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.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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