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Comments of the week: Divided views on school surveys' truth

Each Friday, we highlight a sampling of the most thoughtful, substantive, and informed comments that readers left on the week’s news articles. We believe that a constructive conversation in the comments section helps us meet our goal of elevating public dialogue about education.

Unfortunately, with emotions high this week, particularly over the collapse of the Department of Education’s “turnaround” plans, many comments did not rise to that standard.

As a reminder, part of the very first rule in our comments policy reads, “Disagreement with people’s arguments is fine, but personal attacks — including on other commenters and GothamSchools writers and editors — will not be tolerated.”

But there were constructive comments, too! Back on Monday, we wrote about the results of this year’s Department of Education survey, which showed that teachers, parents, and students hold their schools in high esteem, even when the schools’ performance data might lead to other conclusions.

One commenter, “Larry,” offered some advice for interpreting the results, which he said had been rendered meaningless:

1. Many high schools coach the kids into putting good things about the schools on the surveys. The common narrative is either “they’ll close us down” or “you won’t get into good colleges” if the school receives a low grade on the progress report.

2. Many high-school students fill out the surveys for their parents, especially if the school has given them an incentive to turn in the completed survey.

3. Teachers will positively rate their own schools and the DOE positively out of fear, rather than honesty.

In short, these surveys, which were a good idea at the time, have become meaningless. As long as they continue to be factored into progress report scores, they will continue to be meaningless.

Several readers responded to say that Larry’s warnings were well founded. “Follow the Money” wrote,

This is actually true. At the last school I worked at, one with a culture of fear, many teachers remarked to me that they were scared to put down their true thoughts, as they weren’t sure if the administration would find out and if they would be risking reprisal. Now I’m not saying there was any validity to these fears … but the fears were there.

“Elaz Laz” went even further, saying that not only fear but pressure informed survey responses at her school:

Yes this is true. We coach the students as to what to write down. We get coached by our administration as to what to write down. We were told the surveys are not the place to air complaints. The surveys are a huge waste of money.

“Justaparent” said she only leaves positive comments, too — but that’s how she wants it:

I am just a parent and have always boycotted these surveys. However, this year I did complete the one for my 9th grader’s high school because I have been so Impressed with the teachers and administration.

Travis Dove, a student at CSI High School for International Studies who wrote in the GothamSchools Community section last month about problems with the school’s physical education program, was the lone dissenter. He said he thought this year’s surveys would produce accurate results at his school:

No, my school does not bully students to put good things on the survey. This year my bubble sheet was brutal.

And one reader, who commented as “a teacher,” said it was the survey itself, not the pressuring surrounding it, that could skew results:

The questions about the rating system were absurd. Of course a system with only two categories, satisfactory and unsatisfactory, doesn’t “recognize excellence”, but that doesn’t mean I want it replaced by some value-added nonsense. Even as I answered the questions, I resented the DOE for asking them in a way that seemed designed to get as many teachers as possible to agree with their position. If they’d asked “Do you think the current evaluation system should be replaced with a system of evaluation that relies heavily on standardized test scores?”, they would probably have seen very different results.

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