study says...

Getting an F or a D led schools to assign fewer essays, projects

When the Bloomberg administration announced it would assign every public school a letter grade, based largely on test scores, critics worried the grades would lead to a “drill and kill” approach to teaching. Forced to raise test scores, they said, schools might avoid teaching creativity and problem-solving in favor of focusing on basic skills. New research suggests that the critics worries may have come true — but the researchers don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

Jonah Rockoff, a professor at Columbia business school who has been studying the Bloomberg administration’s accountability system, presented the finding today at a lunch at New York University. It’s part of a paper whose central conclusion — that grading schools with D’s and F’s led schools to improve their test scores — was publicized last year. But the paper has many other interesting aspects, and Rockoff’s research is continuing. Today, I’ll stick to the “back to the basics” idea; future posts will tackle other areas of interest.

Rockoff’s paper draws three conclusions about schools tacked with D’s and F’s that lead to the “back to the basics” conclusion. In the months after getting the failing grades, these schools 1) spent less time on work that involved essays and projects; 2) saw an increase in emphasis on using test score data to make decisions about curriculum; and 3) were less likely to have teachers report that their administrators’ focused on teaching quality.

Here’s how Rockoff and co-author Lesley Turner explain this set of findings (emphasis mine):

“One story which reconciles all of these findings is that principals in F and D schools placed greater weight on direct instruction of skills that would lead to improvements on the state examinations, which involved a greater use of data driven instruction and less of what teachers deem a focus on teaching quality.”

The authors suggest that the shift to so-called “direct instruction” is not necessarily a bad thing. The study finds that F and D schools improved their math scores the next year, and that F schools also improved their English scores. The study also finds that F and D schools did not drop art and music classes, as some critics worried they would. And it finds that parents at F and D schools approve of the changes, reporting in surveys that they were more satisfied with the school’s academics after it got a low grade than they were before it was graded.

Rockoff acknowledged that the higher parent satisfaction could also be evidence of another one of critics’ charges: that parents, concerned about the prospect of their school closing, practice a kind of grade inflation. He said that one reason to believe they are reporting honestly is that parents with children who are about to leave the school — say, parents of eighth-graders or high school seniors — report results no different from parents whose children would be affected by a school closure. But he said it’s impossible to rule out the possibility that the survey responses aren’t honest.

A Department of Education spokesman, Andrew Jacob, said there’s nothing inherently wrong with focusing on basic skills. “You can’t do a project about the real-world applications of algebra if you can’t do algebra,” he said. He also pointed to an internal study that found that schools with high progress report grades were more likely to have parents, teachers, and students report in surveys that they find their school “engaging.”

Next up on Rockoff’s findings: The research he’s done on charges that schools try to “game” the system by mis-representing their own data.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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.