Monday, November 17, 2008

The Battle Over Mayoral Control of the Schools

What's becoming clear, as the opposing forces gather to combat renewing the current version of the mayoral school governance contract, is that a great deal of effort will have to be made just to inform New Yorkers about the realities extant in the city schools-the press hasn't be a reliable ally to the folks on this issue, a fact that was underscored when a critical NY Daily News story was killed at the last minute.

In the fog that has accompanied the coverage of school governance issues, what remains hidden is the extent to which school performance lags substantially behind the bold proclamations of the Tweed PR machine (a lag that's dramatized by the gap in test score performance between city and national exams). When a system is run in such a top-down fashion, and when transparency is the exception rather than the rule, it's vital that the press function in a critical manner.

That kind of critical exposure should come from a well orchestrated campaign that involves parents, teachers and administrators-the folks with a first hand view of what's really going on in the system. Legislative hearings, white papers and press events where these first hand looks can be disseminated, can and will pierce through the veil of press complicity.

We're hopeful that the NY Times will replicate its growing role as Bloomberg watchdog in its coverage of the school governance question, Certainly, Jenny Medina's stories are a good start for the paper. Yesterday, she wrote about the Tweed grading system, and underscored how it tended to obfuscate rather than illuminate-especially for the parents it's supposed to guide in the making of choices for their kids:

"The A-through-F grading system for New York City schools is billed as a public information tool, helping people sort out which schools are teaching children and which schools are just moving them along. Instead of inscrutable education jargon and endless score charts, the letter grades act like billboards broadcasting achievements and failures. But for parents shopping for the best schools, the letter grades can obscure some of the most salient information, because they are determined largely by how much progress students make year to year rather than how well their skills stand up against objective standards."

The grading system is a product of the inordinately expensive accountability department that has been set up; a system whose sheer size and expense turns it's name into a bureaucratic oxymoron. And, as the Times tells us, the grading system is less helpful to the parents than it is to the managers: "The grades, which the city calls progress reports, are more performance management review than consumer report, blunt shorthand rather than nuanced evaluation. The fact that a school got an A is not necessarily a clear indication that parents should want to send their children to it."

The expensive nature of accounting services was revealed in an earlier piece that Medina did for the paper: "The Education Department is spending roughly $130 million this year to track the performance of schools in New York City, according to a report published on Thursday by the city’s Independent Budget Office...The report found that while private money initially paid for many of the accountability efforts, the same kinds of measures were increasingly being financed with city dollars. Many of the figures cited in the report had already been released, but this was the first attempt to detail the overall costs of Chancellor Joel I. Klein’s accountability efforts."

Of course, with the city's budget in shambles, the rising cost of bureaucratization-not to mention its effectiveness-is certainly going to become a hot political issue, and the Public Advocate has been all over it: "Ms. Gotbaum said during a news conference at her downtown office that because of the current state and city budget cuts, the Education Department should “re-evaluate the accountability system from top to bottom” to ensure that it is “cost effective and producing real results in the classroom.” “There are hundreds of millions of dollars that are being spent without real assurance that our schools are getting any better,” she said."

All of which underscores the extent to which accountability-reified in its own luxurious planet-may be divorced from the consumers who need to have the critical information necessary in making the proper choices for their children; in fact, this highlights the level of concern that Tweed has-as well as the esteem it holds-for parents as a group: “Judging schools on year-to-year fluctuations is like judging stocks just on quarterly reports,” said Clara Hemphill, the author of several guides to the best public schools in New York City. “I tell parents not to take these too seriously.”

The following Times passages in the latest Medina story, underscore the wide gap between a management and a consumer perspective:

"James S. Liebman, the Education Department’s chief accountability officer and the architect of the progress reports, says the problem is that the public rarely looks beyond the letter grade even though the reports contain a variety of other guideposts. It is possible, for instance, to see what percentage of the weakest students improved by at least one grade level, and what percentage of higher-performing students improved on state tests from one year to the next.

“What the parents want to look for in schools is to see how well they do with ‘a kid like mine,’ ” Mr. Liebman said. “All of that is in the progress report. There is a lot of information in there that is directly useful for parents if they take a look at it.”

A closer look, though, can often be confusing to the layman. At 14 of the high schools that received A’s last week, for example, fewer than two-thirds of the students graduated in four years. Students at the 113 A-rated high schools had median SAT scores of 1209 out of a possible 2400, a score that ranked in the 17th percentile nationally."

Kinda makes the grading system ineffective, doesn't it? At the same time it also demonstrates, in our view, the opaque nature of the entire Tweed enterprise; and this expensive opacity also makes it hard for elected officials, even if they have the requisite desire, to evaluate school performance. It is our measured opinion here, that the upcoming legislative review process will dramatically reveal just how much the school emperors have no clothes; and how absurd it is to consider Joel Klein for any federal educational post.