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Annual survey reflects sanguine views of school performance

Results of the city’s annual survey of what parents, students and teachers think about their schools paints a much rosier picture than data on school performance indicate.

It also offers a rosier picture of teachers’ views of their evaluation system than both city and union officials have painted in the past.

This year, 94 percent of parents said they were “satisfied” with their children’s education, and 95 percent of students said they have to “work hard to get good grades” — figures city officials touted as a sign that the schools are becoming more rigorous. Answering a new question, 94 percent of teachers said their school “does a good job supporting students who aspire to go to 2- or 4-year colleges.”

Those responses suggest that city parents, students, and teachers remain sanguine about their schools even as the city and state have mounted a concerted effort to raise expectations. The Learning Environment Survey results, which the city published today, come on the heels of annual state test scores that showed for the second straight year that fewer than half of the city’s third through eighth graders are reading at grade level. And while the city’s “college-readiness” rate inched up since it was first announced last year, only about a quarter of students meet the city’s and state’s standards.

The survey results do signal that some schools are beginning to ask more of their students. Since 2009, the proportion of high school students who say they are receiving “helpful” college and career counseling has risen from 74 to 82 percent. And while the number of students reporting sophisticated research or essay assignments barely budged, the number who said they had been asked to “complete an essay or project where [they] had to use evidence to defend [their] own opinion or ideas” three or more times increased sharply, from 62 percent in 2011 to 67 percent this year.

That type of assignment reflects a central objective of the city’s new learning standards, the Common Core. This year’s survey polled teachers about their familiarity with the Common Core, which city officials say is key to boosting student achievement and college readiness. Halfway into a year of practicing with the Common Core, nearly all teachers (92 percent) said they “understand” the standards that will underly next year’s state tests.

Survey results count for about 10 percent of schools’ annual Department of Education rating. But teachers’ Common Core responses will not factor in, nor will their answers to questions about the working environment at their schools and about their satisfaction with the city’s current teacher evaluation system.

City and teachers union officials alike have argued that the current “satisfactory/unsatisfactory” system does not capture an accurate or useful picture of teacher performance. But on the survey, half of teachers said they thought the current evaluation system recognizes excellence, and 57 percent said they thought it provided specific enough feedback to help them improve. The state is requiring districts to overhaul their systems according to specific constraints, but so far the city and teachers union have not agreed on a new model.

The city has conducted annual surveys of students, teachers, and parents since 2007, and with nearly 1 million respondents, the survey ranks as the largest conducted in the United States other than the census, Department of Education officials frequently say. Officials have also cited the survey results as proof that “real parents” support the department’s reform efforts, even as some parents criticize the department.

Critics of the surveys have long charged that the surveys evince an overly positive outlook, and some teachers have complained that administrators have pressured them to give positive feedback to manipulate their schools’ progress report scores. At others, low response and high dissatisfaction rates suggest that no manipulation has successfully occurred.

In either case, the survey results matter. In addition to factoring into a school’s annual letter grade, they can provide justification when the department moves to close or overhaul schools. At a hearing about plans to “turn around” Automotive High School in March, for example, a top department official pointed to student opinion about safety at the school to argue that an overhaul was needed.

Detailed analysis of this year’s surveys, as well as school-by-school results, is available on the Department of Education’s website.