NORWALK, Conn. – Factor in socioeconomics and Norwalk Public Schools are doing just fine, Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons said.
This, after a disparaging ranking by Niche.com sent ripples through the community.
The Niche ranking was publicized by Patch in a misleading story, as Norwalk appears to be second from last in the Connecticut rankings. The catch here is that the list goes to 135 but Patch stopped at 83.
The Patch story was brought to NancyOnNorwalk’s attention by former State Senate candidate Greg Ehlers, who offered no comment in an email titled, “Did you see the Rankings of School Districts in CT – Norwalk is 82.”
Niche is “hard to figure because the methodology is opaque (i.e., they say what they’re using for evaluation, but provide no formula or weighting by which their calculations can be checked or critiqued),” Lyons said in an email to NoN. “My sense is that most of these ‘best’ lists are basically proxy measures of wealth. Schools where kids routinely get high SAT scores are rated very highly, even though the schools may have far less to do with those scores than do the socioeconomics of the kids’ families (and those families’ willingness to pay for SAT prep courses and tutors). On the measures we’ve set in our Strategic Plan for improving student outcomes (e.g., graduation rates, SBAC and other scores, closing of the achievement gap) we are making great progress. Even on Niche’s ratings we have a “B” (behind only Stamford for Connecticut’s largest cities), which as I’ve said is pretty good for a school system that is almost 70% minority and 50% poverty-affected (free / reduced lunch).
The Patch story prompted a long discussion on the Facebook page, Norwalk Parents for Education, where the commentary eventually led to a viewpoint similar to that expressed by Lyons.
“Ouch! Pretty sad. This needs to change,” a parent wrote, before another poster pointed out that Norwalk is not really second to last.
“This is a for profit marketing company called ‘niche’. This article is a PR placement for their company sent out nationwide for all the local patch.coms to pick up,” Kirsten Wieser Scott wrote. “’Niche.com arbitrarily mixes data from government databases, school administrators, and students themselves, without communicating to visitors which data is which.’ I think these type of rankings are meaningless.”
“These types of ratings are meaningless. They don’t take into account demographics, poverty levels, ages of students. Nonsense,” another parent wrote.
Scott later explained to NancyOnNorwalk that her quote about “arbitrariliy mixing data” comes from a SmithGroupJJR blog post titled, “The Five Most Questionable College and University Rankings of 2015 That Aren’t U.S. News and World Report’s”.
Niche is fifth on SmithGroupJJR’s list. The website, formerly College Prowler, heavily weights student reviews but “there are a statistically insignificant number of student respondents for many of the ranked institutions,” SmithGroupJJP writes.
Niche, on its website, claims that, “Because we have the most comprehensive data in the industry, we’re able to provide a more comprehensive suite of rankings across all school types.”
A Niche page details its rating system, describing a “series of steps to ensure statistical rigor and useful guidance in the school choice experience,” beginning with “carefully selecting each ranking’s factors” and proceeding to “applying the assigned weights to each school’s individual factor scores.”
Scott came up another article that cast aspersions on ratings, an opinion published in the Atlantic.
“All of these lists have flaws that stem from the inherent absurdity of presuming to rank schools around the country according to how good or challenging they are,” John Tierney wrote in an article published in May 2013, “Why High-School Rankings Are Meaningless—and Harmful.”
“Quality is a very subjective matter, especially in something as intangible as education. And using a simple measure to rank thousands of schools certainly cannot capture the relative quality of schools or indicate which are better than others,” Tierney wrote. “…These lists may sell papers and draw readers to websites, but for those of us outside of that business, we’ve a duty to push back against this kind of reductionism wherever we see it.”
“It’s probably a good idea to not take these rankings too seriously, we know we have a great school,” Scott said in the Facebook thread.
“My three sons just graduated after 13 years in the Norwalk Public Schools,” came a reply. “They are all in awesome colleges and had a very good experience. I don’t regret choosing to stay in Norwalk when I could have moved to any other town. Stay the course and keep your kids in Norwalk – do what you can when you can to help the teachers and enrich the students. Some years I volunteered 10-20 hours a week to make copies, read to students, help in any way I could. Other years I could only send in a check during fund raising drives. We all enjoyed our years in Norwalk and it ranked number #1 for us.”
