Chicago teacher, activist, writer, media strategist
Those of us who are junkies for The Wire are familiar with the cuteportmanteau “COMPSTAT” (Comparative+Statistics). On the show, this was the program implemented by the Baltimore City Police Department that was intended to reduce the crime rate by targeting the city’s bleakest sections. The premise was simple: District commanders (and consultants) would hold regular meetings where they looked at crime statistics in their respective areas and developed strategies to combat the epidemic.
Instead of these meetings being used for strategic purposes, though, they amounted to district commanders berating their respective precinct commanders over the high level of homicides in particular areas of the city. The immense pressure put on the precinct commanders led to what was described pejoratively as “juking the stats,” or fudging the numbers. Particular crimes would be reclassified and dates would change on toe tags.
One commander, Major Bunny Colvin, had an idea of his own. He ended petty drug arrests in his precinct under an agreement with local drug dealers. They were allowed to sling as long as it was confined to one particular area. This led to a drop in violent crime in his district overall. The end of petty drug arrests led to a drop in slinging on the books. The stats looked immaculate. However, this also led to one section of the city where drug use/abuse/violence ran rampant.
Baltimore actually does implement this program, which they call “Citystat” (portmanteaus are apparently the new acronym). The data-driven program is called COMPSTAT where it originated in 1994, New York City under the Giuliani administration. Remember the disappearing homeless? That was the result of COMPSTAT.
The Chicago Public Schools are now implementing this bad-guy-make-bye-bye approach to its high schools. CPS CEO Arne Duncan holds regular meetings with high school principals where they look at dropout rates and achievement scores of schools citywide.
Chicago Public Radio spotlighted this initiative recently on itsEight-Forty-Eight program. Clarice Berry, who runs Chicago’s principals union, said her charges “felt it was more of an attack than an instructive process.”
Chicago Public Radio’s Jay Field reported that “. . . [Berry’s] office was flooded with angry calls in the weeks after the meetings began. Principals complained of being called downtown and interrogated.”
Does this sound like a constructive round-table process? Or does this seem like an open-window for “juking the stats?”
In 1995, when Mayor Daley seized the CPS, it took on a corporate organizational structure, even replacing the superintendent with a “CEO” (hilariously referred to as “Chief Educational Officer”). This approach was reflected in comments made by CEO Arne Duncan when interviewed for the public radio story:
“These are questions that any building manager who’s a CEO needs to understand and comprehend. And more than understand, have a strategy to improve.”
He was referring to what the high schools’ respective principals should do with the numbers presented to them at the COMPSTAT meetings. However, he was not addressing the board at a Fortune 500 company. He was addressing principals who do not receive corporate training. Principals receive a certification called a “Type 75,” which is granted from accredited education programs, usually after completing a masters degree in educational leadership. The business world and the world of public education historically have been two different creatures entirely. Even the Don of the free market, Adam Smith, advocated that public education be separate from the markets.
Somewhere along the line, many principals were given a crash course in the acronym WWCD:
What Would Corporations Do?
In the pre-No Child Left Behind World, the bosses (principals) employed a wide array of methods to avoid testing students who historically scored in the lower percentiles. Special-Ed and English-as-a-Second Language field trips would be scheduled on the day of The Big Test. After the No Corporation Left Behind law was passed, schools became accountable not only for the scores, but for the percentage of present students taking the test in each sub-category (e.g. English-as-a-Second Language, Special Education, socio-economic status).
If composition of the test-takers cannot be changed, WWCD?
This is where the tried-and-true corporate model comes into play. The bosses will play on the culture of fear that exists in many public schools. They put pressure on middle management. Although officially a middle-management tier does not exist in the public schools, the bosses will give some nominal power and the promise of job security to a handful of spies and henchmen who work alongside the rank-and-file faculty. These teachers will place the pressure on their co-workers by implementing on-site initiatives that put teachers in the position of teaching to the test.
One of these methods is on-site testing to gauge student performance between state tests. Scores are used against teachers with poor performance rates. Immense pressure is then placed on teachers to raise the scores of not only the official state assessments, but also the on-site assessments.
And we wonder why half of teachers quit their profession within five years?
COMPSTAT will now increase the pressure from above to squeeze the vice of narrow-minded curricula onto their rank-and-file. This removes high-interest, engaging lessons from the classroom in place of mindless test-prep. This is indeed juking the stats.
But didn’t COMPSTAT work well in the NYPD?
Since the program’s implementation, the crime rates in NYC have indeed gone down dramatically. Times Square today is a flurry of middle-America fannypackers taking pictures of their overweight kids in front of posters of Xanadu: The Musical in lieu of having their picture taken in front of a passed-out (or dead) homeless man. Last summer I spent a couple weeks in the Manhattan and the only time I was asked for change was on the Blue Line Stop on my way home from O’Hare.
In the year 2002, the Bloomberg administration boasted a 10 percent drop in aggravated assaults in the city. This was the year he took office, the same year that the city government’s website reported the number of assault victims either hospitalized or treated in emergency rooms shot up six percent from the year before.
Maybe both members of each incident were injured, and that only counts as one assault? Are people are beating themselves up and not reporting it? This disparity makes one question NYC’s boasting of a 73.6 percent drop in crime between 1990-2001.
Not only are these statistics suspect, but many have also called into question whether any drop in crime can be attributed to new policing measures like COMPSTAT.
Steven Levitt of the University of Chicago and Freakonomics fame questioned the correlation between NYC leadership and the drop in the number of crimes taking place in the Big Apple. He saw little correlation between new ways of fighting crime and these statistical changes. He looked at the declining crime rates in a host of cities and found four factors contributing to the decline:
1. An increased number of police officers.
2. The rising prison population.
3. The receding crack epidemic.
4. The legalization of abortion.
Of these four factors, the only one that I would say is analogous to a prescriptive measure we can take in our schools is No. 1. We need MORE TEACHERS. More teachers equals more teaching. More teaching equals more learning. Fewer children left behind.
And yet, with so many outlying factors that could have contributed to a drop in the statistics, the CPS is heralding COMPSTAT as our saving grace. Why?
Statistics themselves cannot provide the real answers we need in an institution as unique as education. Once we put educational initiatives in the hands of the teachers, and not the bosses, we can see some real changes occur.
Teachers work with students face-to-face on a daily basis and are the ones best suited for deciding how to get them individually from one grade level to the next. This is one reason why class sizes need to be reduced. This will allow teachers to truly get to know students. Teachers also need to be monitored regularly by seasoned peers who can guide them along in this process by means of effective professional development. These ideas cost money, but then again so do programs like COMPSTAT. As taxpayers, it is our duty to follow our money and keep our representatives accountable for appropriating it in the right places.
It’s teachers, not statistics that can answer the question posed by No Child Left Behind champion President George W. Bush,
“Is our children learning?”