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Underdeveloped With Proficient Features

Collin Lawrence is a former New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.

In mid-November 2008, the Brooklyn Arts Academy received notification that it would undergo its annual “school quality review” in about 10 days. Every public school in the city of New York is subject to a SQR. The results, published online, provide feedback to school leaders and information to the public. The SQR specifically focuses on how schools gathered and analyzed data in order to improve instruction. During the 2008-09 school year, a school could be rated as underdeveloped, underdeveloped with proficient features, proficient, or well developed. Our administrators believed the school met the criteria for proficiency, but our reviewer saw things differently.

In the days leading up to the SQR, school administration made a hasty but concerted effort to prepare Brooklyn Arts Academy to receive the best rating possible. First, teachers were required to attend a meeting in which we were informed about the process and asked to plan particularly engaging lessons during the days of the review. Six of us, myself included, were selected to meet with the reviewer. We were told to familiarize ourselves with the principal’s “school self-evaluation statement” and also given a list of possible interview questions from which to prepare.

Additionally, the assistant principal emailed all teachers five days before the review requesting that we submit 3-8 “learning targets” from our classes to her, ASAP. We were told to phrase these learning targets in the form of “I can” statements, and that each target should reflect what we hoped our students should know and be able to do by the end of the semester. I hadn’t previously articulated specific learning targets, but I took a look at my curriculum, wrote some up based on my assessments, and submitted them.

Three days later, I received another email from the assistant principal. This time, my learning targets had been entered across the top of a spreadsheet. The names of my students were written in the left-hand column. I was to rate each student, for each learning target, as having demonstrated mastery (M), proficiency (P), or as “not yet” having demonstrated proficiency (NY). So I retroactively went back and translated my students’ grades on different assessments from As to Ms, Bs and Cs to Ps, and Ds or Fs to NYs. The AP admitted freely that the SQR motivated her request, but she also explained that filling out this chart now would help us monitor student progress in the future.

A day before the review, we received one final email from the assistant principal. This one was titled “Are you differentiating tomorrow?” and asked us to email her back with a description of our lesson if we were planning to teach in a way that offered different tasks and goals to students with different skill levels.

On the day of the review, a Monday, I walked into the school and saw that the hallways had been repainted. Intriguing quotes from progressive educational theorists such as Paulo Freire and Alfie Kohn now adorned the walls.

The reviewer, though, saw right through our superficial preparations. By the time he met with the group of teachers in the afternoon, he’d clearly made up his mind about the school. We’d been told to expect questions about our own teaching, and I’d even brought a binder with me in case I needed to refer to my curriculum or assessments. But the reviewer was more interested in asking our opinions of the administrators. We praised our assistant principal for her efforts at being a larger presence in our classroom and muted our criticisms of the principal. The reviewer nodded knowingly at our comments, and even used the adjective “airy-fairy” to describe the principal.

In his write-up, the reviewer specifically critiqued the school’s lack of consistency, noting that it led to “insecurity amongst teachers and at times mixed messages for students.” He also noted that many students were not being challenged and that there was no clear mechanism for using data to help plan differentiated instruction. He singled out the assistant principal for commendation and also praised the teachers as “enthusiastic, committed, mutually supportive and keen to develop their practice as part of a learning organization.” The principal was likewise praised for his “clear vision for the further development of the school.” The school was rated underperforming with proficient features.

After being informed of the rating, the principal and AP jointly emailed the teachers and staff. The email was humble and self-reflective, praising us for our participation and outlining the results of the review. At the same time, the principal noted that the rating would “feel like a rebuke given the hard work we’ve been doing and the high stakes nature of this exercise.” He would appeal the rating, though it would not be overturned.

The low rating on this SQR did motivate some deeper structural changes. Indeed, the future path of the school may have been fundamentally altered as a result of it.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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