Union Prez Blasts “Not Credible” Data Dump

Melissa Bailey PhotoNew Haven’s teachers union president Wednesday boycotted the unveiling of new school data that he called a glossing-over of serious problems—and that district officials hailed as a sign of success.

The union president, David Cicarella, avoided a press conference Wednesday at Ross/Woodward School where top officials gathered to announce results of annual “school climate” surveys taken by parents, teachers, students and staff. The district initiated these surveys as a key way of evaluating the success of New Haven’s ambitious school reform drive.

Click here to view school-by-school results.

Superintendent Reggie Mayo announced that all of the city’s 43 schools and transitional programs scored “satisfied or better” on the district’s rating scale.

Satisfaction scores “rose significantly” in 18 schools this year, and dropped significantly in four schools, he announced.

“Feedback is getting stronger, and it’s getting better,” Mayo announced.

Mayo did not name the four schools in his remarks, except to say that Augusta Lewis Troup was struggling. Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries, the district’s school reform czar, later identified the other three schools as Lincoln-Bassett, Sound School, and Riverside Academy.

Cicarella’s absence Wednesday was conspicuous because he has been a fixture at school reform events, a public ally of district officials in all of the drive’s major initiatives. New Haven has received national praise for the way administrators and union leaders have worked together on experimental changes.

Melissa Bailey File PhotoIn a phone interview, Cicarella (pictured at a 2010 survey results release) said he boycotted the press event because he considered the reporting of the results “disingenuous,” dishonest, and “not credible.” He said the officials exaggerated small improvements and downplayed serious concerns.

The bar the district set for “significant improvement” was far too low, Cicarella charged.

On the surveys, parents, students, teachers and staff—including secretaries and custodians—were asked if they agreed with a set of statements about academic expectations, collaboration, communication, engagement and safety and respect.

For example: “I feel safe at my school.”

The district crunched the answers and came up with a final score for the school on a scale of 0 to 10, with one-third weight given to parents’ responses, a third to students’, and a third to teachers’ and staff’s.

If the aggregate score rose by 0.25 points, the district considered that “significant improvement.”

Cicarella called that suspect. The benchmark for improvement—0.25 on a 10-point scale—equates to 2.5 percentage points, he calculated, well within the margin of error on most surveys.

Cicarella called the 0.25 benchmark “ridiculous.”

“That is not significant improvement,” he said.

“Let’s be honest,” he said, “we don’t have the results we’re looking for.”

Reform czar Harries called the benchmark fair.

“We haven’t calculated the margin of error on this,” he said. But “our sense is 2.5 percent is a fairly significant jump. Moving a full point is an absolutely massive movement. We don’t see that very often. A quarter of that feels like us to be a reasonable thing to see as significant.”

Even if you pick a different threshold, he argued, “the overall story in the ratio of improvement to decline would remain essentially the same.”

Seven schools improved by 0.5 or more on the 10-point scale, Harries said, while only two declined by that same margin.

The school that increased the most was Strong School, a K-2 overflow school, which improved by 1 point. Wilbur Cross increased by 0.8, Clemente by 0.7, New Horizons by 0.9, and Dixwell New Lights by 0.7, while there are no schools that decreased by those amounts, Harries said.

“Wherever you decide to draw the threshold, you’re going to get more schools improving than going down,” Harries argued.

Satisfactory Satisfaction?

Second, Cicarella questioned the district’s claim of a school’s overall satisfaction.

Schools with aggregate scores below 4 were considered “unsatisfied”, scores of 4.0 to 5.9 were “mixed satisfaction”, scores of 6.0 to 7.9 were “satisfied”, and 8.0 and above were “highly satisfied”.

Those overall scores can be misleading, Cicarella warned.

For example, Wilbur Cross High School, one of three schools that officials highlighted as a success at Wednesday’s press conference, showed improvement on the surveys. Yet only 43.8 percent of teachers recommend the school, according to the surveys. And only 22.5 percent of teachers agree that “order and discipline are consistently maintained at my school.”

