Opinion
Education Opinion

The Promises That Count

By Deborah Meier — September 25, 2008 4 min read

Dear Diane,

What a week we’ve been through—full of lessons about accountability as it’s practiced in the world of high finance.

NYC’s grading policy is indeed embarrassing, Diane. Had they used test experts—like Daniel Koretz—they might have invented something better. But no single grade, even a smart one, can avoid giving data a bad name. Even in the hands of wise and knowledgeable teachers, summing up an individual kid by an A-F never works well, for many of the same reasons. It’s why schools like ours—CPE, Mission Hill—develop tools of assessment that don’t try to combine apples and oranges, and include external and internal assessors.

More shocking than these grades, however, is the grade NYC’s mayor gives himself. Did you read Bloomberg’s sharp condemnation of The New York Times’ editorial, which recommended “minor” changes in mayoral control? (Readers: The NY Times has been consistently for mayoral control, and for Bloomberg).

Bloomberg: “The idea that a mayor’s authority over schools should be checked by an independent board” (as the Times suggested) “threatens to return the schools system to the bad old days.” Without total control, he goes on, “we would never have been able to end the shameful practice of social promotion….” Good example. The lay panel he appointed was poised to vote “no” on his plan to automatically hold over 4th graders with low test scores. So he got rid of the majority. Since then they’ve been compliant—i.e. not independent. But, of course, so has the data about “social promotion” been “compliant”—i.e. dishonest. To begin with, before Bloomberg rode into town to save us at least half the kids entered high school at least one year over age—all hold-overs. Many were 2-3 years over-age! The hard data demonstrated that holding kids over was a sure fire way to increase drop-outs. Kids who entered high school at 16 or older almost certainly drop out. They still do. The bad old and “good” new look remarkably alike.

Bloomberg: The times we live in “demand full accountability to one person.” Oversight by independent bodies is a “recipe for failure.” How is that for a civics lesson?

I read Paul Tough’s book about the Promise Academy in Harlem. You are right, Diane, it’s fascinating. Paul Tough is able to see complexity the way Bloomberg can’t. Tough gives us a rare blow-by-blow account of Geoffrey Canada’s struggle to prove a point (including a comparison to the KIPP schools). Canada was determined not to be choosy about whom he accepted at his secondary school that he started with 6th graders at the bottom of the academic barrel. He also decided not to fall into the boot camp trap. But he was so focused on math and reading test scores that over time he felt he had no choice but (1) to move more and more toward being a test-prep boot camp, and then (2) to close the school when that didn’t produce the scores he dreamed of either. He felt he couldn’t compromise about being choosier re. students (as KIPP is, Tough claims) or less dependent on test scores. Instead, he broke his promise to the students and families of the Promise Academy by announcing the closure of the school in March of the school’s third year. “You promised,” they said angrily. “It’s now too late for the 8th graders to find good alternatives for high school,” the children’s families cried. It was either breaking his promise to them, or breaking his promise to himself, he says. He hasn’t abandoned the project, or the dream, but….

I think he worried about the wrong promise. Our promise to ourselves is often vanity speaking; the promises that count are the ones we make to others.

I was also curious about the fact that a third of the 6th graders who came to the school—all kids in serious trouble—had left by the 8th grade. Tough doesn’t tell us a lot about that. (It might have been typical school mobility?) Nor does Canada seem to wonder what impact the three years at Promise Academy had on the kids who stayed—other than their test scores. I found that puzzling. Maybe the school had an enormous impact, and would over time have been transformative in real-life ways?

Tough’s posing of Canada’s dilemma—as between the “no excuses” camp and what he calls “Rothstein’s” Big, Bold camp—is a false dichotomy.

There’s no reason we have to put all our eggs in any one basket just to prove our point. Do Tough or Canada doubt that having better jobs, better housing, better medical care, and not having a father in jail makes it easier to do well in life—and get higher test scores along the way? Nor does Richard Rothstein doubt that a school that helps kids build their skills makes a difference. The hard data is clear about this. When it comes to test scores, just having a higher family income “works” for almost all kids. That we can also get higher test scores, and better futures, for many without improving the family’s resources, is also true. How about doing both?

More on the Tough book (“Whatever It Takes”) in weeks to come, as I begin to tackle Tony Bryk’s book, “Trust In Schools.” I’m also hoping to send Canada some of the follow-up studies on Central Park East’s work, which tried to look more broadly at the impact of schooling on young people’s futures.

Meanwhile, we have a lot of thinking to do about Bloomberg’s stunning declaration in favor of autocracy. The idea of a balance of power has always applied to the U.S. Army, even in times of war, but apparently not to educating our children? (There’s one risk when we choose politicians from the business world to lead us—they have a limited understanding of accountability, although even they have boards.)

Deb

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