Monday, September 9, 2013

Virginia's School Grading Plan Gets an N/A

In my most recent posts, I talked about the Tony Bennett (Indiana) school grading fiasco. I talked about how unbridled "disruption" in education reform can cause more harm than good. I posted a letter asking for more Virginia education stakeholder participation and input into our state government's education reform process. Finally, I wrote about how TFA was not right for Virginia (speaking of stakeholder input, you'll notice that stakeholder groups opposed placing TFA corps members in teaching positions in our schools.)

This post is going to bring together all of those prior posts. What do all the posts above have in common: the school grading bill.

The Virginia General assembly passed a school grading bill this past legislative session. As with the TFA legislation, this legislation was not supported by any education stakeholder groups that I know of. The VEA, VSBA, VASS and the VA PTA are all opposed to it. But, um, Jeb Bush is in favor of it. I am increasingly concerned  by the level of influence people from out-of-state are having on our education legislation. Does Jeb Bush pay taxes here? Is he registered to vote in Virginia? Does he represent any Virginia education stakeholders? No. School grading, like TFA and elimination of citizen and democratic oversight of charter schools (more about this in a later post) are also ALEC-favored legislation. If you've never heard of ALEC, here's a primer.

So, why do people who support public education in Virginia oppose the school grading legislation? Because it's not a comprehensive or accurate way of providing information about schools. In fact, if other states' school grading systems are any indication, school grades are highly misleading. When partnered with other education reforms, such as state and charter chain takeovers of struggling schools and loosening of charter laws, such laws are ripe for exercises in crony capitalism.

Matt DiCarlo of the Shanker Institute has done several analyses of the Florida school grading program and has found it lacking. He also explained that Indiana's school grading mechanism tells us a lot about the students who are taking Indiana's standardized test but not much about the quality of the schools themselves. See:


The wide-spread opposition to adopting such a policy in Virginia is shared by Virginia superintendents. They've shown, as Matt DiCarlo did, that such a metric would only prove that schools with poorer students would get lower grades:
[The Bristol Schools' Superintendent, Mark] Lineburg, with help from some university researchers, analyzed an initial formula that lawmakers considered, which was based largely on how well students perform on state tests. They found that 85 percent of the schools that would score a C or below had poverty ratings over 50 percent.
This group produced a lengthy, evidence-based report  which showed why such a grading system would not accurately convey the quality of the schools rated. For example:
. . . Governor McDonnell’s A-F scale accounts only for overall achievement examination scores and creates a nearly insurmountable obstacle for school divisions that serve high percentages of economically-disadvantaged students. Educating students in poverty is one of the nation’s greatest challenges; and this challenge increases with every percent point increase in free and reduced price lunches. Yet, in affluent school divisions where it should be easier to differentiate instruction specifically for fewer numbers of poor children, most achieve no better or even worse for economically-disadvantaged children than high poverty school divisions. Yet the more affluent school divisions will consistently receive A’s and B’s on the new rating scale.
The data displayed in Tables 1 and 2, are found on each school division’s state report card and clearly demonstrate that overall achievement disparities among school divisions are almost solely based on the percent of economically-disadvantaged students served by the school division. It is discouraging that our elected officials, including our Governor supported legislation that so glaringly fails to recognize the inherent challenges faced by high poverty schools. To be more succinct, Governor McDonnell’s signature education legislation will punish high poverty schools and divisions even where significant gains toward increasing achievement for economically-disadvantaged students have been attained. More discouraging, assigning a low grade to a high poverty school division will decrease  its ability to attract and retain top teaching candidates who could have a significantly positive impact on the students, school, and the entire school community. 
The educators in high poverty schools are equally competent and are not bashful to ask for assistance. What our high poverty school divisions need is additional assistance and support, not punishment in the form of awarding a simplistic singular grade and the threat of school takeover. We need more preschool programs, lower pupil-teacher ratios, mathematics specialists, financial support for physical education and wellness programs, and we need the ability to extend learning opportunities during summers, holiday vacations, and after school hours. The scores in this document clearly demonstrate that the achievement gap between high poverty school divisions and those that are more affluent is not always as great as it appears. In fact, data gleaned from the Virginia DOE school report cards prove that many high-poverty divisions are tightening achievement gaps with greater success than their more affluent neighbors. 

Roger Jones a , the chairman of Leadership Studies at Lynchburg College and director of the Virginia Association of Secondary Schools Principals Center for Education Leadership wrote an impassioned essay echoing his skepticism of the efficacy of the Virginia A-F grading plan.

The grades won't go into effect until 2014 and the Virginia Board of Education has been charged with coming up with the formula by October. So far, the school grading formula they're considering is almost totally based on test scores. There aren't multiple measures, just multiple test scores and different ways of looking at them.

Why would Virginia want to adopt such a system when the ones in Florida and Indiana are so flawed? Furthermore, why would the General Assembly pass such legislation without any understanding of how such a metric would work? Isn't it better policy-making practice in such cases to come up with and pilot the metric first, to see, how it works, and then make it law or not? This returns to the reformy propensity to act first and think later, if at all. How irresponsible.

But it also returns to a more cynical possibility. The schools likely to get Fs in Virginia would then be forced under state takeover and put under the newly formed bureaucracy, the Opportunity Education Institution. The communities where these schools are located are stripped of democratic governance of their own schools, though they'd still have to provide the money for the schools. As I said when I wrote about the OEI:
According to this post, the OEI would take over schools that were denied accreditation, which is done in accordance with "federal accountability data," also known as standardized test scores. The Institution will be run by a board of gubernatorial appointees, which includes the executive director. There is no guarantee that the board would include any people who know anything about education. The board would contract with non-profits, corporations, or education organizations to operate the schools. Funding for the new bureaucracy would be provided by federal, state, and local taxpayers. The "failing" schools' local governing bodies would be represented on the board in some way, but they would lose decision-making power and would not be able to vote or, from what I can tell, have much meaningful input, besides providing the same share of local funding and being responsible for maintenance of the school building. As for staffing, current faculty at the schools being taken over could apply for a position as a new employee with the OEI or apply for a transfer.
First of all, elimination of democratic oversight and disenfranchisement is never a good solution to poverty or dysfunction, not to mention the OEI bill appears to be unconstitutional. Second, what happened in Indiana also smells of politics and crony capitalism. Though one may have nothing to do with the other, it looks bad that the grade was changed for the charter school owned by a prominent GOP donor who gave to Bennett's campaign. Second of all, when schools get forced into a state takeover after receiving too many Fs, they are then open by the state to takeover by charter school companies. Again, maybe one thing has nothing to do with another but Bennett's wife works for a for-profit Florida-based charter school company (Florida is where Bennett was most recently Education Commissioner) that Bennett chose to takeover Indianapolis Public Schools (Bennett was formerly education commissioner in Indiana).

Governor McDonnell and his allies are seeking similar changes for Virginia--school grading and charter expansion and charter via state takeover of high-poverty schools with low test scores. What happens when Imagine gets to takeover some of these "F" schools? Dennis Bakke, the CEO of Imagine Schools, the largest commercial manager of charter schools in the Unites States, gave $10,000 to McDonnell's campaign when he ran for governor. What happens when the likes of Johnnie Williams opens his own health and nutrition charter school and it doesn't do as well as expected? Would McDonnell give the school the grade it earned under Virginia's A-F metric system?

A-F school grading systems are bad metrics, they're unfair, they'll encourage poor practice and corruption, and they're bad for public education in Virginia.

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