The Numbers Game

The news has been filled recently with stories about Baltimore City Public Schools valuing numbers above true education. For example, this Baltimore Sun letter to the editor exposing pressure from North Avenue to graduate more students (sending back the number of students who had not met requirements as “too high”). This pressure, and the resulting adjustment of these numbers allows North Avenue (and the schools themselves) to claim a higher official graduation rate. More discussion here. Another example of number games is fussing over the words “dropout” vs. “withdrawal”, and the related more basic question of whether the number of dropouts or even the number of withdrawals is accurate (see comments here). Higher graduation rates and lower drop-out rates are two of Dr. Alonso’s mosttouted “successes” in his four years in Baltimore.

You may remember a few years back a similar big hullabaloo over whether North Ave’s statistics on reduced numbers of suspensions reflected reality. And you may also recall this scene from Baltimore’s own The Wire where Prez sees the connection between middle school teaching and his former job on the police force — “juking the stats”.

It may seem odd at first glance that I, a math teacher, should be against this over-reliance on numbers. But, of course numbers anywhere (except maybe in pure mathematics) have context, and everyone should be approach numbers with a healthy dose of skepticism: 1) that the numbers are accurate, and 2) that a true (not a misleading) context is presented.

So, why am I writing this now? Because of a recent encounter in which we were presented with a numbers game, where the numbers themselves seem to be given higher priority than the students’ education they represent.

This has been coming a long while. “Data-driven instruction” is the new buzzword we’re hearing from everywhere. Which in itself sounds like a decent thing, but not if you let the data overwhelm the reality.

Followers of this blog know that my school is undergoing a turnaround process. Part of this is a renewed focus on improving instruction for our large population of English Language Learners (we have the most ELL students of any school in Baltimore). Another part of this process is “selected staff replacement”, which translates as follows: Our principal (of thirteen years, a lifetime in high-turnover city schools) will not be our principal next year. Assistant principals and some teachers have to reapply for their jobs. Teachers are encouraged to find jobs elsewhere if their vision and time-commitment don’t align with the new direction the school is going.

Another part of this process, in theory, is a renewed commitment to the career and technology (CTE) pathways that have brought some level of success to our school. But what makes me doubt this commitment is the narrow focus on numbers. We have been told that if we do not have classes filled to at least 80% capacity next year, our program will be excised from the school.

Two issues with that.

First, the non-numbers problem. Especially with our school’s smallest-in-many-years number of ninth graders to recruit from, it fosters an unhealthy level of competition among CTE teachers. There is no way all 14 pathways can recruit 80+% capacity; that would be about 280 students, but we currently have just over 200 ninth graders. So, in order for some pathways to get their 80% or even 100% capacity, other pathways must get less than 80%. This creates a Hunger Games-esque scenario, to reference the book our whole school read this year, with CTE pathways fighting for students and resources at the expense of other pathways. When really we should be working together to improve education and opportunities for all students at the school.

Second, the ridiculous numbers game. If we say capacity is 25 students, then what happens if a pathway goes above and beyond and recruits 30 students? This shows the pathway is very popular, and in my mind should be rewarded for recruiting to 120% of capacity. But what must needs happen (since the capacity is also a class cap) is that those 30 students will be split into two sections of 15 students each, which will look like only 60% capacity. Instead of being rewarded, the pathway is penalized and removed from the school.

At least this is what has been communicated from North Avenue’s Learning to Work office and our school administration. I’m hoping someone will step forward and say this is a miscommunication, because I’m beginning to tire of teaching in a school system where numbers are all-important while the real facts of education (are students learning worthwhile content and skills that will prepare them for college and the workplace?) are ignored and covered up.

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