Should Poverty Be Acknowledged in Measures of School Accountability? If We Acknowledge Poverty How Do We Avoid a Two-Track System?

After my last blog, “Superintendents? Networks?” Eric Nadelstern, the former # 2 at the Department posted a commented:

The structure/plan issue is putting the cart before the horse.

The issue should be less which management structure and more what is the Mayor/Chancellor prepared to be held accountable for around student achievement. Once that is clearly defined, then perhaps, they can figure out how to get there.

Eric is correct, up to a point, the core question is accountability, and how do we define it? How do we measure it? How do we use it to improve schools?

About ten years ago I sat in a classroom in Long Island City and listened to Jim Leibman, the Klein accountability czar (and a law professor at Columbia) explain the school progress report accountability metric… Over the years the plan bobbed and weaved as it was used more for political ends than educational ends.

For a time I worked on a team to improve struggling schools, part of the “answer” was better data management: carefully checking long term absences and finding totally legitimate ways of turning them into “good” discharges resulted in higher graduation rates, and, small high schools with smart school support structures improved, well, improved their data and their Progress Report score.

The new administration has made changes to the school accountability system – the creation of Quality Snapshots for parents and Quality Guides for schools. See a sample of a Quality Guide for middle schools here
Almost all the schools in Brownsville and East New York received grades of “C,” “D.” or “F” while all the schools in Bayside in Queens received grades of “A” or “B.” Were the Bayside kids smarter? Or richer? Or whiter? Were the Bayside principals and teachers better teachers? If we switched teachers from Bayside to Brownsville would they take their school’s progress report score with them?

A large high school in Queens received an “A” and if you wandered around the school you would see mediocre instruction, teachers lecturing and kids writing notes, very little interaction. In an elementary school deep in the poorest section of the Bronx, classroom after classroom of deeply engaged kids, excellent instruction, and no progress on state tests: which school is “better”?

Closed schools are almost entirely in the poorest sections of the city.

Will the new Quality Guides produce different results than the letter grades Reports?

A touchy question: should poverty be taken into account in defining and measuring student progress?

On November 6th the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School will release a report entitled, “A Better Picture of Poverty: What Chronic Absenteeism and Risk Load Reveal About NYC’s Lowest Income Elementary Schools.” Utilizing research from the Chicago Consortium on School Research and sociologist William Julius Wilson the report identifies “truly disadvantaged schools,” and creates a new metric, “total risk load,” eighteen factors that are high predictors of chronic absenteeism and Common Core scores, and, progress report grades.

Total risk load factors include: male unemployment, housing project and shelters in school catchment zone, adult education levels, poverty rates, principal, teacher and student turnover rates, student suspensions, special education and others.

Should we use the “total risk load” factor in assessing student progress?

The MRDC Small School paper praises the initiative, small high schools outperformed large high schools, Diane Ravitch posts a response from a department insider challenging the findings, and, I ask, was the small schools initiative an example of a more effective school structure or social capital sorting?

If we acknowledge race and class in an accountability system aren’t we creating a race-based two track system? We’re not going to create an Algebra 1 for poor kids, at some point progress must lead to on track.

What happens to the “struggling schools” if they don’t show progress?

Mayor de Blasio called our attention to “a tale of two cities,” how do we address the issue within the school system? Can we create a nuanced accountability system that measures progress and acknowledges the challenges of poverty?

Nadelstern avers accountability must be “clearly defined,” he’s absolutely right, and, until it is the de Blasio/Farina leadership will lack credibility.


5 responses to “Should Poverty Be Acknowledged in Measures of School Accountability? If We Acknowledge Poverty How Do We Avoid a Two-Track System?

