Too Good to Be True? WWCBD*?

“If it looks to good to be true, it’s probably not.”

It’s an adage as old as the hills, but it’s also an excellent reminder to stay skeptical (think Bernie Madoff, for one), and a signal that questions should perhaps be asked or audits conducted.

Which brings us to the latest “too good to be true story” story in NYC public schools and the system’s deeply flawed Progress Report system: the Theater Arts Production Company school in the Bronx. A combined middle school and high school, TAPCo as it is known was this year’s big winner in the high school report card category with an A grade and the city’s highest ranking score of 106.3 points. Last year, TAPCo received an A as well, but its 85.8-point score put it in the 89th percentile of NYC public high schools, or somewhere around 50th – 60th place in the rankings. Its one-year leapfrogging to #1 in the DOE’s measurement of “progress,” is noteworthy, although a bit short of miraculous. Nevertheless, the result was sufficiently notable to merit a "Cinderella story" on Huffington Post.

A look at the school’s NYS 2008/09 report cards is interesting: 64% and 61% pass rates in Math A and Integrated Algebra, respectively, but 2% and 0% above an 85. The school had 97 Math A test takers in 2006/07, but only 32 Math B takers last year, with a 19% pass rate and 0% scoring over 85. Pretty much average pass rates in Global and U.S. History (61% and 79%); same for Earth Science and Living Environment (54% and 64%, respectively); one student taking a Physics exam (only the third in school history) and only one a Chemistry exam (apparently the first ever in school history). Attendance rate at a respectable but hardly stellar 90%, and a latest teacher turnover rate (from 2007/08 into last year) of 44%.

So why take note of TAPCo, aside from its semi-meteoric rise to #1 DOE Progress Report school in NYC? Because of a remarkable, seemingly insider’s comment posted by “Bronx Teacher” on the JD2718 education blog last Saturday (11/27/10) that reads as follows:

I find it interesting that TAPCo was discussed on this forum. Somehow, the Theatre Arts Production Co. School was rated the number 1 school in the NYC-DOE report cards this past month. When the principal announced it, students fell over laughing. The reality is that Principal Passarella knows how to cook the books and play the system. I’m sure she’s not the only one doing it, she’s just the best at it. The report card grades various stages of academic progress … such as the number of credits each grade student has obtained.

This is interesting because TAPCo has an almost 100% graduation rate … funny, cause students who dropped out even graduated. Let’s see how this works:

- teachers are not allowed to fail students. No F’s or 55's on report cards. Any 55 is changed to an NC (No Credit). Teachers are to give students EVERY opportunity to remove the NC … such as copying work from friends, cheating, lying, etc.
- teachers who do not comply and continue to fail students are terminated and removed from the school … even if it’s mid semester. Administration will just change the failing grades to passing ones.
- therefore, TAPCO does not have any failing students and thus, every student is on track for graduation.

- students are also given bogus credits for classes they never took … such as Phys Ed and Foreign Language.

- most TAPCo students “earn” up to 14-16 credits a year, far above the 11 required for graduation. They are given full credit for taking an Arts class once a week, a Theatre class once a week, Phys Ed classes which don’t exist, Foreign Language class once a week with a “phantom” teacher who is out on disability.

- Regents passing grades are a joke as well … especially in ELA and US/World History. The rubrics are vague, and the grading teachers give out 4's and 5's like candy. A cursory review of the essays indicate that most of these students can barely string together a legitimate sentence. Meanwhile, teachers are giving them 5's.

- the latest insult to teachers is the development of the Inquiry Team … or more-so, the Inquisition Team. This is a group of the principal’s favorites who use their position on the team to intimidate other teachers. They are led by an angry, bitter little woman named Mrs. Acosta. Acosta does not teach any classes, but goes around criticizing people’s classrooms. Her fake smile is very transparent. She has used her “power” against teachers who have spoken up against her or disagree with her. Her role is to report back to the principal any dissension among the teachers.

- it’s interesting how the number 1 school in the City has a teacher turnover rate of about 45%. Don’t be surprised if that number is exceeded next year. But it’s ok … Principal Passarella knows there are plenty of teachers out there who will do anything and everything for a job.

It’s tempting to say “Wow!,” but this only seems to confirm what the many critics of Joel Klein’s data-driven educational administration have beens saying all along. Not surprising that the school boasts a 93.5% graduation rate on their 2010 Progress Report; it’s only surprising that it’s not 100%, or perhaps 108%!

Ms. Black, you are inheriting a deeply flawed accountability system whose #1 proponent is your #2 man. What are you going to do with regard to this type of alleged data falsification? Will you investigate? If these allegations are true, what will you do to give these students an honest education, not one so cruelly inflated and meaningless? And what will you do to redirect your organization’s attention to real public education instead of meaningless measurements from systems so easily and so often gamed, systems that benefit only adults while leaving a ragged trail of undereducated teenagers in their wake?

NOTE: I picked up this thread from Norm Scott’s Education Notes online, who had reposted the JD2718 comment from Bronx Teacher. Many thanks to Norm for helping bring this to light.

* WWCBD = What Would Cathie Black Do?
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