it isn’t.

If there’s anything that NCLB has taught us over the past few years, it ought to be that seeking school improvements (grades, AYP, etc) by threatening punishments does more to undermine education than to foster it. Just this week, New York State Regents were demanding that education officials explain the alarming discrepancy between performance on the state and national tests. The state shows improvement, while scores on the well regarded NAEP and TUDA are flat. The suspicion, of course, is that faced with the conflict between the desire to provide a great education on the one hand, and the need to avoid the punishments and humiliations of NCLB on the other, the states, some of us suspect, have been forced to forgo education, dumb it down.

That’s the states. In schools, too, of course, the pressure to get kids to pass standardized tests had distorted the educational mission, but that’s nothing compared to what can happen when schools are pressured to pass kids in a class. Statewide tests, after all, are not entirely within the control of the schools that will be punished if students don’t succeed. Schools can eliminate the arts, turn their classrooms into testing mills and bully teachers all they want; but in the end, they can’t control the outcome. They don’t make up the tests and in some cases, they don’t even score them. And results – a matter of public record – can’t be changed.

But when it comes to granting credits, the situation is very different. Schools control that. Credits are granted entirely in-house. And for principals, the job is on the line. Let me be quick to say here that I am not suggesting high school principals are dishonest, or that they will do just about anything to make their schools look good.

What I am suggesting, is that it is extremely unwise to give people the means to do something contrary to the interests of our schools, and then punish them if they don’t do it. Klein has crafted an accountability scheme for high schools that is founded on a fundamental conflict of interests that is so glaring as to be, for me, mind-boggling. What is more, Klein’s questionable policies, like seat-time credit have compounded the problem. They send a signal to the schools: we will support you when you are creative about moving kids along.

But the real beauty of Klein’s scheme (at least from the DOE perspective) is that it leaves the principals, not Klein, holding the bag if things should go awry. Take the Daily News story that a principal at Central Park East High School (Bennett Lieberman) wrote a memo to his teachers that said, “If you are not passing more than 65% of your students, then you are not designing your expectations to meet their abilities.” As the News points out in a separate editorial (“Taken to School”), “That’s as close as you can come to suggesting teachers should pass students regardless of how little the kids have learned.”

And the News is not alone in its consternation. According to the editorial, hard-working students were insulted and the public was quite shocked.

And so, today, in swooped Mr. Lieberman’s superintendent (Francesca Pena) and then Klein, both of them dismayed. Klein “voiced his concerns” to Leiberman, according to the News. The superintendent issued him a “sharp rebuke.”

While Klein sailed blithely on.



  • 1 jd2718
    · Dec 17, 2007 at 10:48 pm

    The Progress Reports measure, um, it’s hard to tell. Which makes them easy to game.

    Some enterprising idiot is going to sell services to principals, showing them the easy ways to up their scores (which won’t actually make the schools any better).

    In the meantime, you are right about this more obvious conflict of interest. But there’s more, much much more, that stinks about the methodology behind these reports.


  • 2 Schoolgal
    · Dec 18, 2007 at 12:37 am

    And another good reason not to support mayoral control in the future.

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  • 4 MichaelB
    · Dec 18, 2007 at 5:03 pm

    The irony of the Daily News report is that the principal at Central Park East was far from the worst example of this. In fact, I thought what he did was pretty reasonable: he gave a specific number – 65% – allowing teachers to know exactly when the harassment will begin (I had to poll veteran teachers at my school). Secondly, he chose a relatively low number, giving teachers a fair amount of latitude in enforcing the standards laid out at the beginning of the year. At my “successful” new small school I was advised to fail no more than 20% in a Regents class and to keep the passing rate close to 100% in non-Regents classes. Of course, I didn’t listen and now I’m scheduled for one of those friendly meetings with the principal where they put you on the spot and make you feel like it’s your fault the kids didn’t do their work or show up for school enough and that somehow the phone calls you made to the parents weren’t enough. And even though they don’t threaten you they always make you realize that you better start giving more 65’s or you will come to regret it.

    What’s the UFT’s advice for dealing with these meetings? Aren’t they illegal?

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  • 6 Jackie Bennett
    · Dec 19, 2007 at 2:43 pm

    Michael B — It’s a hard job we have, but as you already imply, keep the best interests of students first, and it’s a lot easier to know what to do.

    And the contract upholds you and asserts that your grades should be respected. They can’t be changed unless you are given the reason in writing . If you run into a problem, contact your chapter leader or UFT borough office.

  • 7 Steve Perez
    · Dec 19, 2007 at 4:20 pm

    To add to what Jackie said, you can also email Leo Casey, Vice President From Academic High Schools