Only 31.4 percent of teachers would recommend Celentano Museum Academy, another school that rated “satisfied” on the district’s scale.

Harries replied that in general, the surveys at some schools show “a disconnect in the view of parents and students” compared to teachers. He said officials made it clear at the press conference that teachers gave overall less favorable feedback than parents and students did.

That was true at Celentano: 68.3 percent of students said they “feel good” about the school, and 83.3 percent of parents said they’d recommend it.

The press release notes that “at most schools teacher satisfaction was lower than that of parents and students.” Teacher satisfaction rose in 12 schools and declined in 12 schools, according to the release.

Fuzzy Math?

Cicarella also objected to the way the feedback was lumped into the school’s final score.

Overall, of 9,453 students in grades 5 to 12 (87 percent of students); 5,192 parents (38 percent of parents); 1,397 teachers (81 percent of teachers); and 493 staff, including secretaries, security guards, and custodial staff (54 percent of the staff population) took the surveys. Cicarella said it doesn’t make sense to give each group—parents, students, and teachers and staff—equal weight in the final score, given the disparity in the numbers.

Harries replied that the district found it helpful to provide one aggregate number for a school’s satisfaction, and that all parties needed to be represented.

If someone disagrees with the way the synthesis was done, he added, the district isn’t hiding any information.

“We also provide all of the specific, question-by-question information,” Harries pointed out. School communities can use that information to draw their own meaning, and react however they see fit, he said. At Metropolitan Business Academy, the student council used student survey information as a basis to launch an anti-bullying campaign.

Cicarella also said school officials shouldn’t be “afraid” to speak the truth when it comes to parent engagement.

The number of parents who took the surveys rose from 31 to 38 percent.

“We are pleased with the parent feedback overall,” Mayo said at the press conference, while he acknowledged the district still has work to do. His press release recognizes that “parent engagement improves but remains area for focus.”

Cicarella said an increase from 31 to 38 percent is “not good!” 

“Our parental participation is terrible,” he said. “Our parents don’t participate in adequate numbers. We’re afraid to say so. We should have said that was disappointing in the number of parents who did the survey.”

Parent participation at charter schools and suburban schools is “double” that of New Haven, Cicarella said. He said 62 percent of parents don’t all have a good excuse not to fill out a survey about their school. The truth, he said, is that “they’re not engaged.”

Cicarella said it’s fine to tout the gains that were made, but “we need to send out a balanced report.” He said he was offered the chance to add a quote to the district’s press release (read it here), but he didn’t want to attach his name to reporting that wasn’t “honest.”

“Our credibility is at stake,” he said.

Harries replied that parent engagement is a widespread challenge, not just in New Haven.

“Many surveys of this kind get response rates in the teens,” he said.

“We made very clear” that “we want more feedback,” Harries said. “That said, we are pleased that the response rate has gone up to the extent that it has.” The parent response rate has risen from 23 percent to 38 percent over two years. 

“It’s absolutely the case that we want more parental response, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t celebrate the hard work of parents and principals that got us close to 4 out of 10 parents responding.”

Turnaround Gains

Some highlights of the surveys:

• Turnarounds—low-performing schools where new leadership has been given wide latitude to try new approaches—showed gains in satisfaction.

Melissa Bailey File PhotoStudents at Wexler-Grant report dramatic gains in how they feel about the school since Principal Sabrina Breland took over. In 2009-10, before Breland arrived, 26.3 percent of students agreed they “overall” “feel good” about the school. Over two years, that number jumped to 62.5 percent.

Over two years, the number of kids who reported feeling safe rose from 42.2 percent to 65 percent. The number of parents who recommend the school rose from 47.5 to 75 percent.

The school is in the first year of its “turnaround” experiment. Principal Breland said she credited the school climate gains to teachers working better as a team, “focused on the same kind of goals—and being consistent with it.”

