Rewarding Geography: Should Zip Codes Determine Priority, Focus and Reward Schools?

Some people are born on third base and think they hit a triple.

The Obama-Duncan administration has placed its stamp on national education policy. The lure of billions of Race to the Top (RttT) dollars and the ESEA waiver process has resulted in states amending policies to make themselves eligible for funding. Think “30 pieces of silver.”

The State Education applied for a waiver from No Child Left Behind (fka, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) as did many other states. The administration, after a couple of frustrating years of trying to reauthorize ESEA created a waiver process, in effect sidestepping the legislative process.

The waiver is lengthy and complex. See summary here.

The waiver eliminates the terms “Schools in Need of Improvement” (SINI), “Schools Under Registration Review “(SURR) and “Restructuring” and uses the terms “Priority,” “Focus” and “Reward” to identify subsets of schools. The state, as usual, provides detailed data on “technical documentation,”  the process for identifying schools.

During the process of applying for the waiver members of the Board of Regents expressed skepticism. Wouldn’t the priority/focus schools simply be a new name for the SINI/SURR schools? Would Reward Schools end up as schools in wealthy districts?

State Ed staff went to lengths explaining how the methodology for identifying Priority/Focus schools was a growth metric instead of the snapshot defining SINI/SURR schools.

Last week the state released the file. The 121 Priority Schools (See all schools here). included the 24 turnaround schools and many other schools with a history of poor state data, and, also not surprisingly, in the poorest zip codes in their communities.

The Reward Schools are located in the highest income communities around the state and in New York City a combination of selective and screened schools as well as in the highest income districts.

Schools in richest communities around the state and schools that can handpick their student bodies will receive additional dollars while schools in the poorest areas get to write plans for improvement … and in three years I guess, will close.

Why is Stuyvesant a Reward School? If students have to pass a rigorous exam, according to Inside Schools, “… more than 28,000 students vie for 935 seats in the freshman class,”  is there any surprise that the school has exemplary data?

If you are a screened school, you pick your kids, and if you’re not a Reward School, does that mean you should really be a Priority or Focus school? If kids do not achieve at the high level anticipated is the school failing?

The state program for assisting struggling schools is distressing: is assigning a “distinguished educator”  and writing a plan (See NYS Turnaround Plan) going to turnaround a school?

The first “distinguished educator” was assigned to Buffalo – she lives in Florida and will commute … (See story here and here).

We should be asking why are a few schools in high poverty areas succeeding while most are stumbling? Are they cheating? Creative and effective school leaders? Smart, collaborative teachers? The current system of writing plans and threatening schools with closing is certainly not working.

Are schools in high tax, high wealth districts with high achieving students actually showing growth? Or, are the districts simply riding on what the kids brought to school? Does the SED want to let the genie out of the jar?

I fear increasing the speed on the treadmill is not moving our schools forward.


4 responses to “Rewarding Geography: Should Zip Codes Determine Priority, Focus and Reward Schools?

  1. James Popham, an expert on educational assessment, memorably remarked at a UFT sponsored forum on high stakes testing, that the standardized tests being used to assess school (and student) performance do an excelletn job of mesuring what students bring to school on day one in Kindergarten, and that subsequent tests tend to confirm those differences. That is what accounts for the achievement gaps and the disparity between schools in wealthy and poorer zip codes.
    If we looked closely at the screened and testing schools, we would most likely find that the students come from the same high income zip codes or from striving immigrant families where zip code is not predictive of the inputs that the family is making towards student success.
    Demography does not have to be destiny, but we it will continue to be while we continue to rely on flawed tests and build our curriculum to ensure success on those tests.
    We need to retool schools not to make students more successful on bad outcome measures but to make student smore curious and more interested in learning. Al Shanker asked once what happens to children who between birth and the start of school learned so much on their own and then entered school and stopped learning. We need to rethink what we are doing but it can’t be to make students achieve better test scores. It must be to make children want to achieve more on their own.


  2. No
    Poor kids also learn a lot on their own–maybe even “as much”–but different stuff which we don’t reward. What they also struggle with–regardless of their smarts–are greater sickness, hunger, descriptiveness, unpredictability, etc etc etc. And we compound some of thee at school–which is not destiny–when we greet them as though they have no legitimat4 language or culture, families who are not “good parents”, and schools that are less fully resourced, classes with more crowding, and teachers with less experience. And we, rightly or wrongly, measure them every other moment on the items on OUR agenda for schooling, making them feel dumber and dumber. But, yes, you are right.


  3. Of course they learn as much or more, but not what the tests measure. Your framing is much more elegant than mine. When we say “All children can learn,” what is left out of the original quote was the modifier “given the resources and opportunities.” That is what schools are challenged to provide starting with breakfast and ending with extended days where students can do homework or access computers to do their work.
    Schools are expected to make up for all the differences in access to health care, nutrition, and the stresses of poverty, and when they inevitably fail to do all that the teachers are blamed. The standardized tests we use to measure outcomes for students, teachers and schools don’t have any way of factoring in those things.


  4. The children must belive there is a reason to do well in school. Why would they worry about doing well in school when the empirical evidence has shown them that sucsess in school does not translate to sucsess as an adult? They know that no matter how well they do in nyc public schools they are not going to be welcome at Harvard. The Marines and the Army recruit from inner city schools, the Ivy League does not.


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