Yasmeen Khan is a reporter covering education. You can find her stories on the air and on SchoolBook.org, WNYC’s education website.
Principals Debate Utility of School Grades
Wednesday, November 13, 2013 - 04:48 PM
Principals across the city said they were eager to see how a new mayor would approach grading schools and supporting those that are struggling.
After six years of A to F letter grades, the city is poised to change if not abolish the tradition. School report cards have been controversial over the years, with many parents and educators criticizing the city for giving low marks to schools they believe are thriving or are working with the toughest populations.
The progress reports also were associated with the Bloomberg administration's aggressive approach to closing schools. This is the first year, in fact, that schools with failing grades will not be put on any closure list. A spokeswoman for Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio's transition team said the grades need to go.
"While Mayor-elect de Blasio supports making overall school progress reports available to parents, he would eliminate letter grades of schools which offer little real insight to parents and are not a reliable indicator of how schools are actually performing," she said.
Brian Devale, principal of P.S. 257 in Brooklyn, cheered this imminent change. He called the report cards “pieces of rubbish" that were "were political in nature and not at all reflective of our schools."
“I have received an A on all of them but never hung it up or endorsed it," Devale noted, adding that he thinks the grades were set up for the mayor "to close schools in order to get his hands on space for his charter school pals and friends in the business community."
But a Manhattan middle school principal, who declined to be identified, called the progress reports a mixed bag.
"Obviously, they don’t tell the whole story of a school." he said. But he said he appreciates that the report cards take school environment into account, with surveys of parents, teachers and students, and he hopes the next mayor keeps it going.
"You have to come up with something that still looks at a growth model," he said.
Jeremiah Kittredge, executive director of the group Families were Excellent Schools, which supports charters, urged the next mayor not to abandon an "apples-to-apples" way for parents to assess how their school is doing.
"The progress report isn't perfect, but abandoning it is a huge step backwards for parent empowerment and informed choice," he said.
Joseph Nobile, principal of P.S. 304 in the Bronx, said the system needs to change because it's skewed against high-performing schools like his which can't show consistent progress from one year to the next.
"By this time hopefully the city realizes that a standardized report card for schools doesn’t work in a city as diverse as N.Y.C.," he wrote in an email. "Each year the card was 'tweaked,' changing the parameters to make it 'fairer.' I suggest the city look at similar schools that perform well and then provide professional development to share their success without rating them."
Rashid Davis of Pathways in Technology Early College High School, P-Tech, also said he'd like to see more about professional development in future progress reports.
“I’m not looking for a complete abandonment of the practices," he said. "I would like to see more conversations around what schools can share with other schools that are doing well and that are working well for them so that way we can be more of a support for each other.”
Another principal, Pamela Price Haynes of P.S./M.S. 161 in Harlem, predicted no rating system would be adequate until schools are given the resources they need to compete on a level playing field. Her school earned a B this year, the same as last year. But she got lower marks for student progress.
Haynes attributed that to having teachers with a wide range of abilities, not all of whom were able to adjust to the tougher standards of the Common Core. She also noted her school's population of low-income students, adding that they need more guidance counselors.
With extra resources, she said, "then maybe I would probably embrace this report card more than I do, but it's an uphill battle."
A Brooklyn High School principal who also declined to be named said she appreciated the accountability factor.
"What I strongly dislike is how personally affected our students, staff, and families are by our letter grade," she said. "It's unnecessary and creates an unhealthy competition among schools."
The Bloomberg administration has defended its report card system as a means of comparing schools with similar populations.
On Wednesday, the Department of Education released a list of schools that "beat the odds." These included high schools with high concentrations of black and Hispanic students that had 4-year graduation rates between 70-89 percent, such as Metropolitan High School in the Bronx and It Takes a Village Academy in Brooklyn.