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School Accountability: NYC Sets the Tone, For Better or Worse

Life and education are too complicated for single letter grades. A smarter, nuanced alternative is within New York's grasp.
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I wouldn't appreciate it if the government informed me, "Dan, we give you a D."

I'd become upset and defensive. I'd demand to know on what criteria I'd been evaluated. I'd desperately think to myself, "Well maybe some facets of me are D-quality -- my desk is hopelessly messy and sometimes I take too long to reply to emails. But hey, I've got some pretty fabulous, A-worthy sides of me, too! Do they know about my vegetable pasta?"

I wouldn't be alone in this belittled bafflement. Others would want to know why they'd been stamped with reductive, unattractive letters.

After enough incensed voices shouted loudly enough, the government would deign to notify us that these [scarlet] letters were calculated by an $80 million state-of-the-art computer system. Case closed.

This scenario feels wrong. Dirty. Orwellian. Yet it's how the Department of Education stamped schools with letter grades last November.

My analogy of reducing people -- instead of schools -- to letter grades isn't far-flung. Schools are more like humans than they are like factories, places measured solely by their bottom lines. A school is a living, multi-faceted, human institution.

In the finest schools, the models that should be emulated, students learn and grow in many ways. They engage with dynamic teachers and a diverse curriculum to build skills transferable beyond the classroom, including analytical thinking, creative expression, healthy living, and socialization.

The Department of Education currently prefers to view schools through a business-sphere lens where money gets pumped in and "results," measured exclusively in math and literacy test scores, are the only valued output.

Since assuming control of city schools, Mayor Bloomberg has pushed relentlessly for basing school accountability on standardized test performance. This practice has distorted and narrowed curricula, transformed many schools into de facto test prep factories, and wasted students', parents', and teachers' precious time. Since taking office, the mayor has advanced his test-obsessed agenda with much success.

Until now. (Perhaps.)

Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein overplayed their hand by dropping $80 million of taxpayer money into their ARIS computer system to crunch test score data and hand out a single letter to each city school.

Upon receiving the grades in November, New Yorkers reacted with an uproar. Now, four months later, tangible hope has arrived with an intelligent, workable proposal for a new school accountability system. The plan, introduced by UFT president Randi Weingarten, pushes for accountability through four "pillars"-- academic achievement; safety, order, and discipline; teamwork for student achievement; and Department of Education accountability to the school. Test scores would still count, but only in one of the four pillars necessary for responsibly educating students.

This rigorous, balanced system -- one that if accepted, would be administered by the Department of Education -- flies in the face of every negative stereotype associated with teachers' unions. We would ultimately get stronger accountability -- for students, teachers, principals and the DOE -- based on fairer, well-rounded criteria. This would, in turn, improve education in New York City. Everyone with an open mind wins.

Life and education are too complicated for single letter grades. A smarter, nuanced alternative is within New York's grasp.

Dan Brown is a New York City teacher and the author of "The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle."