Friday, November 20, 2009

In Need of an Upgrade

The DOE is still at it-handing out good grades with little rhyme or reason. In fact, we wonder just how much money is spent simply devising and implementing this grading system-money that could be better used for teachers and other truly educational uses. As the NY Daily News reported this week: "Only one school got hit with the dreaded F this year on this year's high school report cards - and some students say the place is so bad they want out. "I've been making complaints to my mom and my father," said Shameeka Bromfield, a 10th-grader at Peace and Diversity Academy in the Bronx, which fell to the flunking grade from last year's B. "I want to transfer."

And the number of schools getting either an A or a B fell from 82% to 75%-still very high considering the low skill sets that students are taking with them as they head off to college; or, we should say community college, since these schools are being inundated with all of the students who, because of poor preparation, can't make the grade at the city's senior colleges. So what we really have are skills with good grades and students with-whatever-grades floundering once they leave the system.

As the News tells us: "Overall, about 75% of high schools earned an A or a B, down from 82% last year. An increase in graduation rates - which would have nudged overall grades higher - was offset by the Education Department's decision to raise passing scores. "Despite setting rising standards and requirements, our schools are generally moving forward," Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said ."

All pretty obfuscating to us-obscuring the real conditions and the actual learning being done in exchange for a letter grade that reveals little. Except for the fact that these grades can mean big money for teacher bonuses-at least someone is getting the benefit of grade inflation. As the NY Times reports today: "Teachers at W.H. Maxwell Career and Technical Education High School in Brooklyn were among those at 23 high schools citywide awarded a total of $3.5 million in performance bonuses on Thursday, even though the school received a D on its progress report earlier this week. The Jane Addams High School for Academic Careers in the Bronx and three other schools earned C’s on their report cards, and their teachers will be getting bonuses, too."

Kind of like crackpot rationality to us. Now don't get us wrong, it's nice to see hard working educators score a little extra cash in these tough economic times-but let's not kid ourselves and think that that outlays have any correlation to any real measure of academic success-much as the school grades are often completely baffling.

As the Times indicates: "The reason for the discrepancy between the two measures of progress, school officials said, is that the teacher bonuses — awarded by the Department of Education — are determined by individual targets set for each school, and the bonus-eligible schools serve students starting from a very low threshold. It may also be rewarding improvement within each letter grade. “Maybe a school didn’t go from a D to a C, or stayed at a C, but it’s still making progress,” said Ann Forte, a department spokeswoman, defending both the report cards and the awards program."

Everyone following so far? It reminds us of Tom Lehrer's old song, "The New Math." The first few verses give you an idea, although you really need to hear his rapid fire delivery to get the real flavor of Lehrer's insanity:

"Now remember how we used to do that. Three from two is nine; carry the one, and if you're under 35 or went to a private school you say seven from three is six, but if you're over 35 and went to a public school you say eight from four is six; carry the one so we have 169, but in the new approach, as you know, the important thing is to understand what you're doing rather than to get the right answer.

Here's how they do it now. You can't take three from two, Two is less than three, So you look at the four in the tens place. Now that's really four tens, So you make it three tens, Regroup, and you change a ten to ten ones, And you add them to the two and get twelve, And you take away three, that's nine. Is that clear?"

And Lehrer's closing line was: "It's so simple, So very simple, That only a child can do it!" But in the case of the DOE's grading and bonus system, not even a child can comprehend how its computed. As UFT president Mulgrew tells the Times: "Michael Mulgrew, the head of the teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers, disagreed, saying that the difference underscored that the report cards are a flawed measurement. “The D.O.E. tools really don’t capture a lot of the challenges that the teachers and students face. There are teachers in the A schools doing a great job, and teachers in the D schools doing a great job,” he said."

Indeed. What we need is to pay teachers and administrators properly-across the board-and stop trying to introduce a form of merit pay that is always going to be corrupted by the sheer difficulty of coming up with accurate measure. If this silly system continues, we may well reach the point where the educational operation is deemed a success, but the school children patient dies.


We missed the NY Post story on this subject-but can't someone re-do their web site, and the Daily News' one as well-they are simply too difficult to access information from.

But the Post did get a great deal of good info: "That means teachers at more than half the 40 struggling schools participating in the two-year pilot program took in an average of $3,000 each in bonus pay this year. An additional $1.6 million was paid to principals and other administrators under a separate bonus program that's based on annual performance reviews. Both pay plans are at least partially tied to the Department of Education's report-card grades released this week, which saw 75 percent of high schools rated with an A or B."

But what this really shows, is how difficult it is to devise a common sense merit pay scheme: "Supporters of paying teachers based on performance hailed the program as the first step toward merit pay. But the union has maintained that its structure -- which rewards teachers based on their school's collective performance rather than on individual class room achievement -- shuts the door on merit pay."

And especially when the crackheads are apparently doing the grading at DOE: "The uproar arose in part because the bonus bump stemmed from the city's elevated results on annual math and reading tests -- exams that the state has since acknowledged should have been more rigorous. "Somebody has to be complicit in this robbery -- it cannot be that DOE can simply appropriate public money as it sees fit," said Paola de Kock, whose son graduated in June from Stuyvesant HS in Manhattan."

And the NY Daily News has Diane Ravitch weigh in on this farce: "Staffers at Brooklyn's W. H. Maxwell High School, tarred with a D on its report card this week, still reaped more than $180,000 Thursday in bonuses for a job well done. The award to the East New York vocational school - one of 80 high schools that received bonuses from the city Thursday - left education officials defending themselves and critics scratching their heads. "Either the school is doing better than its grade, or the bonuses were miscalculated," said education historian Diane Ravitch. "When you get this sort of counterintuitive result - bonuses at an allegedly low-performing school - it suggests that the accountability system is seriously amiss."

This is all beginning to look like a game of pin the bonus tail on the teacher: "Other bonuses also raised eyebrows, including more than $100,000 to the staff at Bronx Coalition Community High School, which is being closed for poor performance. Principals and teachers at four C schools also scored more than $1 million."

Would some one please go back to all of Mike Bloomberg's campaign ads on the subject of education. If that is done, there would be no head scratching over anyone awarding the mendacious mayor an F for honesty.