Grading the Schools

Back in November, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg released a report card grading all of the city’s public schools.  It was a bold move at the time, though the impact of grading the schools took a few months to come to a boil.  Now we are seeing it, as New York parents are now taking exception with the grades their neighborhood schools received.

That should come as no surprise.  As Eduflack has written previously, we all want to believe our own schools are doing just fine, even if the system around it may be falling apart.  We believe in our teachers and our administrators, taking solace that our child is receiving a top-notch education, regardless of the conditions around us.

When Bloomberg announced the grades, he did so in an attempt to do something about underperforming schools.  And we can’t do anything about such schools if we don’t first identify them.  So he issued them grades, grades based on student achievement.  After all, shouldn’t we measure our schools based on how well they do their primary job — educating our kids?

To be expected, the critics are now hitting back against Bloomberg and his report cards.  It took a little time, but we are now hearing the hollow refrains of high-stakes testing, teaching to the test, and abandoning “non-essential” courses like art, music, and the like.  Such grading must be unfair because it doesn’t align with our popular thinking.

Let there be no doubt, we should be grading our schools.  Every parent has the right to know if their school is achieving and if their school compares with the school across town, across the state, or across the country.  Every student has the right to an effective education, and education as good as any other student is getting.  Every superintendent has the right to know how his schools compare to each other, and which are getting it done and which need additional help, support, and direction.  And every taxpayer has the right to know that our tax dollars are going to effective education and demonstrable student achievement.

So how do we measure that?  What’s the most effective rubric to get the job done?  And more importantly, if Bloomberg’s way is wrong, what is right? 

It all comes down to whether we grade the process or the outcomes.  Measures like parental involvement, per-pupil expenditure, class size, teacher experience, tutoring programs, transfers, grade promotion, and such are all good process measures.  But we can check the box on all of those and more, and still be left with a failing school.  it is frustrating, yes, but true.  We can do it all “right,” and still not demonstrate results.  What good is that?

Which gets us back to the Bloomberg formula of outcome-based grading.  It sends a strong message to virtually every stakeholder audience in a school district to say we measure our schools based on student achievement.  Our schools (and our teachers) succeed when our kids do.  How we get there is important, sure, but our primary objective is where we went.  Did our kids learn what is necessary to succeed in school and in life?  If not, our schools aren’t doing as good a job as they should.  There is room for improvement.

We can quibble about what tests should be used to grade a school, whether there are multiple quantitative measures and such.  We can dream of a national standard by which every school in the country is graded.  We can even look to models like Quality Counts or Newsweek and US News & World Report’s top high schools rubrics.  But we all should agree that our schools should be evaluated, graded, compared, and appropriately improved.

If you have a better idea for determining whether our schools are effective or not, I’m all ears.  I’m sure there are folks far smarter than I who are exploring such issues at think tanks, NFPs, and universities across the country.  But until we have a better way, shouldn’t we use the best way we have now?  Let’s grade our schools, and let them figure out how to earn the extra credit and do the make-up work necessary so they all achieve. 

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