P.S. 48 Struggles to Make The Grade
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JOHN HUGHES: What’s the best school in the universe?
STUDENTS: P.S. 48!
JOHN HUGHES: Say it like you mean it!
STUDENTS: P.S. 48!
JOHN MERROW: Principal John Hughes thinks that his elementary school, P.S. 48 in the Bronx, a borough of New York City, is the best school in the universe. Teachers and parents seem to agree.
PARENT: This school is the best in the universe.
JOHN HUGHES: When I used that phrase, people were laughing. Best school in the universe? You’ve got to be out of your mind. But it was more in laying the foundation for the excellence that I know we’re capable of achieving.
JOHN MERROW: When John Hughes became the principal five years ago, he made it his mission to turn the school around.
JOHN HUGHES: It was very teacher-directed, very traditional, very old school. A lot of desks in rows. A lot of teachers standing up in front of the room, talking to kids. Ten kids might be listening, and 15 kids might be sleeping.
JOHN MERROW: Today, P.S. 48, which has nearly a thousand students, 99 percent of whom live just above the poverty line, is ranked number one in the district for English language arts. Overall, the school is number 12 in the Bronx; that’s out of 137 elementary schools.
Located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, Hunt’s Point, the school is considered by many to be a treasure. But, unfortunately for P.S. 48, there’s another ranking system. As required by the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind, every year the New York State Department of Education publishes a list of schools that are deemed in need of improvement. P.S. 48 is on that list.
I saw a list that this is a school in need of improvement.
JOHN HUGHES: Yup, and no one was more shocked than I was. We were initially put on the list because our scores had gone down two years in a row. We had no problem with being on the list then.
The year after we were put on the list, we went up, big time. And then so then I figure, “OK, we go up big time again next year, and we’re off the list.” So next year came; we went up big time. And then the list came out, and we were on.
I was so upset. It’s an insult to my children. It’s an insult to my parents. It’s an insult to my school, and it’s an insult to the community of Hunt’s Point.
JOHN MERROW: Before the federal law known as No Child Left Behind, schools were generally judged according to overall average. That meant that a group of high-performing kids could pull up the average enough to obscure the fact that other students weren’t learning.
No Child Left Behind forces schools to report scores by groups: black, white, Hispanic, special education, kids learning English, and so forth. If any one group is not moving up, the entire school can be punished. That simple rule change has had profound effects.
TEACHER: Now, let’s look at these ones. What is this?
STUDENT: A lion.
TEACHER: Lion. Say lion.
JOHN MERROW: The law demands that every subgroup make adequate yearly progress. And according to the State Department of Education, the students at P.S. 48 who are learning English as a second language did not; neither did the kids in special education.
I hear that term, “adequate yearly progress.” What does it mean?
JOHN HUGHES: If I really knew, I’d tell you. It has to do with the combination of level-one and level-two students, and how many kids pass the test, and a certain percentage.
And it is so complicated that even my direct superiors and the people in the Department of Education — and through no fault of their own — it took them ages to actually figure it out and give us an answer.
JOHN MERROW: The federal law allows each state to decide how many students it takes to constitute a subgroup. In some states, there have to be at least 60 kids. New York set the number at 30. Every subgroup must make progress every year in their test scores, hence “adequate yearly progress.”
JOHN HUGHES: If we had two less special education students, we’d only have 29 kids, so we wouldn’t have a cohort, so it wouldn’t make a difference if nobody passed. We wouldn’t be on the list.
GAIL SUNDERMAN: What we’re finding in our research is that various schools that No Child Left Behind designed to help, those that are diverse and serving low-income and minority students, are really being penalized.
JOHN MERROW: Gail Sunderman, a senior research associate at Harvard University, is co-author of a book about the No Child Left Behind act.
So P.S. 48 in the Bronx, with these high test scores, and a flag saying, “Sorry, you’re in need of improvement,” there are other schools like that around the United States?
GAIL SUNDERMAN: Yes, there’s other schools like that around the United States. There’s also districts like that. I was in California about a year ago in one of the highest-performing districts in the state; it had been identified as needing improvement.
JOHN MERROW: Ironically, large schools with diverse populations, Sunderman says, are more likely to be labeled.
GAIL SUNDERMAN: A school that has more subgroups has more ways to fail, and the subgroups that most often cause that are either the English-language learning subgroup or students with disabilities.
TOM LUCE: Is it more difficult for a public school to educate a child who comes into the school not speaking English? You bet. What we want them to do is have an incentive to teach that child English as soon as possible. Should we say, “Well, let’s don’t count those children”?
JOHN MERROW: Tom Luce is assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Education.
