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Know Your Rights
Source: The Wall Street Journal
Subject: Education Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Foes Turn Up the Heat on Schools Chief

Dozens of elected officials, the teachers union and several community groups** called Thursday for city schools Chancellor Joel Klein to suspend some of his signature accountability policies.

Longtime foes of Mr. Klein rallied outside his offices at the Tweed Courthouse in Manhattan as part of a stepped-up campaign against the chancellor.

The city’s Department of Education downplayed the critics’ demands.

“We will continue to hold schools accountable for performance,” said Natalie Ravitz, the chancellor’s press secretary, in a statement.

“Delaying necessary reform, even for one year, will only hurt our kids and take us backward. Now is the time for all of us to double down on our efforts.”

Ms. Ravitz said that the DOE has been working for months on increasing instruction time and encouraging more teacher teams to meet and discuss the lowest-performing students. She said that 60% of the teachers do that now and the goal is 90%.

The drop in students deemed proficient in math and English—caused when the state raised the bar for passing statewide tests—has invigorated Mr. Klein’s foes.

In July, the state Education Department increased the standards for what it means to be considered proficient in English and math for third through eighth graders.

In New York City, that sent the number of students scoring proficient in English plummeting to 42% this year from 69% in 2009. In math, 54% of city children were scored as proficient this year, down from 82%.

Despite the change in standards, the city can point to several other measures that show students have progressed on Mr. Klein’s watch, including their performance on national tests and in comparison with children in the rest of the state.

Still, Mr. Klein seemed to recognize the challenges posed by the new proficiency standards, even though he himself had been calling for them to be raised for years. In an email to a supporter shortly after the new test scores were announced, Mr. Klein wrote: “the oppos are trying to move their agenda with this.” The email was inadvertently widely distributed.

“We are really frustrated,” said Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children of New York, a group often at odds with the city Department of Education. She and others described a system beholden to standardized exams that have ingrained a test-prep culture that hurts students, as well as an overreliance on testing to make major judgments on children, schools and educators. Participants chanted: “Less testing, more teaching.”

The groups have recently hired a public-relations firm to press their case more vociferously.

Last month, the groups’ loud demonstration succeeded in shutting down a DOE meeting, blocking important votes that were on the agenda. More events and demonstrations are in the works.

Mr. Klein’s opposition is hammering the use of state tests in big decisions—such as the progress reports in which schools are assigned a letter grade. Critics call them “scarlet letters” and say they unfairly brand students and teachers. The change in proficiency standards, they say, ought to give the chancellor pause about using test scores to assign letter grades.

But some experts say the progress reports, while not perfect, show promise. “Schools that had low grades actually responded by doing better,” said Marcus Winters, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a right-leaning think tank. What’s more, he said, the DOE re-assesses and improves on the reports yearly. “Abandoning a policy as we’re gaining evidence that it’s effective would be a very bad idea.”

The architect of the progress reports, James S. Liebman, said the issue comes down to accountability.

“Most people don’t like to be evaluated if they can avoid it,” said Mr. Liebman, who left the DOE in 2009 to return to his position at Columbia Law School. “There are a group of people who have opposed reform from the start for that reason and are misinterpreting this new information as support for their old self-serving arguments. But the kids deserve to know how well their schools are working.”

**Including Make the Road New York (MRNY).