What We Told the State Education Commissioner
Leonie introduced me as a parent whose child was counseled out of Harlem Success charter following 12 days of kindergarten, after the principal told me there was something wrong with him and he needed to transfer to another school.
As I briefly recounted Matthew’s story, the commissioner said he remembered reading about it in The New York Times. I asked him what he thought of it. He said that he wasn’t sure and there were always two sides to every story.
I went on to tell him that Matthew’s fate was not unique, but that he had been isolated from the rest of class the first day of school with four other boys. (One of the boys was African-American like Matthew, another was an African immigrant, and the two others were Latino.)
Administrators at the school separated out the five of them and had them sit at a separate table at the back of the classroom, and within days, one by one, all of these little boys had disappeared.
Leonie pointed out to Commissioner King that the amendment to the charter law passed in 2011 required detailed reporting on student attrition rates at every charter school, and that the state had still not come up with guidelines as to how this reporting should be done.
She suggested that the state require charter schools to report on how many kids enter the school and how many leave each month, because these schools often hide their real attrition rates by enrolling new students over the course of the year.
She also said that the state should track the attrition rates for each Charter Management Organization, and carefully analyze them before allowing any one of these organizations to expand and replicate their schools across the city. Dr. King nodded his head, but said that the same reporting should be required for regular public schools, as there was much “mobility” among their students as well.
But that is not my experience or Matthew’s. In fact, at the public school that he has attended since he left Harlem Success, the administration has been nothing but supportive of him and his special needs while recognizing that he is also highly gifted. Despite many ups and downs, never once have they suggested to me that he leave the school.
Then we started in on the new teacher evaluation system that had just been agreed upon in Albany. Like the teacher data reports that were released late last month, the system will rank teachers on the basis of their students’ change in test scores over the course of a year. Under the state framework, that ranking will be part of a broader assessment.
I said that two weeks ago, Matthew scored at the highest level in his class on the Acuity test, an interim assessment of reading and writing. Since then, however, his medication for A.D.H.D. has had to be altered, and his academic and behavioral status has declined sharply.
He just took another Acuity assessment a few days ago that his teacher showed me. It was illegible, incomprehensible and would have scored a level 1 — the lowest score possible. If this had been his final test of the year, his teacher would have been penalized unfairly for something completely out of her control.
Dr. King responded that Matthew was only one child out of the entire class, and his results would have been averaged with the rest of the students. Leonie pointed out that statistically, at the classroom level, studies show that gains and losses in annual test scores are 30-60 percent random (as this study shows.)
Dr. King said that research had shown that so-called value-added gains are a stronger predictor of performance than principal observations alone. (In an e-mail message later, through a spokesman, he said the best system relies on multiple measures, which has always been his position. “We have always insisted on a multiple-measures evaluation system, and to imply otherwise is false.”)
Leonie repeated that the percentile ranking of a teacher in terms of growth scores from one year to the next was highly erratic, and that a teacher who ranked in the bottom 25 percent could be in the top 25 percent a year later.
In any case, according to the evaluation system the state will be using, a teacher will be rated ineffective overall if he or she is rated ineffective on the scores alone. Two years of “ineffective” rankings and the teacher could be let go.
I interjected that judging Matthew’s teacher by means of test results would not only be unfair to her, but could fundamentally alter the dynamics of their relationship, if she had to worry about how he would score rather than his emotional or mental well-being.
I described how one day recently, Matthew’s mental state unraveled and he spent hours on the floor of the classroom in tears. Instead of berating him or asking me to take him home (which is what used to happen at Harlem Success if he didn’t follow strict instructions), his teacher went out of her way to be nurturing and caring, and simply moved him to the carpet and let him be, until he cried himself to sleep.
This is the sort of thing that public school teachers do every day. Where is the scoring system for that? How will her consistent encouragement and support of Matthew be incorporated into her evaluation at the end of the year?
The system that the state has now mandated will ignore so much of what makes this teacher great. It is unfair to her, and it is unfair to children like Matthew.
Perhaps like most adults Dr. King has overcome incredible odds himself (I do not know Dr. King personally). Perhaps, as he reflects on his journey to success he's forgotten his own story. I forget the challenges of my adolescence, the way I "froze" during standardized tests and the way both of those factors altered my progress in High School irrevocably.
When we dismiss each "one story" we consciously or unconsciously cut ourselves off from what connects us to our own story, the children in our lives, our community and how that thread is one of the most essential aspects of education...the human thread.
Growing up was messy and chaotic and that didn't change after we - all the grown ups - reached adulthood and began running the world.
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- Hunter College High School Names One of Its Own as Principal
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- What We Told the State Education Commissioner