The 32 teachers at the school reported they’re still facing major challenges. Teachers said they’re supported by administration, but only 46.9 percent said “order and discipline are consistently maintained at my school.” Only 34.4 percent would recommend the school to friends or colleagues, which is still a marked increase over the rock-bottom 3.8 percent in 2009-10.

Brennan/Rogers, the district’s other turnaround school, continued to show gains in the second year of its reform effort.

Three-quarters of teachers recommend the school, compared to one third before the turnaround. And 89.7 percent of parents now recommend the school, compared to 57.9 percent before the turnaround.

• Nathan Hale showed the highest overall satisfaction: 100 percent of teachers and 99.1 percent of parents recommend the school, and 91.7 percent of students “feel good” about it.

• Troup School, which is operating under a new principal since the death of beloved longtime Principal Richard Kaliszewski, is continuing to struggle. The school showed a decline in ratings from students, teachers and staff. The number of teachers who would recommend the school plummeted from 52.9 in 2009-10 to 42.4 percent in 2010-11 to 13.8 percent last year. And 53.2 percent of students “feel good” about the school.

• Lincoln-Bassett showed drops in satisfaction among students and teachers.

Click here to view school-by-school results.

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posted by: Paul Wessel on July 11, 2012  8:43pm

It’s impressive that Cicarella feels he has the space to do this - and that he’s criticizing the administration about needing to be honest about where New Haven’s schools are at.  It’s testimony to strength and breadth of the reform program that this is what they are fighting over. 

You would think from most media accounts that all teachers care about is tenure and their pensions.  Here the union president is fighting with politicos and the McKinsey guy about whether they’re fudging the metrics.  This spat is light years beyond where most school districts are at with their unions.  Kudos to you all.

I did some work a few years ago on the parent survey process.  The participation numbers now are an impressive improvement.  Harries is right on that.  And Cicarella is right that they need to improve even more.

The Board of Ed should be commended for doing these surveys, sticking to them and making the data available.  Someone at Yale should do some independent number crunching and give us their take.  They really do ask teachers, parents and staff whether they would recommend the school - and publish the data.  Impressive.

posted by: HhE on July 11, 2012  11:05pm

I am not able to do a statistical evaluation, but typically the margin of error is 5% in a survey, so 2.5% easily falls inside of this.  Given how many administrators NHPS has, one might think they could have done their homework before having a press conference.  Call me unimpressed. 

Speaking of numbers, how many administrators do we have?  Last time I checked, Greenwich Public Schools (which has about half as many students) had a Superintendent, two assistant Supers, a director of personnel, and a head of staff development/teacher evaluations.  So a total of five.

posted by: OccupyTheClassroom on July 11, 2012  11:28pm

I am so glad I’m on summer break out of state.

posted by: streever on July 12, 2012  9:10am

I’m with Wessel and Hhe.

Good on Cicarella—the teachers of New Haven are providing a real model for unionized employees. Open to change, open to different types of evaluations (but strongly fighting poor evals like the one Malloy proposes), and ultimately, demanding good performance across the board.

Cicarella is right—the number is too low, and a school that only 22% of the teachers would say is orderly/safe absolutely can’t be considered “Satisfactory”. The Board of Ed needs to hold themselves to a higher standard than under a quarter of teachers approving of the Administration at a school.

How many administrators are currently employed at Cross? 11? All at a salary over 100k before benefits are calculated?

It is unreasonable that with a million in straight salary—pre employment taxes the city pays, pre benefits, pre other costs—under a quarter of teachers feel it is an orderly/stable environment.

We aren’t being well served for our spending. Bravo to Mr. Cicarella for calling the spade a spade.

posted by: Tom Burns on July 12, 2012  9:52am

We have come a long way—and of course we will not agree on everything—but this honest, professional discourse is what can only help to make us all better—-and thank you Paul W for your comments——

We still have much to do—and TOGETHER—we can do great things—-Tom

posted by: Noteworthy on July 12, 2012  10:30am

This is just like the old days before school reform when the mastery tests results were announced and one needed a microscope and glasses to find the major improvements of which school officials declared themselves so proud.

