Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Revisiting "The Battle for New York Schools: Eva Moskowitz vs. Mayor Bill de Blasio"

[from the teaching blog]

When following the education reform movement, it is enormously useful to step back from time to time and look at who was saying what a few years ago. As recently as 2009, it was almost impossible to find serious critics of the movement in the mainstream media (to highlight how much things have changed, I put together an e-book collection of my 2010 education posts, annotated but otherwise unrevised).

As far as I can tell, the Washington Post was the first of the major papers to start turning a tough, critical eye towards initiatives like charter schools, Common Core, and Glengarry Glen  Ross incentive systems. Recently, the New York Times has been aggressively investigating problems at Eva Moskowitz's Success Academies, but this is a relatively new position.

This  2014 NYT Magazine piece by Daniel Bergner is interesting on a number of levels, not the least of which being a reminder of how things have changed.

On the topic of scores, the U.F.T. and Ravitch insist that Moskowitz’s numbers don’t hold up under scrutiny. Success Academy (like all charters), they say, possesses a demographic advantage over regular public schools, by serving somewhat fewer students with special needs, by teaching fewer students from the city’s most severely dysfunctional families and by using suspensions to push out underperforming students (an accusation that Success Academy vehemently denies). These are a few of the myriad factors that Mulgrew and Ravitch stress. But even taking these differences into account probably doesn’t come close to explaining away Success Academy’s results.
First off, even at the time "vehemently" did not equate to "convincingly." There was already an enormous amount of evidence behind these accusations. Letting SA's denial go unchallenged did Moskowitz a huge favor, as did the unsupported claim at the end. Little more than a year later, the NYT itself was reporting on the Success Academies' "got to go" lists.

[Diane Ravitch was extremely upset both by how Bergner handled her interview and wrote a stinging post in response.]

As bad as this section was, the really troubling part (at least for me as a statistician) came later.

In talking to dozens of current and former Success Academy employees and parents, the critique with the most staying power involved the schools’ overly heated preparation for the state exams. A former fourth-grade teacher recounted that network employees made a mini­van run to Toys “R” Us and returned to unload a mound of assorted treasures in the back of her classroom. “It was a huge pile,” she says. “We called it Prize Mountain.” She would remind the pupils that a good score on a practice test meant a gift from the mountain.

Teachers also chart students’ results on the practice tests, posting their names and scores on classroom walls. Yet I heard from parents like Natasha Shannon, an African-American mother of three girls in Success Academy schools, that although the public posting could be painful for the children, it was important nonetheless.


For her part, Moskowitz asserts that the public charting is one aspect of the network’s emphasis on feedback, not only for the students but also for the faculty. Throughout the year, whether or not test prep is underway, scores on quizzes and writing assignments are analyzed at network headquarters. Each teacher’s outcome is tabulated, and bar graphs are instantly available to all faculty members. The teachers whose classes lag are responsible for seeking out advice from those who top the graphs, just as the students with red or yellow stickers by their names are guided to emulate the topic sentences of those whose stickers are green or blue.

Couple of points here.

1. We can go back and forth on different methods of rewarding academic performance in other contexts, but in this case we're talking about diagnostic tests. Doling out special rewards and punishments can and probably does undermine the quality of the resulting data. The fact that Bergner (and, to be fair, most reporters covering the story) seem completely unaware of fundamental education concepts is disturbing;

2. Even more disturbing (though we can't blame this one on Bergner.) is the fact that one of those model teachers whose advice was being sought was Charlotte Dial.

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