First Person

Teacher Report Cards: My First Thoughts, Revisited

My recent writing on the teacher report card issue has brought me back to my original writing on the topic when I received my first data report. I was a little surprised how my initial reaction echoed my feelings a year and a half later. Even though I’ve publicly advocated for the scores to be released, I still agree with my first assessment:

That said, the whole thing has to be taken with a grain of salt. As much as my job has been overwhelmed by testing, I refuse to judge my performance on test scores alone.

Ultimately my job is to prepare my students for a life of learning and success. Tests that measure students’ academic performance are one way to assess my own performance. But I’d like to believe that there are intangible aspects to my job — for example instilling a love of learning and proper work ethic — that can’t possibly be measured quantitatively. I think any attempt to rate teachers without accounting in some way for these aspects of teaching will be fatally flawed.

Rereading this old post from last year, I was also struck by the conversation that followed in the comments. I think they’re worth reading:

Jonathan said:

But when we open the door to this sort of evaluation, it will become in many cases the only evaluation.

There is nothing easier than picking a number out of a report.

Qualitative observation, qualitative evaluation, would take work.

Skoolboy said:


Would you be willing to share your report? If you’ve only been teaching for a year, it’s very likely that the information is extremely unreliable — i.e., your percentile location in the experience-adjusted distribution might be due to chance.

Aaron Pallas

NYC HS History Teacher said:

Many teachers say this, and I have to believe it will be true

“When they measure teacher performance on student test scores, every kid will get an A.”

And really, does anyone believe the DOE would have an effective way of figuring out whether teachers are fudging grades or not. After all, high scores make them look better. Just look at the abortion the Regents exam has turned out to be.

I responded:

I don’t remember the exact numbers but I believe my ELA percentile was 58 and my Math was 33. I already knew that math was a weak area for my last year though, and I expect this year’s scores to reflect a big improvement. To NYC HS Teacher, I agree partly, but in the case of the ELA and Math scores, I don’t assign them, so it’s impossible to “give every student an A” to raise my grade. That doesn’t mean however, that teaching to the test becomes the standard practice

Skoolboy responded:


One of the things that worries me about the teacher data reports is that teachers might focus on their percentile ranks — 33 and 58 in this case — without considering just how much uncertainty there is in the data that go into those percentile ranks. The report displays the range of percentiles which might be a teacher’s “true” percentile rank, but we’re drawn to the single number that is the best single estimate.

I think it’s quite likely that estimates such as the 58th and 33rd percentiles represent broad ranges of possible values, to the point that the 58 and 33 are statistically indistinguishable. What appears as better performance in ELA than in math may simply be a matter of chance.

I don’t know how useful these reports might be. Teachers who take their work seriously are going to be striving to improve regardless of what the teacher data report says. But if you find it useful, that’s great.

If any other readers would be willing to share the information in their teacher data reports — and anonymously is fine with me — I’d very much like to see them.

Aaron Pallas

And I responded:

To be clear, I think the report cards are far from perfect, and yes, more than a little annoying. But I’ve always cared about grades, even if I’m had problems with the teacher or their grading system. Even in these cases, I’m the type who will strive for an A. So if nothing else good comes of this report card, at least maybe I will improve my practice to the point where all my students will achieve beyond the predictions of the system.

To which Jonathan said:

But achieve what? Is your job limited to maximizing their scores on the state ELA and Math exams?If you strive to increase your “grade” you will be working to master test prep. Is that the kind of teaching you want to learn to do? What would you be neglecting?

Unfortunately, I never responded to this final, and essential question. I want to do so now with a resounding refusal to let test prep dominate my practice. I understand the fear that the use of test score data will precipitate test prep centered teaching, and that’s why I think it’s essential we have a open dialogue on valid methods of quantitative and qualitative evaluations for teachers. It’s imperative that this discussion includes teachers.

I believe that good readers, writers and critical thinkers can score well on any test they’re given. These are the skills I have always worked to develop in my students. It’s my hope that by preparing my students for the tests in this way, their scores will rise. To belatedly answer Jonathan’s questions, I do worry that report cards predicated on test scores will drive test prep in the classroom. However with the right balance of qualitative evaluations, this practice would be discouraged. In my own classroom, I think it is possible to strive for high test scores (and by extension a high mark on a teacher data report) without sacrificing what I know are the best practices.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.