School Accountability Discredited in New York

Conservative educationalist, Diane Ravitch, is at it again – highlighting the failures of the New York City school accountability model which Julia Gillard wants to emulate in Australia. Her latest burst is that New York grading system of schools is “absurd” and is making “a mockery of the meaning of ‘accountability ”.

Ravitch has been an advocate of improving school accountability in the past, but she thinks the New York system is a total disaster. She has previously called the New York’s school reporting system “inherently unreliable”, “dubious” and produces “bizarre results”. She has said that New York officials, under the Schools Chancellor so admired by Julia Gillard, may be dispensing false data to parents, scaring them needlessly about their children’s school and destabilizing schools and communities.

It is clear that Julia Gillard and her education advisors have failed the basic competency test. They failed to properly investigate and assess the New York model before they began to spruik it.

Adding grist to the mill, this flawed accountability system is now shown to have internal contradictions. The school reporting system is at odds with the teacher cash bonus system introduced by Joel Klein to encourage school improvement. The New York Times reports that teachers and principals at five schools that received an ‘F’ (failed) grade earned cash bonuses for improving student achievement. A total of $US930,000 was distributed to teachers in these schools and $US35,000 to the principals.

Yet, students at the five schools consistently lagged far behind their peers citywide on state math and reading tests, often with less than 20 percent meeting state standards. Four of the schools have now been closed and the fifth is scheduled to close in 2010,

The bonuses, part of a pilot program, were granted to 89 of 160 eligible high-poverty elementary and middle schools citywide, based on a predetermined target that considered student performance and progress on state tests, as well as parent and teacher surveys and attendance, as compared with similar schools. In some cases teachers won bonuses even though barely a third of their students performed at grade level on the state tests.

In a further twist which reveals another problem with reporting school performance, the principal at one of the schools is under investigation by the New York City Education Department for cheating. He was reported to the Department by some teachers who said that he had encouraged cheating at the school and at a school where he was formerly the principal.

Julia Gillard should be warned by such incidents. Publishing school results does not necessarily lead to real improvements in school performance. With high stakes attached to test results, schools look for easy ways to improve their results. Cheating by helping students get the correct answer or changing their answers has become a feature of the US and England school systems. We can expect to see this in Australia if Gillard gets her way.

Trevor Cobbold

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