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New school grades mark possible end of an era in accountability

A school accountability era in New York City is going out not with a bang but with a technical briefing in the basement of the Department of Education’s headquarters.

That’s where Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky will be unveiling this year’s progress reports, the letter grades that the Bloomberg administration awarded annually to schools since 2007, to reporters. The setup is similar to what has happened in the recent past but a far cry from the early years of the progress reports, when Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein used to tout the scores — and their improvement from the previous year — with great fanfare.

The letter grades are not the biggest school story today for Bloomberg and his current chancellor, Dennis Walcott. They’re appearing together early this afternoon at a high school in Hell’s Kitchen to announce a donation from AT&T to fund a new software engineering curriculum.

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has said he wants to overhaul how schools are assessed, so today’s grades could well be the last that schools receive, at least under the current system. What they show will become a lasting data point in Bloomberg’s education legacy, along with the city’s higher graduation rate and this year’s dramatic test score decline because of the state’s new standards.

We already have one hint about what this year’s progress reports will say. On Monday, Polakow-Suransky said at a panel event that the lowest-performing 15 percent of schools from last year — all of which received “Targeted Assistance Plans” if the department opted not to close them — had come out ahead on this year’s reports. Three-quarters of the schools with the plans saw their grades go up by at least one letter; 40 percent rose by two letters or more, he said. (Those data points are repeated in a report released Monday about how the city supports schools.)

The grades are based on complex algorithms that compare student progress and performance across schools with similar students. Although the formulas have been tweaked every year, the big picture has remained the same: Elementary and middle school grades have been based almost entirely on state test scores, while high school grades factor in graduation rates and how quickly students earn credits, as well. More recently, high school grades have also reflected how well students are prepared for college, based on whether their students are exempt from remedial courses and stay enrolled over time.

This year, high schools are getting more credit for their graduates’ persistence in college than in the past, although graduates’ college readiness still amounts to only 10 percent of each school’s score. For the first time, middle schools’ scores will based in small part on their graduates’ performance in high school, and elementary schools will see for the first time how their students are doing in middle school, although that won’t factor into their progress reports.

The city also changed the way schools are compared so that schools are grouped with other schools that have similar students. Principals had long complained that the city’s old formula compared schools with many high-need students to schools with relatively few, and schools with many high-need students have been more likely to receive low scores.

The Bloomberg administration devised the grading system in large part to give parents more detailed information about their schools and to shift the focus from raw performance to the progress that students make every year, in an effort to make the point that some schools with struggling students propel them forward faster than others. But de Blasio and many others have criticized the reports’ single letter grades for offering too simplistic a view of school quality.

Usually, the city uses the grades to determine which schools to consider closing. This year, because the closure process would span the two mayoral administrations, no schools will be closed. But Walcott said last week that the department would let low-performing schools know that their progress did not meet standards nonetheless.

Online guides to this year’s progress report formulas offer other indications that the department plans to plow ahead with the progress reports even after the end of the year. Principals have been told to expect additional changes, including the incorporation of the middle school student achievement data point into elementary schools’ grades.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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