There are things to like in NYC Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s new plan to evaluate the city’s schools, from the focus on multiple measures to the underlying trust at the center of the system. Yet I fear that it will neither provide schools with the types of support they need to improve nor hold them accountable for their results.
The new system, which replaces the Bloomberg administration’s A-to-F letter grade approach, was described by Chalkbeat New York as a “gentler system” in which “schools will no longer be ranked or graded.” Officials said:
More description than assessment, the new guides are meant to give parents a fuller picture of schools and help educators take stock of what’s working and what needs to be fixed without feeling judged.
Informed by the excellent work of Tony Bryk, who developed these measures with researchers at the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research, Fariña’s plan looks at six measures of high-achieving schools: rigorous instruction, supportive environment, collaborative teachers, effective school leadership, strong family-community ties and trust. Trust is New York’s addition to the Chicago Consortium’s 5Essentials.
The Consortium’s work is right on target, and so is New York for using it. But for this plan to lead to real school change, the locus of control for that improvement must reside with the educators within each school. Improvement should be led by the school communities, based on results of parent, teacher and student surveys, the rich data they generate, and actions chosen by schools to address weaknesses. This is the way thousands of schools around the nation already use the 5Essentials.
The weakness of Fariña’s proposal is not the six measures, it is the belief that a urban school system central bureaucracy can cultivate these qualities in a thousand schools—or that these six measures could be used as an evaluation or accountability tool solely in the hands of district administrators.
Big city school system bureaucracies are built to administer programs, manage political influences and enforce uniform compliance across all schools, not to develop supportive environments, collaborative teaching or strong family-community ties within individual schools.
These qualities of excellent schools are best developed and maintained by the educators and staff within each school or within a small network of schools, not by the central administration. Yet under the Fariña plan, legions of administrators will be needed to evaluate and write reports on more than 1,000 schools. Inevitably, the educators and staff at a school will feel that the evaluators did not truly understand their school. They will be unenthusiastic about the top-down recommendations that follow.
They will sit through years of staff meetings and professional development activities thinking, “this too shall pass,” waiting for the next Chancellor and the next system.
While the Fariña plan proposes to do something that central offices cannot do, it abandons something that they must do. While the central office of a large school system cannot drive school improvement from the outside, it must establish clear and consistent expectations for performance for all schools in a system and hold school’s accountable for that performance.
Unfortunately, Fariña is eliminating this critical function of the central office by eliminating the A-to-F accountability system of her predecessors. Educators in schools, parents and the general public will no longer have clear, consistent information about their schools’ performance. And Chancellor Fariña has not yet indicated how schools will be held accountable for their performance.
Fortunately, there is still time for Chancellor Fariña to adjust her proposal to ensure that schools can use her six measures to drive their own improvement and for the central office to maintain a clear and consistent set of expectations for accountability. I’m rooting for the success of this new system. It’s what good teachers and parents want, and it’s what good schools do. Let’s hope it also leads to a better education for more children.