“I taught in Norwalk for eight years,” Tricia Marini wrote. “I now teach in another district. Believe me when I tell you, the professional development that the Norwalk teachers receive is second to none. I also know for a fact that Norwalk teachers work harder AND smarter than many teachers in many other districts! Politicians will do what they will but Norwalk teachers will always rise to the challenge! If teachers only worked according to their contracts, I would see where your children would suffer but Norwalk teachers work above and beyond what their contracts require! Perhaps, instead of venting your frustrations on a page that won’t even be seen by the people you want to see it, you can get involved in your children’s schools in volunteer your time, join the PTO, participate in fundraisers, and let your voice be heard where it can really make a difference. Just sayin….”
“I’m very proud to have been a Norwalk teacher. The training I had was amazing. I learned more teaching in Norwalk than I did from my grad school classes,” Marini said to NoN.
“These rankings are hard to figure out, and we have no history to show if school systems are improving or declining in the rankings over time,” Lyons wrote on Facebook. “Among the seven largest cities in CT, the overall grades given are Bridgeport D+, New Haven C, Stamford B+, Hartford C-, Waterbury C-, Norwalk B and Danbury B-. A “B” in this context is pretty good, particularly considering that almost 50% of our students receive free/reduced lunches (we outrank dozens of school systems with far fewer socioeconomic challenges than Norwalk faces). … my children all went through the Norwalk schools and all went to good colleges.”“You have to look at the criteria being measured by Niche. It’s BS! Look at the real progress that NPS is making,” another parent wrote.
NancyOnNorwalk left a post on the page, soliciting opinions directly.
Kris Francefort said thank you.
“I see all of the rankings come out – and whenever it comes to public schools Norwalk inevitably falls in the donut-hole pit,” she wrote. “The latest one had the top 6 schools in surrounding districts and Norwalk came in at 82. What do these types of rankings do to the public’s perception of cities/towns? If so much of the value of living in a place is determined by the quality of the school district, how will this further impact Norwalk’s ‘image’?”
“A more fair assessment would be looking at how Norwalk’s schools compare to other cities with similar demographics,” Ann D’Adamo wrote.
Stamford was 42, Francefort replied.
“It’s all about what went into their scorecard. The criteria they used. That’s why these rankings can mislead readers – often, the ‘intangibles’ are not accounted for,” she said.
“Just being honest my kids were in Norwalk and luckily now got into a magnet school in Stamford. I’m not surprised at the difference of scores. Even the homework is much more appropriate in Stamford. Just my opinion,” a mom replied.
Again, socioeconomics, Lyons said.
“Just about every town that outperfomed us is nearly homogeneous racially and socioeconomically stronger,” Lyons wrote. “Compare us to other districts with majority-minority populations and high poverty rates and we do better than every single one except Stamford, which gets a B+ to our B.
“Its like saying, ‘boy, runner A is much faster than runner B, B must be a slowpoke’, without factoring in that runner B is carrying a 150 pound backback. Put the backpack on both runners to make a fair comparison.”
“Agreed – that’s why these rankings need to be examined more fully,” Francefort replied. “Unfortunately, most people read the headlines, check the rankings and make a decision based on surface information.”
“I think click bait ‘ratings’ like niche are contributing to de facto resegregation,” wrote Sarah Lemiuex, a Democratic BoE candidate.
“Real estate agents quote niche all the time if it fits the narrative they are trying to sell. Westport agents LOVE niche,” Mary Petro Noonan wrote.
Randall Avery suggested that realtors seeking young buyers advertise on Niche.
“Maybe one day in the future you’ll be able to directly compare wealthy, homogeneous public schools with mixed-income, diverse public schools, but not today,” Patrick Begos wrote. “I see value in the diversity we have in Norwalk that is not reflected in any metric. I see harms in the cloistered existence of many in the ‘best’ schools in the area. New Canaan, Darien and Westport do not have the same level of ELL and/or SLIFE (Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education) students that arrive at Norwalk each year, to name just 2 cohorts. Rankings like Niche won’t capture those strengths and differences, but if you’re interested in those strengths or differences, you’re probably not putting much stock in Niche, or considering New Canaan, Darien or Westport in the first place.”