Of course, that was masking the chronically failing schools, the 50% drop out rate; the 92% of graduates in college who needed remedial help among other things.

This is nothing more than the seduction of low expectations - 2.0.

posted by: SLP on July 12, 2012  2:29pm

That the New Haven Public Schools conduct these surveys is laudable. That they also take the results seriously is also laudable, though a little scary given the relatively low, though improving, response rate among parents. (Student, teacher, and staff rates are higher, which is to be expected and as it should be.)

As one involved in “raise the survey return” efforts at assorted NHPS schools, I was unpleasantly surprised to learn at a parent meeting this year that incomplete surveys are not tallied. If this is indeed true, it’s a shame for several reasons. First, many of the questions aimed at parents are ones they cannot necessarily answer readily (a flaw in and of itself), so they may leave those questions blank in favor of ones they can answer—only to have none of their answers count. Second, there is no explanation in the survey instructions that incomplete surveys will not count; this is something respondents should know. Third, if a major goal is to increase participation, surveys largely completed in good faith should not be eliminated on a hidden technicality.

As for Dr. Mayo’s statement that the feedback is getting better, I hope that’s true. NHPS has a great deal to offer. However, it’s also true that the first question many parents ask before completing the survey is, “Are my answers confidential?” Given that every parent survey bears the name of the enrolled child and also a code unique to that child, parents are skeptical that school administrators cannot associate their answers with them or their child. I assume, though do not know for sure, that the student and teacher surveys work the same way. Therefore, a desire to avoid being seen as critical could also be contributing to the supposed uptick in satisfaction.

I do support the survey effort and its goals, but its execution and interpretation remain a work in progress.

posted by: accountability on July 12, 2012  9:56pm

The district would flunk elementary statistics. Good for Cicarelli.

posted by: Brutus2011 on July 13, 2012  6:32am

I was shocked, and gratified, to read that NHFT President Cicarella has publicly criticized NHPS management. Add this to the recent announcement that the NHFT and teachers were taking over one of our high schools and it appears we have a changing of the guard.

Pres. Cicarella has stated above that “Our credibility is at stake.

I might add that NHPS credibility is all but evaporated.

Someone has opined that New Haven schools have a lot to offer. I love our schools potential and I love our students-all of them. In fact, I ran into a former student downtown yesterday and she had grown into a beautiful young woman with a family and is attending university. Times like that just make everything okay.

Several have also opined that our schools are over-funded, etc.  Naturally, I have a educated opinion to offer.

One cannot look at how the mayor, the BOE, and the superintendent calculate their education expenditures by balancing various inputs, choosing the most rational ratio, and calculating total expenditures from the bottom up.

One must understand that the NHPS decision makers decide expenditures from the top down to absorb all available funds and resources. These funds are then distributed to the various layers above the classroom with the minimum for bottom layer function reserved for last.

In other words, the incentive is not for efficient operation (as one might logically think), but on how much the system can extract from the taxpayer funds.

Hence the continuous demand for public funds while students drop out, flunk out, and those who do graduate cannot pass college entry math and english tests.

We need to move faster to substantively effect real change and not be mollified by school climate surveys.

posted by: anonymous on July 13, 2012  9:46am

I think most people like the idea of a survey, but misleading press releases and claims like this seem to completely undermine the credibility of the School District among many people.

posted by: anonymous on July 13, 2012  10:33am

“Someone at Yale should do some independent number crunching and give us their take.”

