“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
What does it mean for a school to be good? It depends on who you ask. Turn to NCLB, and we learn that a school in good standing is one that increases the percentage of kids passing state tests each year. Ask the New York City Department of Education, and we find out that an “A school” is one that improves the academic growth of its students (55%), yet does well on the overall performance measure (30%) and keeps its parents, students and teachers satisfied (15%). As a result of these conflicting definitions, there are many schools in New York City that received As or Bs but are designated schools in need of improvement under NCLB, as well as schools that received Ds or Fs but are in good standing with the state.
New York City educators now face the unenviable dilemma of deciding which system to put first. If schools want to improve their grades on the progress reports, they need to direct their attention to the lowest performing kids since growth is given the most weight and special attention is paid to the lowest one-third of performers. But if schools want to succeed under NCLB, they need to push the high 2s over the proficiency bar. There’s a similar dilemma with high school admissions. Under the progress report system, schools have an incentive to take kids with whom they can demonstrate more progress, but doing so puts them at risk for failing under the federal system.
Of course, there are shortcut strategies that will help schools succeed under both systems, such as neglecting untested subjects like science, social studies, art and music. In both systems, high-performing students are at risk of losing out, since they are likely to pass the tests required for NCLB and can’t demonstrate the growth that the NYC system prizes.
I suspect that the NYC Department of Education’s response to these concerns would be that “good schools and educators are above playing the system in the ways described above, and will respond by improving the quality of education available to all kids.” In this view, there is no NCLB/NYC Progress Report Catch-22.
The irony of the Department of Education’s Janus-faced position on incentives should not be lost on us. On one hand, the DOE is enamored with incentives and argues that we need more of them precisely because of their strong impacts on behavior. On the other, the DOE chastises schools that respond to these incentives by losing non-tested subjects, attending narrowly to tested skills in reading and math, drilling test-taking skills, and focusing attention on one group of students.
But we can’t have it both ways. Either the incentives matter, or they don’t. And the Progress Reports undeniably create a different set of incentives than NCLB.
Readers, your comments are appreciated here. How is your school reacting to the Progress Reports? Do you think NYC educators will prioritize the Progress Reports over NCLB?