Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
Last October, parents and elected officials were so frustrated with the performance of schools in District 9 that they staged a march through the South Bronx, demanding a plan for improvement. According to SchoolBook data, satisfaction, while subjective, is measurable and a deeper dive into the data revealed that there are communities in the city even less satisfied than District 9.
Satisfaction scores are based on four metrics collected by the Department of Education in annual Learning environment surveys: Academic Expectations, Safety, Communication, and Engagement. Based on responses from parents, teachers, and students, each school gets a score out of 10 possible points in each category, and that total score compared to similar schools determines SchoolBook’s Satisfaction Index.
And often, recent data showed, it is the teachers who were the most disgruntled. How reliable are these scores, and what can they tell us about the state of a school?
When it comes to SchoolBook’s Satisfaction Index scores, District 9 wes sixth-lowest on the list. Five school districts performed worse on that metric in terms of the mean Index score for all schools in a district. Many districts also performed worse than District 9 on specific metrics like Safety, Engagement, and Communication. Here is a list of the lowest ranked School Districts based on Satisfaction.
District 19 schools in outer Brooklyn had the lowest average Satisfaction Index, followed by Districts 28 and 29 in Queens, District 17 in central Brooklyn, and District 11 in the Bronx.
There were also five school districts with a higher percentage of schools that rate “Below Average” on the Satisfaction Index than do in District 9.
Different districts, different problems. District 17 had the lowest average scores for three out of four of these metrics: Communication, Academic Expectations, and Engagement. District 18 rated lowest on Safety.
Generally, parents tended to give higher satisfaction scores than teachers. This was even true in District 9 where, by using mean scores for all schools in the district, the total parent satisfaction score combining all four categories was 32.50 out of 40, making it the 10th-highest district in terms of that measure. For teachers, it was 28.35 – dead last out of 32 districts.
SchoolBook did not perform district-wide analysis of student satisfaction scores because they were missing for too many schools.
Why the gap in parent-teacher satisfaction? Edward Tom, principal of the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics in District 9, says teachers are more “in the grind.”
“There are complaints about a lack of parental involvement,” said Tom, whose school has an above-average Satisfaction Index of six. “Many families in our district are heavily dependent on the school to take responsibility for their child’s education, so they might be more lenient in saying that everything’s going well.”
Principal Tom noted that 85 percent of his school’s students qualify for free lunch. “We are the urban inner city,” he said. “Socioeconomics may impact parents’ ability to participate. They can’t necessarily take time off work to go to school and advocate for their kids. They don’t get health benefits. They don’t get paychecks if they don’t work.”
As a result, Tom said he hears teachers complain about needing more parent involvement. He’s not alone. In every single district, teachers gave the lowest marks for Communication, a category that includes questions about how often and effectively the school communicates with parents
“The language barrier is a problem too,” said Myrna Felix, Parent Coordinator for Bronx Early College Academy for Teaching and Learning, which has a large Spanish-speaking contingent. “Teachers try to reach home, and they can’t possibly help the child succeed if they can’t get in touch with family.”
Edward Tom said his administration actively tries to improve satisfaction scores by going over them in annual conferences with the school’s leadership team and faculty, but not every principal puts so much stock in the metric.
“Because the survey is anonymous, it’s problematic,” said Rashid Davis, principal of Pathways in Technology Early College High School in District 17, an above-average satisfaction school in one of the lowest-satisfaction districts. “It’s a public document that becomes a PR tool that can help or hurt us.”
Davis pointed out that his school aims for a 100 percent graduation rate and afforded students the chance to earn an Associate’s Degree. “But on Academic Expectations, out of 10, we have 8.2. When our school’s expectation is 100 percent with an Associate’s Degree, why is that not 10 out of 10? I think it’s people not really understanding the work.”
The questions might be ambiguous to begin with and when respondents can answer them anonymously, Davis said, their motivation comes into question.
“Teachers get asked questions like whether ‘the principal places the learning needs of children ahead of personal and political interest,” Davis said. “What that means to each teacher and whether that’s actually the case is a matter of perspective.”
Asked how the satisfaction survey could be fixed, Davis was pessimistic. “You can’t fix it while it’s anonymous, and there’s no accountability for that. When the principal is the only one rated on this, it’s a different ball game. Students aren’t rated on this; parents aren’t; teachers aren’t.”
Satisfaction score trends, like performance grade trends, tend to follow socioeconomic patterns; where metrics like median income are low and percent of students on free lunch are high, satisfaction scores suffer. “When the surveys come out, [those data are] nowhere on the page,” said Felix.