In his year-end review of Hempstead schools last month, Jack Bierwirth, the district’s state-appointed special adviser, somehow declared that the district had made “substantial progress” while he acknowledged that it continues to have inconsistent governance, poor academic performance and accounting irregularities.
New York State rates Hempstead High School as “persistently struggling,” and it rates the Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School as “struggling.” However, based on Bierwirth’s review, both schools were credited with having made “demonstrable improvement.” This designation moved them further from a possible state takeover, essentially abandoning students to more years of substandard education.
What exactly does “demonstrable improvement” mean? At the middle school, only 16 percent of seventh-graders and 22 percent of eighth-graders read at proficiency level. And 14 percent of seventh-graders and 1 percent of eighth-graders achieved proficiency in math. At the high school, 44 percent of the students passed the English Regents exam, 37 percent passed algebra, 26 percent passed geometry, 29 percent passed earth science and 39 percent passed U.S. history.
State education law mandates that “demonstrable improvement” decisions be based primarily on whether schools achieved their “progress targets” using their own indicators. The lower the “progress targets,” the easier it is to achieve them and get off the list of schools threatened with receivership. Since the state desperately does not want to take over schools, 49 out of 52 troubled schools, including Hempstead’s middle and high schools, were deemed to have made “demonstrable improvement” in the 2017-18 school year.
Hempstead schools somehow scored an 83 percent “demonstrable improvement” rating, hitting nine of their own 11 targets. How did this miracle happen? Taylor Raynor, the newly elected assemblywoman for the district, is suspicious about the reported improvement. According to Raynor, “There have been reports of fudging numbers and reporting inaccurate data, and that is what we would use to determine and track progress.”
One way to quickly “improve” a school’s performance is to find ways to clear failing students off your school’s register. Another way is to threaten teachers that unless grades go up and more students “pass,” a school could be reorganized and its jobs placed at risk. Neither of these options improves student learning. Bierwirth’s report touted the district’s efforts to have student data “cleaned up,” but conceded that there continue to be “significant problems” with “accuracy and completeness of student data, which affected reports to the State.”
According to his report, areas of progress that factored into the 83 percent grade included “moving to implement” international baccalaureate programs and offering more Advanced Placement courses in the high school. Unfortunately, moving to implement does not mean a program is in place, and registering more students in AP courses does not mean they can do the work.
Districts are supposed to review the performance of schools that scored less than 67 percent on their targets. If they don’t score higher in the 2018-19 school year, those schools will go back on the not-making-demonstrable-improvement list. But because Hempstead middle and high schools scored 83 percent, they will not be subject to such stringent review.
Shame on the New York State Education Department.
Alan J. Singer is a professor of teaching, learning and technology and the director of the social studies education program at Hofstra University.