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Making the Grade


Making the Grade

April 16, 2006
EducationPre K-12

Accountability is a constructive and increasingly powerful force in the education of New York City school-children. It starts with report cards and runs far deeper. Third-graders have to pass a basic skills test to be promoted to fourth grade. High school seniors cannot earn a Regents diploma without passing a series of exams. And, of course, students hoping to attend college need to take, and perform moderately well, on the SAT or ACT.

But while young people have been held increasingly accountable for results, adults who work in the schools have been largely shielded from such judgments. Whether students succeed or not has little or no effect on whether teachers or administrators continue to be employed or how much they are paid. Heroic educators who transform the lives of their students are not rewarded, nor are subpar educators who deprive students of future opportunities required to improve or punished.

All of this may start to change. Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has proposed that we start holding educators accountable by assessing academic progress in schools and attaching meaningful consequences to the results. Klein has proposed that every school in the city be graded from A to F based on the progress students make on standardized tests. adjusting for the demographic profile in the school. Principals whose schools are unable to help students make progress may be sanctioned while principals at more successful schools may be rewarded.

Critics charge: Won’t we just be reo warding and sanctioning educators for having advantaged or disadvantaged students? No.

First, New Yorkers need to understand that, according to Klein. the new school grades will be based not on whether students are doing well or poorly—getting, say, 60s or 90s—to start, but on whether students make gains toward meeting and exceeding standards. That ensures that no matter where a classroom or a school begins, it will be recognized for the quality of the job it does.

Second, the system will factor in the disadvantages that studentsbring to the table, giving extra weight to the progress made by low-achieving students. This is critical, because the system’s biggest embarrassment are the t housands of students, generally from poor neighborhoods, who enter and exit classrooms every day as function- al illiterates.

Developing such a grading system could mean, down the road, that the best teachers will finally he recognized and rewarded—and perhaps even given the financial and other incentives they need to stay in the city’s schools. If the teacher’s contract changes, this could enable the beginning of truly linking teacher pay to performance.

And by finally identifying clock-punching, dud educators who fail to helpstudents learn year after year, we can demand improvement—or get those people out of our schools for good.

But won’t attaching rewards and sanctions to test results result in teaching to the test? To some degree, yes—but teaching to the test is nothing to fear when the test requires that students read, add and otherwise demonstrate skills that help one succeed in life. For the majority of New York students who are woefully behind in math and reading, successful teaching to a test would be a big improvement over not learning much at all.

Few would be surprised to hear union leaders opposing Klein’s plan. Principals union head Jill Levy calls it a sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of her members. She and the teachers union are sure to pull out the stops to kill the proposal. They’d rather be guaranteed jobs and salaries regardless of how they perform. Who wouldn’t?

’Their priorities shouldn’t be our priorities. New Yorkers deserve a school system that makes a big difference in all students’ lives. And who knows? With Klein’s proposal they may finally get one.