This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Paul Jablow
The folded-paper signs sprouted on tables across the meeting room, and the messages were anything but subtle:
"Resources for classrooms before report cards." "Report cards are a distraction from real efforts to improve." "Data can be shaped to any political purpose." "Support schools, don’t shame them." "Evaluating climate minus counselors and aides? Crazy." "Invest in teachers, not tallies."
About 75 people came Monday night to the first of six District meetings seeking public input on a new school report card to replace both the School Performance Index (SPI) and the school annual reports. The District has used these performance measures in decisions such as which schools to close and which to convert into charters.
But the sentiment in the meeting room at District headquarters was overwhelming: Please. Just forget about it.
The District suspended the SPI last year, three years after its development, due to concerns that it was overly complicated and based on bad data.
A preliminary design for the new report card is due in late August from Tembo Consulting, whose founder and CEO, David Stewart, struggled to explain the process over a chorus of cross-examination and catcalls.
"You don’t need to be condescending in your comments," Stewart told Alison McDowell, parent of a child at Masterman High School.
"We are being condescended to constantly," replied Rebecca Poyourow, who has two children in Cook-Wissahickon Elementary.
Stewart said that no District funds will be used for the report card. The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation of Austin, Texas, is footing the bill. But this appeared to make the parents even angrier.
"We’re using consultants to grade schools instead of spending more time fixing them," said school activist Helen Gym.
Several saw the report card as little more than a thinly veiled effort to use consultants to justify closing more schools or turning them over to charter operators.
"They rely on our schools closing," one man shouted angrily from the back.
Other parents expressed concern about report card data being manipulated for political ends. One noted a recent story about the Indiana education secretary ordering the overhaul of the state’s report card to raise the grade of a charter school operated by a major Republican campaign contributor.
Some parents said that with resources cut to the bone in the coming school year, many schools were almost destined to flunk on any new report card. Poyourow said that if schools are stripped of noontime aides, violent incidents would be more likely to occur and that this could be used against schools in any new evaluation.
"You need to provide adequate resources before you start measuring outcomes," said McDowell. "We’re producing evaluations of schools that are struggling to open."
"People are pushing back against report cards … schools are communities," she said. "You can’t force them into an algorithm."
This isn’t the idea, Stewart said: "We don’t want to use a score or a number. That’s much too simplistic."
He said that a new report card might, for example, include data on students who leave a charter school in midyear to return to the District. Some public school advocates have said charter schools try to shed students who might score poorly on statewide standardized tests.
Sabrina Yusuf, who is coordinating the report card effort in the District’s Office of Strategic Analytics, said, "We want fair, goal-oriented improvement plans, not A-F report cards. … What we’re trying to do is fill the gaps in what [data] is available and help you make better choices."
But several in the audience said that they already had sufficient information available.
Some parents also expressed concern that funding charter schools based on the previous year’s District budget would skew the results if the report card is rolled out this year: They would have, in effect, a one-year grace period before the severe cutbacks hit them.
McDowell suggested that the District "use the charters as a guinea pig" to phase in any new report card.
Asked whether the School Reform Commission would decide on whether to adopt the report card, the District’s chief of family and community engagement, Evelyn Sample-Oates, said that they would be briefed on it but that the decision would be made administratively.
She said the District would increase its efforts to publicize the remaining five meetings.
Toward the end of the two-hour meeting, Tembo officials passed out a questionnaire requesting suggestions about what should be included in any new report card and asked audience members to take a few minutes to fill it out. It appeared that no one did.