Paul Wessel: Are you suggesting a new Yale study like the one recently done by students (reported on in the NH Register) which claimed that new school buildings increase property values?

posted by: Paul Wessel on July 13, 2012  11:24am

@ Anonymous:  I’m suggesting that there are buildings full of people with high SAT scores within spitting distance of City Hall who love regression analyses and calculating statistical significance.  Give them the (publicly available) data and let them crunch the numbers.  It’s a great graduate / work study student project.  Lux et veritas!

posted by: SteveOnAnderson on July 13, 2012  12:52pm

Great to see the teachers’ union hold the city’s feet to the fire on these statistics. I’d be interested in seeing how this issue intersects with the recent reporting on property taxes. Basic common sense makes me assume that the vast disparities between schools in New Haven must have a significant relationship to the vast disparities in property taxes, but it would be interesting to see more in-depth reporting on and analysis of the issue.

posted by: UrbanEducator on July 13, 2012  1:24pm

For years, every NHPS teacher has known that we are not the problem in our schools…it is Mayo, and King John’s appointed ineffective Board of Ed. members.  Why do you think we overwhelmingly approved the TEVAL reform initiative? 

Now that the climate survey is shining the light on poor administration; from Principals all the way up to Mayo, they want to gloss over the “REAL” data.  Go through the climate survey and look at how low teachers rate the Administrators…that is the best indicator of a school’s success.  Students and Parents do not know what goes on in the schools.  Teachers cannot speak out; retribution is easily doled out for teachers who speak out.

The administrators at Troup and Celentano are horrendous.  The principal at Troup was the Asst. Principal at Celentano…guess the apple doesn’t fall from from the tree.

For Administrators, no matter how bad their survey numbers are, Mayo doesn’t fire them, they have the option of returning to the classroom…AT THE SAME PAY RATE. I would love to get paid $100,000 per year to be a classroom teacher; even after I failed as an administrator.

Good for you Dave, keep up the good fight, and eventually we (the teachers) will win…then the students will be successful.

A few years ago Mayo came out with a “No Excuses” campaign, telling the teachers to stop making excuses about low student achievement…look who is making excuses now.  Time to retire Dr. Mayo.

posted by: RichTherrn on July 14, 2012  6:26am

The attitude that teachers are fighting administrators and that there would be a “winner” is an attitude that true education professionals should have left behind long ago.
Administrators are/were teachers as well, and we all believe in students first.
The climate surveys provide a lot of information, and are based on opinions from a variety of groups, and hopefully all educators will work together to use this for improvement.
Attacking administrators in a public forum doesn’t serve any purpose.

posted by: HhE on July 14, 2012  6:22pm

RichTherrn, I agree that “The attitude that teachers are fighting administrators and that there would be a “winner” is an attitude that true education professionals should have left behind long ago.”  However, it has been my experience that many administrators start and fuel this fight no end, and to the loss of our schools.  While I generally find telling stories out of school very distasteful, there are times it is necessary.  This is one of those times. 

I worked in another school that had a climate survey.  The administration glossed over how poorly they were rated by parents (the sole respondents to that survey), but patted themselves on the back for a perception of safety score that i found to be embarrassingly low for a semi rural school.

Most every administrator was once a teacher, but just as many teachers forget what it is like to be a student, many administrators forget what it is like to be a teacher. 

Some educators put students first, some do not.  Some people are cheerleaders, and some are ready to do the heavy lifting.

posted by: Jacques Strap on July 15, 2012  11:50pm

Parent feedback at 38 percent is a major part of the problem with education in New Haven.  That figure should alarm all stakeholders in education at the district, state and federal levels.

Reggie Mayo highlighted a parent feedback increase of 7 percent.  Sorry, but he should have denounced 38 percent participation as unacceptable.  Because it is.

Parents had no excuse.  They were given a month’s notice of the surveys and free access to school computers to complete them, yet so few did their part (much like the many who fail to attend parent conferences, including makeup dates).

Worse, the district actually had the audacity to highlight the parent survey results.  How misleading! Many parents are not privy to most of what transpires in school every day, and only a small portion of the parent population is represented.

As for the 0.25 benchmark, Cicarella is absolutely right.

