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The Importance of the School Progress Debate

[Editor’s note: Seth Pearce is from the NYC Student Union.]

A few days ago, walking to the train after an NYC Student Union meeting with some of my fellow students, it struck me to ask, Why has the debate on the NYC DOE’s Progress Report program garnered so much attention? Why have so many newspaper articles been written on it, so many people been riled up about it? It’s just a silly report card program right? Aren’t there so many important issues out there?

Well, yes and no.

While there are more urgent issues facing our schools, especially class size, this issue gains its importance because it very thoroughly defines the main theme of Klein/Bloomberg’s tenure running our schools: The Search for Results. Under this administration, and probably in many other school systems around the country, the focus of broad educational policy will be measurable results. These results will set the agenda for individual schools and school systems as a whole.

Hopefully, all of us witnessing and participating in this event can use what has transpired as a learning experience on the short term future of American education politics.

Since the first School Progress Reports were released – basically, Report Cards giving each school an A-F letter grade based on Student Progress (Test Scores, Credit Accumulation), Student Performance (graduation rates), and Learning Environment (Teacher, Parent and Student Surveys and Attendance) – many education advocacy groups have vigorously attacked the DOE on the Reports, alleging that they are a waste of money and encourage a culture of constant test prep.

Many of these attacks have been directed at DOE Accountability Czar James Liebman. I personally feel that these were uncalled for. The man is trying to create a system that brings a measure of accountability, transparency and most importantly attention to our schools. In that third category, Liebman has unquestionably succeeded.

The progress report debate has brought education issues into the public eye more than any other issue this year. It has stayed in the paper and on the minds of parents, politicians and plain old people. It has inspired questions to be asked and answers to given and has gotten more people thinking about their schools. Without the letter grade, bold and big in the top left hand corner of the progress report (the main qualm for some anti-report card activists) this would have been a non-story and no change would have come of it.

If there’s one thing I would like to put out there before the debate begins to die down it is this: The Report Cards Are Not Inherently Evil. They are flawed, but their spirit is important and good. For my school’s SLT at least, our Progress Report has given us important information about what can be improved in our schools and has forced us to develop strategies to deal with the areas in which we did not do as well. Hopefully, the progress reports also got more parents informed about what’s going on in their children’s schools and inspired them to take some action.

As I said, however, the Report Cards are flawed. Last week several reps from NYCSU went to meet with Mr. Liebman to explain our grievances about the current progress reports. They are as follows:

  1. 1. The NYC Student Union supports the Progress Report program because it adds a sense of accountability and transparency to our schools and gives Principals and SLTs important information about how to improve their schools.
  2. 2. We believe that students should be involved in revising the surveys to make them more student friendly and informative. In addition, we believe that, like the parent survey, the student survey should include a question like “What is the most important thing that could be improved about your school?” We also thought that surveys of teachers, parents and students should carry more weight in the overall school grade.
  3. 3. We believe that the Student Progress section should be reduced to at most 50% of the grade and more weight should be given to the Learning Environment section.
  4. 4. We believe that the Weighted Regents Pass Rate does not say as much about the output of the school as the survey desires and that that WRPR should be reduced or eliminated in favor of a larger emphasis on Credit Accumulation and Graduation Rates as both of those use regents scores to determine real student output. It also puts too much emphasis on test-prep by giving schools points for trying to make students take regents earlier.
  5. 5. We believe that Attendance, though it is somewhat of a difficult factor, should be given more weight because it forces schools to reexamine policies on a day to day level and create more incentives for students to come to school. (Shanna Kofman, a Staten Island representative, pointed out, that at SI Tech, the school offers SAT tutoring the day before SAT Exams so that students won’t stay home to study.) This is an important example because this occurs only several times a year, but the school cares enough to adapt to the students in order to keep them in class for those few days.
  6. 6. Finally, we suggest that a student or students should be included in the evaluation of data collected from surveys and quality reviews, so that the effect of positive and negative aspects of every school can affect the school’s report card grade in a way that accurately reflects the way those aspects affect students. Because schools are made up of people of diverse educational perspectives, the teams that evaluate schools must reflect this diversity, and therefore must include students.

The edu-activist community has, to this point, missed out on a great opportunity to revise this system and make it into a more positive factor in our schools. Instead, they have, for a large part, condemned the program outright and has severed a possible avenue of communication between the various constituents of our school system.

I hope that the education community can use this issue to give parents, teachers and students more influence on the results-based system that seems soon to overtake American education (i.e. keeping the general program but working to decrease the importance of certain elements like high stakes testing). By refusing to compromise in this we are decreasing the possibility of working together on the more important issues like Class Size. In this City, Compromise Matters.

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2 Comments:

  • 1 Schoolgal
    · Dec 19, 2007 at 4:26 pm

    I wish more students would be as involved as you. However,
    the problem with this analysis is that schools are now on the chopping block due to the efforts of Mr. Liebman.

    If those closings were put on hold until a fair evaluation could be made, or changes made, I would have no problem with that. But as of now, neither Mr. Liebman, Mr. Klein or the mayor has admitted to any flaws in these report cards.

    As for the evaluation process, many years ago we had a PASS review system in place. Principals, teachers and parents knew the area of improvement. However, teachers were never really given any sense of empowerment to make the changes needed. And, they are still not.

    As you must have read in the news or on various education blogs, principals are telling their teachers to pass a percentage of students. Klein wants to give chair credit to students who don’t deserve it. The NYTimes quotes Mr. Liebman’s “spin” on the issue of high rates of teacher turnover in schools that got A’s as positive when the real reason is violence against teachers and their students.

    The fact that someone gives you “face time” does not necessarily mean they are respectful people. If so, they would act upon those suggestions accordingly. Then, these schools should not close until, as you say, they are given the chance to make improvements. Instead these “meetings” are a way to quell constructive criticism by making people feel they are change agents. Politicians do this all the time. However, when Mr. Liebman met with parents, he ran away from their questions and concerns.

    As for your suggestions, don’t you think they were brought up last year when principals were given workshops on the rating system? Their concerns were met with a deaf ear. As a result, successful schools received failing grades.

    I believe Mr. Liebman was given a goal–to close more schools–and he used the report card format to do so. It’s the same when a “study” is performed on some issue. Depending on the political agenda of the organization conducting the study, they make sure the facts fit the conclusion they want.

    As for smaller class size, the DoE has and will continue to fight it.

  • 2 eduwonkette
    · Jan 14, 2008 at 7:10 pm

    [...] Reports – check out Sherman Dorn’s post on “Bundling Accountability,” Seth Pearce’s post on “The Importance of the School Progress Debate,” and my post, “The NYC Progress Report [...]