  1. Heywood (L Block)

    You’re quick to agree on this novel concept, “what is the Mayor and the Chancellor prepared to be held accountable for around student achievement”. From my vantage point, since mayors and chancellors have never (maybe I should say almost never because who knows what goes on behind closed doors that are shut tight) actually held themselves accountable for anything, other than pointing the fingers of blame at schools, principals and teachers, what is this fanfare all about? Past administrations have failed to provide schools with the most essentials: credible curricula, instructional guidance, meaningful professional development, and encouragement unless they are among the selected “in-crowd” – you know, the ones who are willing to embrace the new initiatives with a passion that borders on fanaticism without much reason. No, I’m not talking about terrorists, I’m talking about those middle managers and upward mobile and often temporary career ladder teachers who are willing to kiss ass to get ahead, even at the expense of logical thinking, time tested practices and the kids and colleagues. Seldom or never has the central administration publically changed course as a result of their failings or shortcomings. So the real question is: what does central want to hold the schools accountable for now? Now this is more realistic, don’t you think? And an added benefit of this key question or approach is that central can focus on organizational structures that are more politically oriented or Harvard ivory tower oriented than effective, because after all, whatever the mayor or chancellor and her team do is always right, and schools that fail to meet the criteria, whatever that might be, are always woefully inadequate and directly responsible for their disappointing results. The justification for this is comparative analysis – however comparative analysis in this business is as accurate as the indices of poverty you mention in your blog. And if those indices don’t adequately separate the losers from the winners, another bunch of indices will quickly take its place because you need winners in the system to not only identify losers but to protect central. We have all heard the question that brings justification to central initiatives, “if a school down the block can do it, why can’t you do it too”? There actually may be some good reasons to explain the disparities but central’s PR machine has no time, tolerance or motivation to focus on such responses, excuses and pleads for mercy.
    In my humble opinion, If you want an organization structure that makes sense, first define explicitly what great instruction looks like, be willing to design curriculum and long term training to support the vision by competent personnel who have some successful experience under their belts and who can actually do the work, and then figure out the most efficient and effective system to support schools in improving their craft. Concentrate on instruction for a change and stop with the dazzling accountability metrics that have a knack for incorporating those variables that justify the lowest expectations for those who desperately need higher expectations and great teaching. And with all due respect for the central players, make sure that there are always winners and losers – even if you have to stack the deck, over and over and over again.


  2. Peter,
    That question is inside-out? Real question is, how do we avoid a 2-track system without acknowledging poverty?


  3. rachel dearagon

    What we have failed to do is acknowledging that we have a two track system. By placing more and more burden upon “parent accountability” means that parents who are already over very burdened cannot ‘be there’ for their children– and so neither is the system. This begins with the laborious application systems for both middle and high school, it includes the homework heavy programming in elementary grades, and the closing of free after-school activity programs in the schools. It goes on– the overly zealous suspensions — lack of academic support for suspended students, lack of legal representation for suspended students. It includes removing the school as a functional neighborhood center, and thereby removing the support network of parents whose children attend the same school as part of the communities’ identity and support. Free after school centers could serve the neighborhood as well as those attending the particular school, reducing the late evening commutes of many teens. In order to keep children safe, parents currently are often forced to forbid afterschool activities as the student must travel unreasonable distances to reach these activities. Do students have to work, do they have to assist in the rearing of siblings, do they have to take over household chores?
    Perhaps understanding poverty is a place to begin. It means that the family may not have the extra subway fare to get to the school meeting, and may not be available because of work schedules. Poor means working at jobs that do not give time off– where employees don’t make phone calls . Poor may mean the parent does not read well, or in English, or is not familiar with NYC law, regulations and requirements etc… Is there a difference between those with more money and education in terms of the delivery of educational services to their children? Yes. Having supports for those that need them does not create inequity any more than serving free lunch creates a problem of students who can’t pay.
    In order to change our system into one which reflects an equal opportunity for all—we must acknowledge that it is a two tier system—examine the root causes and make changes which are aimed to re-integrating our educational vision.


  4. If you measure growth instead of proficiency, aren’t you effectively accounting for poverty?


    • As you move toward the upward “tail,” the upward outliers, grow slows, the current model doesn’t account for that, how do you design “growth” for English language learners and students with disabilities, and, if the “grow” is below one grade level a year and the students continue to fall behind how do you intervene, “growth” is far better than “achievement scores,” it still leaves much to resolve.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s