Tuesday, September 08, 2009

DOE's Bonus Babies

The situation with the NYC school grade inflation just keeps getting more farcical by the minute-with watered down state test scores producing, not only a proliferation of questionably high evaluations for 97% of the city schools; but now, in addition, teacher bonuses based on the very same watered down scores. As the NY Times reported on Saturday: "Parents may or may not be impressed by the fact that 97 percent of the city’s schools received grades of As and Bs this week from the Department of Education. But the tidal wave of high marks is meaningful in another way: It means the city will pay $27 million in teacher bonuses, almost double the amount paid last year."

Making this fiscal profligacy and pedagogical mockery even worse is that, unlike in previous years, it will be the tax payers who foot this bill-on top of the already bloated education budget: "The $14 million in bonuses last year was financed in large part by private donations. For the 2008-9 year, the city is putting up the money."

Nice. But, we are also told that: "Teachers at 139 elementary and middle schools — more than 90 percent of the high-poverty schools eligible for the bonus program — will receive them. The program is a centerpiece of Chancellor Joel I. Klein’s goal of linking teacher pay to performance." Can any one say fruit of the poisonous tree?

So, what we apparently have, is an entire evaluative structure that is rotten from the source-test scores that, if they were pregnancy exams, would be called false positives. It is precisely why the educational structure itself needs to have the kind of strict and independent oversight that the current administration, and its claque of cheer leaders-arguing from bad faith-have called, "going back to the old Board of Ed."

But you really have to love department spokespersons-their skill and candor actually would give lobbyists a more favorable reputation if compared side by side. Here's how the DOE flack interprets the situation: "Phil Vaccaro, a representative of the education department’s accountability office who helped design the school grading system, said that the high number of bonuses for the 2008-9 year came as a surprise to education officials. “Either this incentive worked really, really well or we set the targets a bit too low for the schools,” Mr. Vaccaro said. “We are pleased they reached them and they deserve to be rewarded for it.”

Underscoring Vaccaro's astuteness is the fact that a number of schools getting high marks-and whose teachers raked in the bonus bucks-were, we kid you not, just recently on the DOE's endangered species list: "Seven schools that have been scheduled to close over the next several years, at least in part because of low performance, are to receive bonuses. Department officials say that grades are not the only factor in the decision to close schools; declining enrollment and other factors play roles."

We're waiting for Buster Keaton to become the next chancellor-only the fable slap stick artist could do justice to the comical turn being done by the educrats. And even the NY Daily News, following the NY Post's wide eyed wonder on the matter, have weighed in critically; and we sense the comparison to a game of three card monte: "Chancellor Joel Klein and Mayor Bloomberg get a D for this year's school report cards, which paint a Norman Rockwell picture of a school system that still has miles to go. Because of a bar unwisely set, and then stuck to, by the Education Department, fully 84% of elementary and middle schools in the city got A's - up from 38% in 2008."

The News, which joined with the Post-albeit in a slightly more muted fashion-in its promotion of the alleged Bloomberg Miracle, gets the empty headedness of all this: "The dramatic grade inflation has rendered 2009's reports nearly meaningless to thousands of parents who look to the summaries for guidance as to which schools serve kids best."

But, unfortunately, its not, "in for a penny, in for a pound," with the News' candor. The paper won't take the next step here; which is to expose the entire structure as a Potemkin Village that masks breathtaking accounting fraud. This is more than a simple card trick when the entire deck is riddled with marked cards. And the paper won't go after the real culprits-the cards sharks themselves: "Conspiracy-minded critics suggest that Bloomberg, in an election year, is playing fast and loose with numbers to get votes. Wrong. This was simply a big flub. One that must not happen again."

Which gets us back to the poisonous tree. As the Daily News reported; "DOE officials also said this week they will raise the bar on what schools must do to achieve an A on next year's report card. They are also supporting the state's efforts to raise the standards for the state exams."

Yet, at the same time, they tell us this: "DOE officials said that teachers and principals serving low-income and previously low-performing students successfully deserved the schoolwide bonuses. "They are our highest-needs schools," said DOE spokeswoman Ann Forte. "This year these schools made amazing progress."

And, isn't it a little late to call for higher state standards-after the mayor succeeds in his third term power grab? After all, critics have been pointing out the problem of watered down tests for years. The Bloomberg/Klein regime has been happy to style with these phony numbers for eight years-and the media amen chorus has acted just like good toadies by enthusiastically suspending their disbelief.

As the NY Post pointed out-and isn't it amazing how much reporting we're seeing after the fact of re-upping mayoral control?-everyone now is telling us candidly about the ersatz state tests: "Concerns were also voiced this week after a surge in test scores led 97 percent of elementary and middle schools to get A's or B's under city "report cards." "The money went up solely because the test scores went up and we do have questions about whether those increases in test scores are legitimate," said Aaron Pallas, professor of education at Columbia's Teachers College.

That is no simple flub; but an active collusion in a scam on the city's school children and their parents-one that a vigilant press should have been dramatizing all the way up to the eventual vote on mayoral control. And the ponying up of bonuses in this situation is really adding insult to injury; and while we're glad the the News and Post have called the DOE out-and where the hell is the Times on this?-it's time that the entire house of cards was brought down with an independent political review and forensic audit.