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The Moving Goalpost of The Quality Review

My fourth and final year at the Brooklyn Arts Academy saw a flurry of structural revisions and new initiatives. The fire under the feet of the school’s administration was the need to show improvement on the upcoming School Quality Review (SQR). The review would take place in early December, so we needed to hit the ground running.

In addition to the transition to an outcomes-based assessment system, teachers were asked to serve as an advisor to a group of students, with the purpose of helping each one track his or her academic progress. Upon my suggestion, we set up an “office hours” system in which teachers met with students one-on-one during lunch or after school. The short conferences drew on the newly established outcomes-tracking system and were meant to motivate students to achieve proficiency on their outcomes. Not every teacher followed through with these conferences, but I made a concerted effort to touch base with each of my 20 or so advisees once every couple of weeks.

In addition to using my lunch hour for this purpose, I also participated in morning meetings four times a week. We were scheduled to meet twice with our department, and twice with our grade-level teams. Department meetings focused on refining our learning outcomes and developing a four-year scope and sequence.

The process of creating the scope and sequence was a confusing one. We were first asked to choose 10 “power standards” related to history that we hoped every student could meet upon graduation from the school. For example, one standard that we agreed to use was that all graduating seniors should be able to “fully defend [his or her] arguments with evidence and if prompted rebut contradictory arguments, identifying weaknesses in [his or her] own or other’s arguments.”

Once we choose our power standards, we were asked to plan backwards from the 12th grade to ninth grade. We started this process in good faith, but found that we were just changing the wording slightly each year (eg. in the above standard we took out the word “fully” but otherwise kept the standard the same for 11th-graders) and that the scope and sequence was becoming so specific that it wasn’t useful. After a while, we discovered the administration wasn’t checking up on us and we stopped trying very hard. We had no model to base our scope and sequence on, and therefore were unsure of how to move forward.

Meanwhile, our grade-level meetings tended to be more focused because we could talk about the students that we all taught each day. We used this time to discuss ways to make our classes more consistent (even to the point of setting up our white boards in the same way), as well as talking out concerns and possible interventions for particular students who were struggling.

We could refer these students to the Pupil Personnel Team (PPT). The PPT was another new structure for the year, which was created to replace the dean. The PPT consisted of a guidance counselor and social worker as well as one of the assistant principals. The PPT occasionally dropped in on grade-level team meetings.

The administration asked staff to document every academic and behavioral intervention that we made.  At first, we were told to this using the online outcomes-tracking system, but the ninth-grade team leader instead created a spreadsheet using google-documents that made the process much easier.  Impressed with the spreadsheet, the administration asked all teachers to follow suit and create one.  The spreadsheets were later used to check up on whether or not teachers were doing things like calling parent homes or holding office hours.

In the weeks leading up to the SQR, the administration also held weekly Monday morning meetings to prepare the teachers to talk about each of these new initiatives in a language consistent with the rubric being used to assess the school during the review.  We were given copies of this rubric and asked to fill it out in our grade-level teams to reflect all the work we were doing and how it related to things like data-driven and differentiated instruction.

Additionally, the administration developed a 19-point checklist for what our classrooms should look like when an observer walked through. We were asked to do things like post student work along with the rubric that was used to assess it and our comments. The AP walked through each of our classrooms and gave us feedback about what we needed to do to improve.

With so much extra work being poured on teachers, I was anxious for the SQR to be over and done with so I could get back to focusing exclusively on my teaching. So I was surprised and dismayed when I found out that our SQR was being postponed from early December to late April.

The pressure eased for a while after this announcement, but after winter break it ramped up again. The next push was the creation of “inquiry teams” on each grade level. Teachers were asked to target a group of students who were struggling with a particular skill. We were then asked to conduct a pre-assessment of the students’ performance on this skill, introduce a new strategy for the students to use, and then conduct a post-assessment to see if the strategy worked. My team focused on literacy skills and taught the specific strategy of underlining key passages in a text. We used document-based questions from the global regents exam as our pre- and post-assessment. The results showed a small improvement, but my team never felt invested in the inquiry team process.

Armed with this data, though, our administration was feeling confident going into the SQR. We had a trial run with the leaders of our school’s network, and the principal told us that, if everything went well, he believed our school could earn a rating of “well-developed.”

In April, we found out the SQR was being postponed yet again, but this time only until mid-May. The AP for instruction went into hyper-drive in May, asking departments and grade level teams to submit any and all forms of documentation and meeting minutes from the year. She asked us to provide lesson plans for the Monday and Tuesday of the SQR, and told us, “It is crucial you address learning outcomes explicitly in your classes — in your lesson and on your walls.”

In the end, the school was rated as “proficient.” The principal was magnanimous when informing us of the result, and said, though he believed our school met the criteria for well developed, he understood the rater’s feedback. He commended the teachers on our contributions and said that at some point we would go out together to celebrate.

After the SQR, our structures kind of fell apart. A lot of meetings got cancelled or devolved into chat sessions. I personally stopped feeling pressure to document every interaction I had with students or their families. Staff seemed to me to be drained, and the administration was likewise less present. The SQR clearly had provided the external pressure for change. I was left wondering, though, if the process was ultimately helpful or harmful to our school. We did a lot more work, but it felt too often to me like we were more concerned about appearances than reality.

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