First Person

Comparing Small Apples to Large Apples

I’m not sure how much credibility the Progress Reports at the heart of the NYC Department of Education’s accountability system have left.  The elementary and middle school Reports issued earlier this fall were ridiculed for their inability to distinguish one school from another, since 97% of the school’s received A’s or B’s (and 84% received A’s).  Moreover, I showed that the student progress measures that make up 60% of a school’s overall score were highly unreliable from one year to the next.  As long as these reports are tied to year-to-year changes in state test scores, they’re likely to be fatally flawed.

On Monday, the Department released the 2008-09 Progress Reports for high schools.  Anna Phillips reported that Chancellor Joel Klein said that the high school Progress Reports were more stable and accurate than those for elementary and middle schools because they’re based on multiple measures.  Huh?  Welcome to the party, Chancellor Klein.  I hate to tell you that measures such as credit accumulation are not necessarily accurate measures of a school’s contribution to student learning and development. 

But the high school Progress Reports have a bigger problem.  Three-quarters of a school’s score comes from a school’s location in relation to a group of 40 peer schools.  The idea of comparing a school to peer schools is to create an “apples to apples” comparison.  It’s actually a good feature of the Progress Reports that they seek to compare a given school to how schools across the city are doing as well as to how schools that serve similar students are performing.

But it only works if the right criteria are used to determine a school’s peer schools.  Wednesday, Jenny Medina and Robert Gebeloff broke a story in the New York Times that high schools with higher percentages of poor, black and Hispanic students received lower grades on the Progress Reports.  In 2009, they wrote, the high schools which received A’s enrolled an average of 77% black and Hispanic students.  In contrast, the high schools which received C’s, D’s and F’s enrolled an average of 91% black and Hispanic students.  This pattern, found in 2007 and 2008 as well, suggested that the school grading system doesn’t adequately adjust for racial and ethnic differences among schools.

A high school’s peer index is based primarily on its students’ average eighth-grade scores on the state ELA and math exams (using the peculiar metric the DOE has developed for converting the exam’s scale scores into a 1.0 to 4.5 proficiency scale), minus two times the percentage of special education students and minus the percentage of overage students.  A high school with an average proficiency of 3.10, 6% special education students, and 12% overage students would have a peer index of 2.86.  One with an average proficiency of 3.70, 2% special education students, and 5% overage students would have a peer index of 3.61.

Although the formula tries to take special education and overage status into account, I suspect that its designers were unaware that it is dominated by the average proficiency value, because there is far more variance from school to school in average proficiency than in special education and overage status.  But a larger question is, why these factors and not others?  Why not the percentage of English Language Learners (ELL’s)?  Why not the percentage of students eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch?  Why not the racial/ethnic make-up of the school?  (And when is the DOE going to wise up that it can’t treat black students as equivalent to Hispanic students, and Asian students as equivalent to white students?  These groups have different learning trajectories.)

And why stop there?  If the goal is to try to isolate the impact of the school on student performance and progress, then logic would dictate that we should seek to control for all factors that are prior to selection into one school versus another, and potentially related to students’ outcomes.  That includes a range of demographic criteria, to be sure.  But there are at least two other factors that I think ought to be taken into account.  The first is school size.  Schools in New York City generally have little control over their size, and if small schools provide certain advantages for students, then we should compare small schools to small schools and large schools to large schools.  The second is per-pupil expenditures.  Even in the Fair Student Funding era, there are disparities in per-pupil expenditures across schools that are not accounted for by demographic differences in the students attending different schools.  I’ve spoken to principals who are indignant that their peer schools have higher expenditures, and yet they are being held to the same performance criteria.

Does all this matter?  You bet.  Let’s look at just one of the many measures in the high school Progress Reports:  the percentage of second-year students accumulating ten or more credits.  (The pattern I’m going to describe is found for many of the performance and progress measures in the Progress Reports.)   Citywide, the 2009 average was 72%, with a standard deviation of 15%.  Schools are compared to their “peer range,” a school’s location in relation to its lowest and highest peers.  Citywide, schools were, on average, 59% of the distance between the lowest and highest peers on their percentages of second-year students accumulating ten or more credits.

But some schools were advantaged in these calculations, and others disadvantaged, even though the peer horizon scores are explicitly designed to compare “apples to apples.”  The figure below compares schools in the lowest quarter of a given demographic feature to schools in the top quarter.  Schools with high concentrations of black and Hispanic students;  large schools;  schools with a higher proportion of special education students;  and schools with more English Language Learners all score lower relative to their “peer” schools than do other schools. 


What these figures suggest is that New York City’s high school Progress Reports systematically penalize some schools and reward others.  So when you see the DOE touting the superiority of the progress made by the small schools opened during the Bloomberg/Klein era, remember that it’s no accident:  it’s built into the accountability system.

First Person

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

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.