Thursday, September 20, 2007

Why are principals angry?

It would be churlish to dismiss Mayor Mike Bloomberg's accomplishment in winning the Broad Prize for raising test scores in the city schools, particularly for poor black and Hispanic students. So why are parents, principals and teachers so angry when the mayor says "accountability, competition and empowerment" have brought success to the schools?

The relentless emphasis on test scores, embodied in the mayor's education reforms called Children First, is draining the joy of learning from the city's classrooms. I know a 7th grader who was so anxious about test scores she started downing antacids in August to calm her jittery stomach. A principal told me "I feel very accountable but not very empowered. It's data first, not Children First."

Some of the gains are real. There are classrooms in the Bronx, bare when the mayor took power, that have books now. Patronage hires are a thing of the past. But since July, with a new organization of the school system, the mayor has shifted his focus from improving instruction -- a worthwhile goal that will result in higher test scores -- to simply improving test scores -- a feat that can be accomplished though various tricks that may not include increasing learning. For example, principals can increase test scores by instituting a sort of triage -- ignoring kids at the top, who will do well regardless, and at the bottom, who are likely to do poorly, and concentrating enormous test prep efforts on kids in the middle.

"It's not about teaching the whole child. It's about the child's test scores," a principal said.

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