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David Cicarella, New Haven Teachers' Union President, Blasts 'Not Credible' Data Dump

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DAVID CICARELLA
New Haven teachers' union president David Cicarella. | Melissa Bailey/New Haven Independent

This piece comes to us courtesy of New Haven Independent.

New 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.

In 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.

Students 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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