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Getting an F or a D led schools to assign fewer essays, projects

When the Bloomberg administration announced it would assign every public school a letter grade, based largely on test scores, critics worried the grades would lead to a “drill and kill” approach to teaching. Forced to raise test scores, they said, schools might avoid teaching creativity and problem-solving in favor of focusing on basic skills. New research suggests that the critics worries may have come true — but the researchers don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

Jonah Rockoff, a professor at Columbia business school who has been studying the Bloomberg administration’s accountability system, presented the finding today at a lunch at New York University. It’s part of a paper whose central conclusion — that grading schools with D’s and F’s led schools to improve their test scores — was publicized last year. But the paper has many other interesting aspects, and Rockoff’s research is continuing. Today, I’ll stick to the “back to the basics” idea; future posts will tackle other areas of interest.

Rockoff’s paper draws three conclusions about schools tacked with D’s and F’s that lead to the “back to the basics” conclusion. In the months after getting the failing grades, these schools 1) spent less time on work that involved essays and projects; 2) saw an increase in emphasis on using test score data to make decisions about curriculum; and 3) were less likely to have teachers report that their administrators’ focused on teaching quality.

Here’s how Rockoff and co-author Lesley Turner explain this set of findings (emphasis mine):

“One story which reconciles all of these findings is that principals in F and D schools placed greater weight on direct instruction of skills that would lead to improvements on the state examinations, which involved a greater use of data driven instruction and less of what teachers deem a focus on teaching quality.”

The authors suggest that the shift to so-called “direct instruction” is not necessarily a bad thing. The study finds that F and D schools improved their math scores the next year, and that F schools also improved their English scores. The study also finds that F and D schools did not drop art and music classes, as some critics worried they would. And it finds that parents at F and D schools approve of the changes, reporting in surveys that they were more satisfied with the school’s academics after it got a low grade than they were before it was graded.

Rockoff acknowledged that the higher parent satisfaction could also be evidence of another one of critics’ charges: that parents, concerned about the prospect of their school closing, practice a kind of grade inflation. He said that one reason to believe they are reporting honestly is that parents with children who are about to leave the school — say, parents of eighth-graders or high school seniors — report results no different from parents whose children would be affected by a school closure. But he said it’s impossible to rule out the possibility that the survey responses aren’t honest.

A Department of Education spokesman, Andrew Jacob, said there’s nothing inherently wrong with focusing on basic skills. “You can’t do a project about the real-world applications of algebra if you can’t do algebra,” he said. He also pointed to an internal study that found that schools with high progress report grades were more likely to have parents, teachers, and students report in surveys that they find their school “engaging.”

Next up on Rockoff’s findings: The research he’s done on charges that schools try to “game” the system by mis-representing their own data.

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