The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A valuable school and principal — but you wouldn’t know it by the test scores

If you’ve never heard of HONY, or the Humans of New York project, this post will introduce you to it, and its relevance to school reform. The author of the post, Barnett Berry, tells the story of a wonderful school (highlighted in a HONY piece) that is embraced by its community but, unfortunately, doesn’t shine when it comes to standardized test scores. Berry is the founder, partner and chief executive officer at the Center for Teaching Quality,  a national nonprofit organization that helps teachers transform their profession.

By Barnett Berry

Blogger and photojournalist Brandon Stanton roams the streets of the Big Apple, drawing out the stories of strangers he encounters. Snapping poignant photos, he invites subjects to reflect on relationships’ ups and downs, the trajectories of their dreams and struggles, or the minutiae of everyday life.

Millions follow Brandon’s daily Humans of New York (HONY) posts on social media, appreciative of his keen recognition of the moving moment or distinguishing detail.

On January 19, Brandon interviewed a young boy in the Brownsville neighborhood:

Brandon: Who’s influenced you the most in your life?
Vidal: My principal, Ms. Lopez.
Brandon: How has she influenced you?
Vidal: When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.

Vidal’s account of his relationship with his principal garnered thousands of likes, comments, and shares—and quickly. The social media post “took off” right away (by now it has accumulated more than a million Facebook “likes” and more than 20,000 comments).

Many followers wondered, who was this Ms. Lopez—and what New York Public school did Brandon attend?

The answers weren’t long in coming.

The day after publishing the post about Vidal, Brandon visited Mott Hall Bridges Academy, where he shadowed Ms. Nadia Lopez. Having seen how the first post resonated, he spent time brainstorming with her about “creative ways that the HONY community could help further the vision of Mott Hall Bridges Academy.”

On January 22, Brandon launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise $100,000 to send the kids of Mott Hall to Harvard.

Sometimes a visit to Harvard is more than just a visit to Harvard. Mott Hall Bridges Academy is a middle school located in Brownsville, Brooklyn– the neighborhood with the highest crime rate in New York City. It’s not the best place to be a kid.

By February they had raised over $1.4 million.

“A safe zone in a crime-plagued neighborhood”

Mott Hall Bridges Academy is a public middle school in Brownsville, a Brooklyn neighborhood with the lowest median household income in New York City. Children growing up in Brownsville rarely go to Manhattan, much less Harvard. Indeed, as Brandon posted a range of Brownsville portraits in late January—of teachers, students, and community members—he illuminated the many challenges faced by residents.

But he also documented ways in which their school and community are working to support them.

Brandon may be the most visible storyteller for Mott Hall, but he is not the first to note its role in a benighted community. In December, New York Times reporter Winnie Hu pointed out that Mott Hall Bridges Academy “is seen by many families as a safe zone in a crime-plagued neighborhood, and a gateway out of generational poverty for those born with few advantages in life.”

Yet, measured by New York City schools’ official accountability system, Mott Hall Bridges Academy has average performance at best:

In its most recent evaluation by the city’s Education Department in October, the school was rated “proficient” in the rigor of its curriculum and the effectiveness of its teaching and learning. It excelled at establishing a culture of learning that communicated high expectations to staff, students and families. But the school’s performance on state math and English tests, though improving, still falls well below the citywide average.

Hu reports that Mott Hall educators lead peer groups so they can “keep tabs” on students and help them develop coping strategies for addressing challenges at home and in the neighborhood. This holistic approach is anything but “teaching to the test.” The students may not do so well on standardized tests administered once a year, but evidence suggests they are engaged in deeper learning in ways that encourage them to take agency in their educations and lives.

The failure of high-stakes accountability

Even as reporters like Hu document what educators are doing at schools like Mott Hall to help poor students beat the odds, the New York Times editorial board continues to call for high stakes accountability, with the expectation that Arne Duncan, US Secretary of Education, “hold fast” to the policy of judging teachers on the basis of student test scores.

But doing so isn’t working.

Despite the accountability pressures imposed by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top policies, student performance on the National Assessment on Education Progress (NAEP) has been largely flat. NAEP is the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can drawing on a common metric of students’ subject-specific content and thinking skills for all states and selected urban districts. The New York City schools, governed by high-stakes accountability policies advanced over 12 years by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has not fared well on NAEP in comparison to other cities—and in some cases did worse. (And American students continue not to fare well on international measures of academic achievement.)

If high-stakes accountability motivates principals and teachers, it does so at the expense of narrowing the curriculum to what is most simply (and often not accurately) measured in the math and reading sections of standardized tests. And teachers report that once-a-year, bubble-in tests offer paltry information to them for improving their practice.

The research community of the American Statistical Association has concluded that the value-added scores assigned to teachers on the basis of student test performance are not sufficiently reliable or valid for determining which teachers are effective—and teachers themselves question as to whether VAM results can improve their practice. As Julie Hiltz, CTQ teacherpreneur from Hillsborough County in Florida reported in a Washington Post Answer Sheet essay, “Like most teachers, I have no idea what my score means.”

Do stories like Mott Hall’s matter?

There is plenty of research evidence that high-stakes accountability just doesn’t work, but the data failed to convince policymakers (or, apparently, the New York Times editorial board).

So how can we shift the high-stakes culture of American schools?

The legal profession has long recognized the critical role of narrative in client representation. And the civil rights community has used stories to make change imaginable and urgent. In education, the National Writing Project has used teacher stories in order to help teaching colleagues improve each other’s practice.

And when it comes to high-stakes accountability, stories like Mott Hall’s—and the experiences of teachers, parents, and students—are becoming difficult to ignore.

Over the last several months, growing numbers of policymakers and parents have begun to question policies that use standardized test scores of students to reward and punish teachers and principals. More than 5,000 students in Colorado refused to take the state’s rigidly designed achievement tests. A recent poll in New Jersey showed that more than 80 percent of parents are concerned that “too much of the school year is spent preparing for standardized tests” and 77 percent are concerned that testing “takes time and money from other educational priorities.”

As Ms. Lopez noted in a recent PBS interview: “There’s a lot of time being spent on how do we make kids pass a test, and how validated we are by numbers, but through that process we’re stressing ourselves out, and we’re losing the passion behind education.”

Of course, as a nation, we need indicators of school and teaching quality. We need tests, but they need to represent more authentically the skills students need to develop as well as data about how teachers can improve their instruction. They should be both state-designed and locally developed, and include teacher-created classroom-based projects and products like those used in other nations. And accountability systems need to not only report on which schools are doing well or not, but also why, revealing useful indicators of what they should do differently.

We need the kind of relational accountability that Stanford Professor Linda Darling-Hammond recently described, driven by educators “act(ing) in a professional community with each other and when they interact in learning communities with families—something that can prove much more powerful than a more impersonal institutional accountability” imposed by NCLB and Race to the Top. Mott Hall should be judged on more than narrowly-defined standardized tests, administered each year. Imagine if the school was assessed on students’ social-emotional competence and citizenship as well as teachers’ contributions to professional learning and school leadership.

When a student stopped randomly on the street by a roving storyteller cites his principal as the person who’s influenced him most, we’d better listen. The test scores don’t tell the whole story. And it is time for our nation to create the kind of 21st-century accountability system that students deserve, fueled by the skills and commitment of educators like Nadia Lopez, not politicians and school reformers who do not know students like Vidal.