TOM LUCE: The purpose of No Child Left Behind is to be color-blind and it is to ensure that every child makes progress, whether they’re in an urban school, a suburban school, or a rural school.
I’ve had suburban schools say to me, “Oh, my goodness, we didn’t make it because we only had 31 special-education students, and one didn’t make it.” Well, that child is important.
JOHN MERROW: While Principal Hughes agrees with the intentions of the law, he insists that No Child Left Behind does not work for P.S. 48.
JOHN HUGHES: If my test scores were even 20 points lower, but we were still showing progress each year, we wouldn’t be on the list. So, in ways, we’re being penalized for being a large school.
JOHN MERROW: Tom Luce acknowledges that, while No Child Left Behind may need some modification, the law is working.
TOM LUCE: I would say it’s safe to say that any system that tries to deal with the education of 50 million children can always be fine-tuned.
And our secretary has a motto, “In God we trust; everybody else bring data.” And No Child Left Behind is producing more data. We try to learn by that data. And if data shows that there’s a better way of doing something, then we’ll make it more flexible; if the data shows it doesn’t, forget it.
JOHN MERROW: The federal education law says that parents whose children are in schools labeled as “in need of improvement” have the right to demand a transfer.
JOHN HUGHES: You know, you have to have an informational meeting with parents. You have to give parents the opportunity to transfer to a better school.
JOHN MERROW: It turns out 20 families, out of nearly a thousand, did request a transfer through the city’s Department of Education. But the rest of the parents did not pay much attention to the letter.
PARENT: You know what I did with the letter? I throw it in the garbage.
PARENT: When I received it, I was really surprised, because I couldn’t believe, you know, what was going on. But to my opinion, I don’t think that was right.
JOHN MERROW: P.S. 48 has been listed as being “in need of improvement” for two years. The longer a school stays on the list, the harsher the penalties.
According to the No Child Left Behind law, if a school is marked as “in need of improvement” for more than four years in a row, the principal and the teachers could lose their jobs and the school can be closed down or turned into a charter school. The threat of these sanctions has already had an impact in the classrooms at P.S. 48, according to some teachers.
CEILA ABUIN: Well, everything is test-driven, test-driven, so everything — most of your day is, you know, reading, writing, math. And, you know, the rest you kind of have to squeeze it in whichever way, you know, you can during the day.
JOHN MERROW: The No Child Left Behind law says that all students, including those in special education, must be performing at grade level by 2014.
ALAN BRODSKY: When he graduated, he was valedictorian, the top of his class. That means he got A’s in everything he did.
JOHN MERROW: Teacher Alan Brodsky has taught fourth-grade special-ed students at P.S. 48 for more than 10 years.
ALAN BRODSKY: They’re in my room for a reason. They’re generally at least a year and a half to two years behind academically. And if I’m teaching third and fourth grade, they’re on a first-grade level or a second-grade level. And you want them to take a third- and fourth-grade test and pass? It’s kind of unrealistic.
JOHN MERROW: Brodsky would like his students tested at the beginning of the year and then again at the end of the year, so each child can be judged on how much he’s learned throughout the year, instead of taking the same test that regular students take.
Is there a realistic expectation that you can get the school off that list the way things are run now?
ALAN BRODSKY: No. No.
JOHN MERROW: The U.S. Department of Education has relaxed one provision of the law. It now allows schools to exclude up to 3 percent of the most-disabled students so they do not have to pass the regular tests.
TOM LUCE: Researchers have presented us with evidence that we needed to take into account various types of learning disabilities, and that’s what we did. We sought expert outside opinions and acted upon those to give some schools some flexibility for a while in the assessment instruments they used.
JOHN MERROW: However, John Hughes says this will not make much of a difference.
Are you going to get off the list next year?
JOHN HUGHES: My gut answer is no, even if my total scores increase.
JOHN MERROW: Because New York State now requires schools to test third- and fourth-graders, as opposed to just fourth-graders, that means that P.S. 48 will have more special-ed and English-as-second-language students this year than ever before.
Despite the school’s situation, Principal Hughes is not planning on making many changes, even though he realizes the stakes are high.
JOHN HUGHES: We’re doing what we’re supposed to do. We’re the best school in the universe, so that’s not going to change. And our instruction will continue to get better, and we will continue to improve, but not because we were placed on the list, because that’s our mission.
Our mission is to make sure that every one of our kids is successful, and that’s also the goal of No Child Left Behind.
JOHN MERROW: The U.S. Department of Education plans on giving some schools breathing room. Recently, it announced a pilot program that would allow 10 states to establish individual growth models, allowing them to measure how much a student learns from one year to the next, instead of requiring a single test at the end of the year.
Twenty states applied to be part of the pilot program; New York was not one of them.