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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Is this Public School Any Good?

By Joyce Szuflita

When you google your zoned elementary school, a lot of different sites will pop up; www.greatschools.com, www.insideschools.org, maybe the school’s website or the DOE’s website. Who do you believe and how do you decide whether to trust your darling to a school that gets a 4 out of 10 or a “D” and is considered a “noteworthy” school elsewhere?

Everyone is always asking me how I feel about Great Schools. Any information is a valuable resource as long as you really understand what it is telling you. Great schools score is tabulated from the standardized test scores released by the DOE and the State. There needs to be some standard by which to measure a school, but if they live and die by teaching to the test will they give your child the type of quality education that she deserves? We could argue all day about the validity of test scores. The reality is that even a parent that is skeptical of their value has a hard time ignoring them when they are so seemingly irrefutable. Parents that write into the site can also use a star rating system for other aspects of the school’s environment and they can list comments. Sometimes parents are specific enough to give me a picture of the school, and sometimes it is just too vague. In many cases the Great Schools rating is low and the parents comments rate the school very high. That is just a good indication that you need to dig deeper.

The DOE (NYC Dept. of Education) has been doing school progress reports (or school grades) for two years now. The newest progress reports are coming out shortly, but you may have already heard the startling news that the highly popular PS 8 in Brooklyn Heights has received an F. Is it a case of the “Emperor’s New Clothes”; that the wishful thinking of Brooklyn Heights parents has clouded their judgment and the DOE is exposing a failing school despite the great press the principal has been getting? The grading system was put in place to help parents easily understand the progress that a school is making as well as help the DOE identify schools that are in trouble, but ever since it was instituted it has been under attack by parents and educators for being a flawed assessment and opaque to parents.

The Progress Reports group the schools into cohorts based on need (how many children get free school lunch) and uses these groupings to compare schools. There may be a problem in a school like PS 8 that has had a drastic shift in population in the last couple of years. The lower grades with a high population of middle and upper income parents are not tested (and the DOE says they were considered when assigning its cohort) but the more challenged upper grades were the ones that were tested for proficiency. So the school is judged against other schools with high populations of school ready, upper income children, but the tests were given to the upper grades which have a much more diverse and challenged population. The DOE uses three things to judge each school; the environment, the student’s test score proficiency and the progress made by the most challenged students to progress toward proficiency. The environment score is created by assessing surveys from parents, staff and students. Some experts have questioned the validity of this method as an unbiased measure. The proficiency part of the grade comes from the test scores. The third part, the progress of its most challenged students, counts for over 50% of the school’s grade. If the school is not making a lot of progress in helping the children at the lowest end of the grading spectrum succeed they can’t get a high grade no matter what else they are doing right. One argument made by the DOE is this measure is looking at each individual child’s progress from year to year, but the problem is that the tests are on different skills and different curriculum. It is difficult to charge change in proficiency when the test is on completely different skills. I did great in algebra but not so hot in calculus. I am not going to blame my high school principal for that one. As the weeks wear on we will hear a lot of experts weight in. I am not being an apologist for PS 8. I just don’t like the letter grade as a helpful guide for parents, period. It seems to be an unbiased measure, but with all the DOE’s good intensions it is just too blunt an instrument for me to use.

Then there are the reviews at www.insideschools.org and Clara Hemphill’s excellent books. I am a completely unabashed supporter of the work that they are doing. The reviews are as objective and well written as a parent could hope for. You have to keep in mind though, that a school will try and put its best foot forward when insideschools arrives to observe the program, introducing them to the star teachers and highlighting the programs that they are proudest of. The fact that there are also comments by students and parents is extremely helpful and often speaking specifically to concerns that prospective families have. Insideschools lists the test scores but within the larger picture of the school as a whole, where they should be.

I wish there were two sets of test scores every year. One set paid for by the DOE and one set paid for by the UFT (United Federation of Teachers). Now there would be some numbers that showed the true range of a school’s ability. Then parents could find the average and have a sense of how the school might really be performing. Finally, after you have scoured the Internet, the DOE and school websites for current reports, scores, reviews and parent opinions, it is your gut feelings about a school that really matters. Do you like what you see, how they treat you and answer your questions? Do you feel welcomed by the parent community as they pick up their children outside school at the end of the day? In a changing neighborhood, even a year can make a difference. The websites sometimes don’t tell the most up to date story of a school in transition. Only you can be the final judge.

Joyce Szuflita is a working mother of twins. She has been a Brooklyn resident for 28 years. As NYC School Help, she consults with families who are doing the school search; public or private, nursery school through high school. Her aim is to save you time, clarify your priorities, present you with thorough information in a clear uniform format so that you can make an informed decision about your child's education. She takes a crazy stressful process and makes it clear and manageable. Joyce is also a regular contributor to Hip Slope Mama.