Teachers have been blasted by administrators for showing improvement toward/past higher benchmarks, so why is 0.25 acceptable for the district?  Teachers have been drilled by adminstrators to set high standards for and maintain high expectations of themselves and students, yet the district set its bar so low.  What a bunch of BS!

I won’t comment on specific schools or administrators but I will say the lack of practical experience and common sense of some have led them to make poor decisions, false assumptions and non-factual statements regarding pedagogy, and alienate experienced teachers with a proven track record of success.

Some of this city’s administrators have less than 8 years of classroom teaching experience, so how can they possibly have gained the experience needed to run a school?  One can have all the knowledge of curriculum and theories in the world but that doesn’t necessarily qualify them to run a school community.

A red flag to me are the schools in the survey in which teachers feel that their administrators are not open to input and fail to invite teachers to play a meaningful role in decision-making. Any administrator who fails to value the professional input from his/her teachers is NOT PUTTING KIDS FIRST or striving to build a school community.

posted by: Teachergal on July 16, 2012  12:49pm

Brutus2011, Hhe, Urban Educator, and others have share some excellent, truthful facts about these surveys and the validity of them. Ihave sat in my staff room many days prior to the survey deadline only to hear teachers say they are giving their school high marks because they believe they are NOT confidential and that their principals will be hard on them if they are honest. This is no lie! Some are scared they will loose their job if they fill it out honestly. Again, this is true!

NHPS’s are making slow progress at best. Until social programs are put in all schools, teachers are supported with discipline without being made to feel like they are poor teachers, and collegiality is fostered in all school communities to form the “village” that we know is important to the success of schools and students then we will have to be satisfied with mediocracy.

My Thierron, you seem like a nice guy but don’t be fooled by New Haven’s majority of administrators. Of course you see the best as you are in supervisory position. Hang around a few staff rooms if you really want to hear the truth about NH’s administrators. Open up your eyes!

Dave, good for you! I am proud of your efforts here!!!

posted by: Jacques Strap on July 16, 2012  2:04pm

I must add:

* I know of teachers who made gains of well over 2.5 percent who still were placed on a plan of improvement.  Cicarella is right:  The benchmark is too low for the district. Further,  Harries ought to consider what constitutes significant improvement for students who come from non-English speaking homes, broken homes and who have non-responsive parents. Those are not excuses, but REALITY.

* The district had literacy coaches conduct “reviews” of DRA continuums to ensure teachers were not inflating scores, citing the need for a true indicator of a student’s ability to facilitate true learning. OK, fine.

However, where were district officials and literacy coaches throughout the year to ensure that teachers had adequate supplies and minimum distractions to facilitate quality teaching and learning?

My school was an absolute zoo last year, with virtually non-stop intercom announcements from the principal, kids fighting/shouting/throwing food in the hallways, kids knocking on classroom doors and running, and running from administrators.

(The district blames teachers for that, citing a lack of classroom management.  However, how it can be a teacher’s classroom management style when only 1 or 2 of the teacher’s kids are running out of rooms and throwing fits?  How can it be the teacher’s classroom management style when the same disruptive kids are disrespectful to administrators, staff and parents?  Plus, classroom teachers don’t have the luxury of taking aside and talking to the misbehaving students for the amount of time required to calm them down, for they are responsible for the safety and learning of 24 other students).

I rarely have the supplies or functional technology needed to carry out detailed unit plans. Perhaps that would change if the district cut some of the bloated salaries at 54 Meadow Street.

* @ Richard Therrn:  How is a principal yelling at a teacher productive for anybody?

How is a principal who fails to value the professional input from his/her teachers conducive to building a school community in which true collaboration transpires for the benefit of students?

Fact is, there are some schools in New Haven in which the principals are very unprofessional, yelling at teachers and bringing some to tears, dismissing teacher concerns as excuses, and refusing to accept professional input from teachers. And, as Cicarella notes, not enough is being done to change that.