Critique of Shael Suransky Policies at NYC DOE

Corporate Reform versus Child-Centered Progress
by A Guest Columnist
Recent years have seen the growth in influence and power of the corporate reform approach, part of GERM (the Global Education Reform Movement), on education policy-making. It principles include a focus on closing schools, test-based accountability, and building portfolio model district offices. This approach tends to be favored by the elites of both political parties, the wealthy, and well-funded conservative think tanks and is now the status quo. It is often difficult to get behind the headlines and figure out if there is any real evidence supporting this approach. As teachers know a good example is often the best way to bring clarity to a difficult topic… 
The #2 education official in New York City Department of Education during the Black/Walcott era, Shael Suransky, stepped down recently. His tenure serves an excellent example of much that is wrong with the corporate education reform movement and with Bloomberg’s implementation of its dogmas. It is clear that if we really care about all children we need to pursue a different approach.
Suransky helped found the Bread and Roses Integrated Arts High School in Harlem. The school is now being shuttered, labeled as failing a mere 15 years later. A recent report by the Annenberg Foundation at Brown University revealed that the number of “over the counter” students (that is students who did not receive a spot in any other school through NYC’s match process) sent to Bread and Roses High School increased from 15% to 22% between 2008 and 2011. At the same time the number of overage students at the school increased by 5.3% and the number of students with special needs increased by 7.4%. Unsurprisingly, as the teachers and staff at the school worked to educate students with greater incoming challenges, test scores dropped. As a result the school’s Progress Report grade fell from a “B” to an “F.” This resulted in the school being closed.
Bronx International High School, a screened school for recent immigrants, was opened after Morris High School was shuttered. Suransky was principal of the school for 3 years. The school is one of the hundreds of small schools created under Bloomberg that have been touted as an amazing success story. Once the Department of Education began to measure the college readiness of students in 2011, questions were raised about the school’s success in truly preparing students for college. It scored a “D” on college and readiness the past two years and last year over 94% of the school’s graduates required remediation when they went to college.
Suransky has written that “small schools of choice work best for students, staff, and families.” In fact, the small schools as a whole do not teach the most challenging students. Jennifer Jennings, a professor at New York University, analyzed the differences in student population between Morris High School and the schools that replaced it. She found “lower concentrations of full-time special education students, students qualifying for free lunch, students who were below grade level in reading and math, and English Language Learners.” Specifically in the case of Bronx International High School the data show that, as compared to Morris High School, it served 9% fewer part-time special education students, 15.2% fewer full-time special education students (Bronx International had 0.0% such students), 16% fewer students entering overage, and 45.5% fewer free lunch students. The students at the school also had an average prior attendance rate 10.8% higher and were 10.2% more likely to have passed the 8th grade math exam than the students Morris High School served. Similar to the charter sector, the new small schools selectively choose which children they educate.
In a system as vast as New York City’s shuffling students around can create the illusion of progress. Under Bloomberg a specific group of schools, usually the large comprehensive community high schools, were sent the most challenging students. A different group of schools, usually the new high schools created under Bloomberg, did not serve similar students. The privileged schools were praised and the other schools (and the teachers in the schools) labeled failures. The privileged schools were given extra resources, the other schools were not. Bread and Roses High School got $5,821 per student from the city last year in “Fair Student Funding.” Bronx International got $6,268 per student. The school with the student body entering farther behind was given fewer resources to support them.
Another key component of the corporate reform agenda is holding schools accountable. Suransky became the deputy chancellor in charge of “performance and accountability.” At the release of the 2012-13 school report card grades he told the New York Times “you can see that some schools are beating the odds consistently.” The numbers tell a different story. Since Progress Report grades began seven years ago, only 26 high schools earned an “A” every year. What do these schools tell us about what it took to “beat the odds” under the test-centered grading system? 25 of the 26 schools are screened or selective schools. The focus on test scores has created a perverse system of incentives. Schools don’t want to accept any students with academic challenges, schools don’t want to accept students with special needs, and schools definitely don’t want to accept students who have struggled with school in the past since that would result in lower test scores. Instead of opening all schools to all students a system was created where struggling students are hidden away. Schools that manage to keep struggling students away or transfer them out are said to beat the odds.
