grading the grades

Architects of school grades concede errors as overhaul looms

Warren Simmons, of the Annenberg for School Reform, speaks during a panel discussion about New York City's accountability system.
Warren Simmons, of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, speaks during a panel discussion about New York City’s accountability system.

Two architects of New York City’s controversial school progress reports acknowledged on Tuesday that the accountability system they developed needs to change.

Law school professor James Liebman, who devised the A-F grading system “from scratch” in 2007, said the school grades were initially useful as a “powerful motivator of educators to take responsibility” for student learning in their schools.

But after six years of relying on a narrow set of data — primarily state test scores and graduation rates —  to hold schools accountable, Liebman said now is a good moment for “toning down on performance management.”

Liebman’s suggestions, which hewed closely to recommendations offered Tuesday by the Department of Education’s chief academic officer Shael Polakow-Suransky, come as an overhaul looms for the controversial grading system. Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has said he would do away with the school grades, although he hasn’t yet said whether he would maintain the underlying data that contributes to them.

Liebman and Polakow-Suransky appeared on a panel discussion hosted by the CUNY Institute for Education Policy, a think tank run by former state education chief David Steiner, at which Polakow-Suransky released a report called “What’s Next for School Accountability in New York City?” The report outlined six areas for de Blasio to consider when he takes over in January.

The report is the latest effort by officials at the Department of Education, in their final weeks in charge, to influence how their favored policies fare once de Blasio and his chancellor takes over. Two weeks ago, a city-commissioned report on the way the system’s 1,800 schools are supported similarly detailed both strengths and weaknesses.

The issues that Polakow-Suransky, who is rumored to be seeking a position in the de Blasio administration, raised were in line with oft-cited criticism of the system. The department has tended to dismiss that criticism as attacks “by special interests” on the Bloomberg administration’s education reform policies, but Polakow-Suransky took a different tone on Tuesday.

“We do know where we struggle,” said Suransky, who declined to comment on speculation of his interest in working for de Blasio. “And we do know where the challenges and weaknesses encountered are.”

One weakness, Polakow-Suransky said, is that the city’s progress reports emphasize test scores, particularly in the elementary and middle schools. The emphasis, when combined with traditionally “weak” state exams, could have negative consequences in the classroom.

“If you have weak exams and if they send a signal to teachers that all you need focus on is the basic skills, then what you get is a narrowed curriculum,” he said. “And in the weakest classrooms, in the weakest schools, you get a focus on drilling to get to achievements just on those exams, which actually ignores the broader needs of students and often leads to a situation where kids are disengaged and aren’t actually learning the things that they need.”

He recommended factoring other data points, such as the department’s quality reviews and quarterly report card grades, into schools’ progress reports. Not including the quality reviews in the first place was “a mistake” that Liebman said he regretted.

The focus on a relatively small set of data has stifled creativity at stronger schools, Polakow-Suransky said, adding that some schools now avoid introducing new programs because they fear a negative impact on their grades. The concern is compounded by the fact that progress reports reflect only a single year’s performance, reducing principals’ incentive to pursue longer-term initiatives, he said.

The progress reports are also meant to inform parents about their children’s schools, but Polakow-Suransky and Liebman both acknowledged that the reports have not always achieved that purpose. In particular, a common criticism is that the grades are confusing to parents when they see that two schools at entirely different student performance levels — a school serving mostly high-need students compared with screened school that only has high performing students — can end up with the same letter grade if their students make similar progress.

“It may not give the info that, say, a parent is looking for when they’re trying to find a school,” Polakow-Suransky said, adding that a balance was needed to retain a way to credit schools that served more challenging students.

“Part of the solution, I think, to that is figuring out a way to represent this data in different forms for different audiences, where you actually create tools for parents that are different  to the tools that you create for folks that are supporting and managing the schools.”

Liebman said he learned a valuable lesson about parent participation in education policy under the Bloomberg years. He said he presumed that better results for the system as a whole — pointing specifically to higher graduation and college-readiness rates — would be good enough for parents in the school system.

“The idea was that if you give parents better results, better service — 311 sorts of things — and more choice, then you don’t need politics, they don’t need participation, they don’t need to be involved because they’ll get what they want as a consumer,” Liebman said. “And I think that’s true for some things, but it turns out that public education is something that parents really, deeply want to be involved in.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”