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Norwalk parents cast aspersions on ‘for-profit’ Niche ratings

A screengrab from Niche.com.

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.”

13 comments

Notaffilated August 14, 2017 at 6:53 am

It’s a function of the hand the school system is dealt. Do the demographics used include the percentage of the population base here illegally? Or is poverty level simply viewed as a surrogate for that measure? Facts do matter

Non Partisan August 14, 2017 at 6:54 am

School scores that are measured by sat scores, and college acceptance impacts home values

A house is the largest investment most people make in their lifetimes

Why would you make an investment in a homebin a city that underperformed its neighboring towns due to sanctuary city policies that dramatically increase ESL and SLIFE population which intern depresses those score metrics

Time to regain some balance in this cities policies that puts taxpayers rights higher up the list.

Steve August 14, 2017 at 7:17 am

The sites like niche do a disservice when they compare homogenous and wealthy districts to ones where 1/2 the population gets free lunch. Niche just adds to the vicious circle of wealth flight . A good study would track children of similar economic backgrounds and compare outcomes. I grew up in white plains our scores always lagged Scarsdale, Rye and others but two classmates won Pulitzer Prizes before age 35 and loads went top name schools, earned post graduate degrees and today teach at the colleges where Westport Darien and new Canaan students attend

Norwalk native August 14, 2017 at 7:30 am

Great. So while our schools swell with illegals and our property values stagnate; we get to pay ever increasing property taxes in order to enjoy the mysterious benefits of living in a “diverse” City. What this article says to me is that we are better off following the model of Darien and Westport than the model of Bridgeport and Hartford. That means reducing our affordable housing stock and saying no to illegal immigration.

Susan Wallerstein August 14, 2017 at 8:00 am

Wouldn’t it be powerful if real estate agents and their MLS organizations would publicly speak out against the use of tools like Niche which are little more than ways to get around redlining and other illegal and discriminatory practices which promote and perpetuate socio-economic and other forms of segregation?

Donna August 14, 2017 at 9:39 am

Home buyers will often settle for less house in order to have access to better schools. So while the wealthy in Westport may have created their own elite private school system under the rubric of public education, that does not have to doom Norwalk, a less wealthy city, to mediocrity or worse. But it is important for Norwalkers to bear in mind that successful public school systems like Westport’s often begin with achievement-oriented parents who are willing to push their children and make sacrifices in order to help their children achieve. It’s not that the system is necessarily so much better. But the mentality is certainly different. Parents in Westport believe in the value of education as a social mobility tool. That feeling is pervasive. I do not have the sense that all NPS parents view education the same way. There are many highly motivated parents in Norwalk who volunteer in the schools and otherwise ensure their children take advantage of the best Norwalk has to offer, and those students compare favorably to their Westport neighbors. Motivating more Norwalk parents to embrace the transformative value of an excellent education may be the key to narrowing the gap between the best schools in the state and those that lag. We can have all kinds of diversity and still claw our way out of the bottom half of the state rankings.

Whether or not Niche is a legit site or just a real estate marketing tool, the NPS ranking relative to Stamford, which came in at 42, is sobering.

MarjorieM August 14, 2017 at 9:58 am

Wow! What spin! Not too long ago Lyons and the RedApples were saying, quite strongly, how terrible the school system was. Many administrators left with heads hanging low. Manny Rivera was the answer to Norwalk’s horrible administrators and horrible teachers. He left. Now Adamowski, the great spender, is the miracle man. What are we to believe? Was it Norwalk’s socioeconomic standing all these years or the “bad bad” staff? Perhaps it will take several years of test results to determine the answer to that question.

steve August 14, 2017 at 10:28 am

norwalk native put up the numbers on illegals here. Norwalk has always been more diverse than Darien, Westport et. al. Norwalk is a city not a town and at one time had loads of manufacturing that provided jobs but also meant more dense housing and pollution. My guess is your family moved here because of the availability of jobs and the housing was cheaper – that’s not to be demeaning but statistically the likelihood. I have little doubt that SAT scores in Darien in 1965 were far better than Norwalk’s. Since the push for integration in the 60s and especially in the past 30 years, the move away from Norwalk like Cities to exclusive like communities has grown. Now the move seems to be going the other way. Norwalk native your tone seems as insensitive, unreasoned and fantasy like as our current commander in chief

Debora Goldstein August 14, 2017 at 12:39 pm

Suggesting that a 70% minority population puts a school district at a disadvantage is patently absurd. I can only be thankful that the teachers do not bring these lowered expectations directly to their interactions with the children.

Notaffiliated August 14, 2017 at 2:40 pm

@Deborah. I’m very likely to be closer to this subject than you are. It’s the elephant in the city

Donna August 14, 2017 at 2:47 pm

Minorities do not lower school performance. Watered down expectations do. A better ECS formula could help Norwalk address the educational needs of English language learners and continue to offer superior opportunities for all its students. Also I think we need to get over our collective objections to standardized tests, common core curriculum and other objective ways to deliver and measure excellent educational outcomes. High achieving districts embrace competitive measures and academic rigor.

Steve August 14, 2017 at 3:01 pm

where did Deborah g get the idea that weak scores are due to minorities? Scores are often tied to socioeconomic status. This is true even within Norwalk. It’s not a case of low expectations but the number of words a child is exposed to before entering school or the degree of stability in their home. That doesn’t mean those children don’t have an opportunity (see how many
Teachers are at the elementary school more than an hour before school starts and stay a few
hours after) bit it does mean that more resources are necessary for those children than a child in Westport or Darien who start hiring tutors
In elementary school to supplement their child’s learning. I have no doubt that children of similar socioeconomic situations have more or less the same outcomes when comparing norwalk to neighboring districts.

Non Partisan August 15, 2017 at 10:12 pm

@Steve- it’s easy to mix the two up. I agree with you- it’s socioeconomic

It just so happens the metrics that measure school performance are dragged way down in norwalk. Why- sanctuary city policies that encourage illegal immigrants and unaccompanied minors. These children require resources for ESL and Ela that can be spent on enrichment programs for children that otherwise don’t need ESL. This creates a built in achievement gap that will never be bridged as long as there is a fresh new supply of illegal immigrants to educate ( and keep the scores down)

I am a big proponent of diverse schools. Our schools now have more impoverished children than not. If the balance isn’t restored you will see an accelerated flight of weslth out of norwalk.

Its really that simple.

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NancyOnNorwwalk.com was conceived as the place to go for Norwalk residents to get the real, unvarnished story about what is going on in and around their city. NancyOnNorwalk does not intend to be a print newspaper online; rather, it exists to pull the curtain back and shine a spotlight on how Norwalk is run and what is happening regarding issues that have an impact on taxpayers’ pocketbooks and safety. As an independent site, NancyOnNorwalk’s first and only allegiance is to the reader.

About Nancy

Nancy came to Norwalk in September 2010 and, after reporting on Norwalk for two years for another company, resigned to begin Nancy On Norwalk so she engage in journalism the way it was meant to be done. She is married to career journalist Mark Chapman, has a son, Eric (the artist and web designer who built this website), and two cats – a middle-aged lady and a young hottie who are learning how to peacefully co-exist.