School officials defended on Tuesday night one their signature data tools: the school progress report. At the same time, Shael Polakow-Suransky, the city's Chief Academic Officer, conceded that the reports were far from perfect.
The discussion came just weeks ahead of a new administration under Bill de Blasio, who has said he would change the progress reports, including nixing the A through F labels within his first year of office.
Titled What's Next for School Accountability in New York City, the paper looked back at the evolution of the school grades and quality reviews, and articulated areas of weakness.
“I want to frame this with some modesty,” Suranksy told the small audience at the City University of New York’s Roosevelt House. “We don’t have answers here. We haven’t figured it out, and we don’t know exactly which way it should go and don’t presume to advise the next administration on what they should do. But we do know where we’ve struggled.”
Outlining those challenges, he said, could be helpful to the next administration moving forward.
Issue Number One: the school report cards, particularly for elementary and middle schools, have focused primarily on state test results which prompted some schools to focus test prep, the D.O.E. acknowledged, with a nod to concerns about the quality of the state tests themselves, saying that last year’s tests aligned to the Common Core appear to be an improvement.
Still, said Polakow-Suransky, the tests “are nowhere near” the kinds of tests that “we ultimately need,” which would assess students more closely according to the work being done in classrooms. Also absent from school report cards were measures of social emotional skills that help students learn, including time management and perseverance.
Then there was the problem of the progress report’s lesser-known friend, the quality review. Schools currently receive a quality review at least once every four years (weaker schools receive them more often) to observe the school's practices and culture. The paper suggested increasing their frequency and making information more reader-friendly for a parent audience.
What was not mentioned in the paper, but was clear from the panel discussion and questions from the audience, was the need to involve parents in school accountability and in educational policy in general.
Fellow panelists Warren Simmons, of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, and James Liebman of the Center for Public Research and Leadership at Columbia Law School, both raised the pitfall of treating parents as "clients" exercising choice rather than as "partners."
"I think the biggest mistake that the past administration made was the idea that if we give parents better results, better service -- 311 sorts of things -- and more choice, then they don't need politics, they don't need participation, they don't need to be involved," said Liebman, an early architect of the school progress reports.
"You need to have a role for parents in schools, in groups of schools and at the central level that involves them in actually problem solving some of these issues," he said.
The event was co-sponsored by CUNY’s Institute for Education Policy and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute based in Washington, D.C.