New Yorkers Deserve Better Than Fraudulent Success in Schools

Anonymous interviews with New York City teachers have been very revealing.  What you find is that most instructors are persuaded to manipulate achievement test scores so that Mayor Bloomberg’s proclamations about educational improvement can be confirmed.

It was reported recently that the city’s “highest-ranking school” is being investigated for what was described as its “nonfailure policy.”  The city’s Department of Education is engaged in an investigation to determine whether the Theater Arts Production Company High School in the Bronx attained its unique ranking by fudging student grades.

I can assure those in the investigation that they don’t have to look too hard.  One senior in the school reported, “My average is 30, but in three days I can bring it up to 95.  The teachers will give you sheets that are already filled out, and you can just copy them.  It’s for the school so it doesn’t look bad with failing grades.”

Another senior noted that when the principal, Lynn Passarella, announced the school ranked first on the city progress report ratings, “we all started laughing.  We all know it’s a bad school.”

Even the rationalizations for fudging are hard to accept.  Some students contend the school maintains “a second-chance policy” for those struggling with academic subjects.  One teacher argued, “The kids are given every opportunity to turn grades around … but there is a time frame.  It’s not like it’s open-ended.”  Of course, if that means filling in the blanks with answers that are provided, it better be done in a timely fashion.

Most students in the school realize that the 93 percent graduation rate and off-the-charts grading results are too good to be true.  One student summarized it best:  “The school is made easy.  I don’t even bring textbooks home.”  Another student contends, “The nonfailing policy is taking away our education in a way.  If we could just go in and sit there in a classroom and they’ll pass us, it doesn’t help prepare us.”

For obvious reasons this story about fraud is different from others that have appeared.  This is about a high school with the highest rating in New York City.  It suggests that the mayor’s claims about “skyrocketing” achievement improvement in student performance is bogus.  It suggests too that teachers and administrators are complicit in this numbers game.

In fact, the nonfailing policy at Theater Arts Production Company High School is duplicated on a de facto level at many schools across the city.  Grades are largely a function of politics and perception, rather than performance.

When teachers blow the whistle on this practice—and there have been a few—they are ostracized by colleagues and invariably conform.

It seems to me a real investigation of this fraud is warranted across the five boroughs.  New Yorkers should get more for their tax dollars than smoke and mirrors and the appearance of success.  Furthermore, I think the mayor and former and current chancellors of the school system, Joel Klein and Cathleen Black, should be held accountable.  In this Wizard of Oz world, it was promised that scores would improve in short order after the mayor seized management control of the schools.  Alas, scores did improve because everyone had an incentive to manipulate them to reflect success.  Real results were something else again.

It’s time to know what is really going on and whether one school in the Bronx is the embodiment of a systemwide effort at fraud and deception.