Vox populi

Comments of the week: Divided views on school surveys' truth

Each Friday, we highlight a sampling of the most thoughtful, substantive, and informed comments that readers left on the week’s news articles. We believe that a constructive conversation in the comments section helps us meet our goal of elevating public dialogue about education.

Unfortunately, with emotions high this week, particularly over the collapse of the Department of Education’s “turnaround” plans, many comments did not rise to that standard.

As a reminder, part of the very first rule in our comments policy reads, “Disagreement with people’s arguments is fine, but personal attacks — including on other commenters and GothamSchools writers and editors — will not be tolerated.”

But there were constructive comments, too! Back on Monday, we wrote about the results of this year’s Department of Education survey, which showed that teachers, parents, and students hold their schools in high esteem, even when the schools’ performance data might lead to other conclusions.

One commenter, “Larry,” offered some advice for interpreting the results, which he said had been rendered meaningless:

1.  Many high schools coach the kids into putting good things about the schools on the surveys.  The common narrative is either “they’ll close us down” or “you won’t get into good colleges” if the school receives a low grade on the progress report.

2.  Many high-school students fill out the surveys for their parents, especially if the school has given them an incentive to turn in the completed survey.

3.  Teachers will positively rate their own schools and the DOE positively out of fear, rather than honesty.

In short, these surveys, which were a good idea at the time, have become meaningless.  As long as they continue to be factored into progress report scores, they will continue to be meaningless.

Several readers responded to say that Larry’s warnings were well founded. “Follow the Money” wrote,

This is actually true. At the last school I worked at, one with a culture of fear, many teachers remarked to me that they were scared to put down their true thoughts, as they weren’t sure if the administration would find out and if they would be risking reprisal. Now I’m not saying there was any validity to these fears … but the fears were there.

“Elaz Laz” went even further, saying that not only fear but pressure informed survey responses at her school:

Yes this is true.  We coach the students as to what to write down.  We get coached by our administration as to what to write down.  We were told the surveys are not the place to air complaints.  The surveys are a huge waste of money.

“Justaparent” said she only leaves positive comments, too — but that’s how she wants it:

I am just a parent and have always boycotted these surveys. However, this year I did complete the one for my 9th grader’s high school because I have been so Impressed with the teachers and administration.

Travis Dove, a student at CSI High School for International Studies who wrote in the GothamSchools Community section last month about problems with the school’s physical education program, was the lone dissenter. He said he thought this year’s surveys would produce accurate results at his school:

No, my school does not bully students to put good things on the survey. This year my bubble sheet was brutal.

And one reader, who commented as “a teacher,” said it was the survey itself, not the pressuring surrounding it, that could skew results:

The questions about the rating system were absurd.  Of course a system with only two categories, satisfactory and unsatisfactory, doesn’t “recognize excellence”, but that doesn’t mean I want it replaced by some value-added nonsense. Even as I answered the questions, I resented the DOE for asking them in a way that seemed designed to get as many teachers as possible to agree with their position.  If they’d asked “Do you think the current evaluation system should be replaced with a system of evaluation that relies heavily on standardized test scores?”, they would probably have seen very different results.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”