Making the grade

More schools met threshold for closure on new progress reports

Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky briefed reporters on the new progress report cards this morning.

Almost twice as many elementary and middle schools are eligible for closure under the Department of Education’s longstanding rules this year, according to the schools’ 2011-2012 progress reports.

Since 2007, the city has given schools a letter grade each year based largely on calculations of their students’ test scores. Schools that receive an F, D, or three consecutive C’s or worse can be closed.

Last year, 120 schools fell into that category, and the department ultimately moved to close 10 of them. But this year, 217 schools received those grades, suggesting that this year’s closure toll could be greater than in the past.

The most dramatic change was a jump in schools receiving their third straight grade of C or below — from just five last year to 114 this year.

The striking jump is a late-onset effect of the state’s 2010 decision to raise the proficiency bar on its state tests. In 2009, just two schools had received F’s and 84 percent earned A’s. But that year, most schools saw their test scores fall, and nearly 70 percent of schools saw their progress report grades drop, too. The progress reports released today were the third since the change.

Caught in the metrics were some popular schools, such as Central Park East I and the Earth School in Manhattan, as well as 16 of Staten Island’s 52 elementary and middle schools.

It is possible that more schools than usual will start the first phase of the closure process, called “early engagement,” this year, Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky told reporters during a briefing about the progress reports today. But he said most schools with middling progress report scores would not need to worry.

“Early engagement is still going to be a significantly smaller subset of these schools,” he said. “There are triple C’s in this group that I’m not really worried about… that are nowhere near the point where we would consider them for closure.”

Progress report grades are a big factor in the city’s school closure decisions. But officials also take into account the schools’ enrollment data, safety data, and leadership quality, and other department accountability metrics.

The progress reports have drawn criticism for their complex and ever-changing algorithms and for sometimes awarding low scores to top schools and high scores to schools not considered desirable. But Polakow-Suransky said the reports have grown more sophisticated and accurate as the city has devised new ways to judge schools, such as by awarding them extra credit for helping high-needs students boost their test scores.

He touted this year’s adjustments, which include a new score for middle school students’ pass rates in core courses, and noted that most schools’ letter grades didn’t change much: 86 percent of schools received the same rating as last year or rose or fell by just one letter grade.

Tallying middle school students’ course passing rates allowed city officials to identify “a handful” of schools that had much higher pass rates in core subjects than on standardized tests.

“In the ones that we found, there really was grade inflation,” he said. “The standards were off in those schools and they needed a reality check.”

Department officials could not immediately provide a list of those schools, but Polakow-Suransky said the schools’ progress reports were adjusted so they were not unduly rewarded for having high course pass rates.

“This is the balancing act that is challenging around measuring school performance,” he said. “There’s always a risk when there’s data that doesn’t have the security of a standardized exam that this can happen.”

One metric that was not factored into the reports this year, but is set to be included next year, was a look at how each middle school’s recent graduates are faring in high school. The data, culled from the city’s “Where Are They Now?” reports that track student cohorts over several years, appeared on this year’s reports in a non-graded form.

Overall, of the 1,193 schools to receive grades for last year, 304 schools received an A, 421 received a B, 365 received a C, 80 received a D, and 23 received an F. Principals of A-rated schools receive bonuses of $5,000 to $25,000.

As has always been the case, Queens schools scored the highest, on average, compared to other boroughs. In a PowerPoint presentation delivered to reporters, department officials also called attention to the scores of charter schools and the 250 elementary and middle schools opened under the Bloomberg administration. Both beat the city average, the department noted.

Several charter school networks, including Democracy Prep and Success Academies, sent press releases touting their progress report scores. And in a statement, James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, celebrated the 45 charter schools that scored A’s, calling them ”another sign that charters are making tremendous progress,” in a statement. Seven of the top 15 schools were charter schools.

“We hope they will share their lessons broadly to help make every public school great,” he said. The statement also touted the charter schools’ performance on one piece of the progress report: student growth. About a third of city charter schools earned A’s in that section, compared to 16 percent of schools citywide.

Teachers union officials did not comment on the progress reports this year, though in the past they have criticized the reports for their heavy emphasis on test scores and for not offering principals strategies to improve their schools. Instead, the union shared a table of data from the reports showing that several of the highest-performing charter schools had very high suspension and student attrition rates. The officials said those schools were at an advantage because many students who would post low test scores leave instead, the officials said.

Union officials also noted that several other high-scoring charter schools are new and do not yet have students in all grades.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”