The economic and other struggles of students and their families were ignored. In a letter to the New York Times, Suransky wrote “I contest [the] calculation that “schools with wealthier students are three times more likely to get an A than schools serving the poor.” In fact, schools with large concentrations of impoverished students were three and half times less likely to get an “A” than schools serving more privileged students.
The obsession with test scores and short term gains on tests resulted in absurd uses of data. Suransky defended the grades two very similar schools in the Bronx received. One, PS 30, got an “A.” The other, PS 179, got an “F.” He wrote that “the city’s Independent Budget Office [IBO] recently found that progress reports do a better job controlling for student demographics than any other system in the United States.” The report actually said that “the method of calculating the continuous metrics on which final progress report scores are based may not fully control for confounding variables. All other things being equal, a school with a higher percentage of black and Hispanic students or special education students is likely to have lower performance and progress scores than other schools. (page 12)”
Based on math test scores at the two schools he wrote that the “difference in student progress is huge and has great consequences for students’ chances of graduating ready for college, justifying the schools’ respective grades.” Looking beyond the results on a single test in a single year the data do not support this argument. In 2 of the 3 prior years students at the F-rated school had a higher Math proficiency average score than the students at the A-rated school.  In 2 out of the 3 prior years, the F-rated school had a higher % of students scoring a level 3 or 4 on Math than the A-rated school. Looking at the same math test data broken down by grade level the F-rated school had a higher % of 3rd grade students scoring a level 3 or 4. The F-rated school also had a higher % of students scoring at levels 2, 3, or 4 in both 3rd and 4th grades.
The data did not support grading PS 30 an “A” and PS 179 an “F.” The only significant difference was PS 30’s growth for 5th graders. But to quote the IBO report the “student progress sub-score is less stable from year to year” than other elements of the Progress Reports (page 7). Predictions of “great consequences” for “students’ graduating ready for college” were not supported by a wider look at the available evidence.
Other factors important to the quality of a school, such as the rate at which students are suspended or the rate at which teachers are retained, show that PS 179, the F-rated school, came out ahead of PS 30, the A-rated school. The school rated as failing suspended many fewer students than the “A” school. The school rated as failing retained more of their teachers than the “A” school. Student suspension rate: PS 179= 1% in 2008-09 and 4% in 2009-10. PS 30=11% in 2008-09 and 5% in 2009-10.Teacher turnover rate: PS 179=12% in 2008-09 and 14% in 2009-10. PS 30=21% in 2008-09 and 18% in 2009-10.
These two schools provided evidence that the city’s grading scheme penalized educators who teach students with special needs. PS 179 educated 5% more students with special needs than PS 30 (25.7% as compared to 20.7%). For this PS 179 was rewarded by the city with an “F.” Random fluctuation in test scores from a single year is certainly not sufficient justification for an “F” grade. In fact since the letter the F-rated school proceeded to get an “A” in 2011-12 and a “B” in 2012-13. The A-rated school got a “B” in 2011-12 and a “B” in 2012-13 (with an “F” in the performance subcategory).
In addition to the questionable use of data, Suransky’s office at Tweed failed to develop a curriculum for teachers to support the roll-out of the Common Core. Instead schools were given lists of materials to order that often turned out to be poorly designed test prep workbooks that are full of errors. Teachers in New York City are still waiting for a complete curriculum that is rigorous and engaging for students and that includes supports and interventions for students who are currently below grade level in literacy or numeracy skills.  

The path forward is clear: The focus must return to supporting the work of teachers in the classroom. Through rich curriculum, professional development, and expanded student support services all of New York City’s children can have access to a great education. The data games and the testing obsession must end. A child-centered collaborative approach to improving education for every single child in the city must begin.