Chris Schillig: Don't let the ratings fool you. Public education works

Alliance Review Published:

I work in a persistently poor performing school building.

At least that's what the state indicated earlier this month when it unveiled new, "more rigorous" criteria for determining success and failure in Ohio's public schools. My district was previously in "continuous improvement," but this new ranking system means that even some schools previously rated "excellent" suddenly plummeted -- based not on new information, but on a reevaluation of old information.

That's crazy.

I've never been a fan of the way the state judges schools and issues report cards. It's insulting, demeaning, and -- most importantly -- inaccurate. Designations are based overwhelmingly on test scores, and test scores, while important, do not tell the whole story.

So far this year, students in my classes have written and published three books. They've read and analyzed dozens of short stories, essays, poems and novels. They've interviewed senior citizens and written papers about the results. They've debated issues of equality and gender using nonfiction essays as a starting point.

Just next door, students have walked a simulated Oregon Trail to experience life as pioneers in the 1800s. Down the hall, they've participated in track-and-field events and measured the results to see real-life applications of science and math. One floor down, they're learning to weld, work on automobiles and rehabilitate injured legs.

Students in my school routinely earn full-ride scholarships to prestigious colleges and universities, excel in athletics, create artwork for the walls of our local library, sing and act in professional-quality plays, produce daily news programs for television, create phenomenal meals, volunteer for local service groups, collect literally thousands of cans of food to help the less fortunate and enrich their community in dozens of ways.

Teachers in my school include first-rate graphic artists, home economists, mathematicians, journalists, valedictorians, researchers, and career educators -- all sharing a goal to give kids what they need to succeed in a competitive world.

And we are nothing special.

Across the state, in almost every school and district, students and teachers are doing similar activities, excelling in similar ways, and achieving similar results. But the state takes none of this qualitative information into account when it measures our schools.

I'm not suggesting public education is perfect. Of course it isn't. Teachers get tired, burned out, used up. Some public schools desperately need to be fixed. Some may even need to be closed, but not nearly as many as you might think based on the list of "persistently poor performing" buildings.

My wife works in a nursing home. When the state inspects her building each year, four or five evaluators from Columbus arrive, unannounced, for a weeklong assessment. A dietitian looks at the quality of the food, safety personnel look at the physical building, nurses pore over records and charts. Employees are interviewed. Patients are interviewed. When it's over, the company receives citations for its mistakes, a window of time to fix them, and a later evaluation to determine that corrections have been made.

But in education, faceless bureaucrats in Columbus pull graduation rates, attendance numbers, and -- most importantly -- test scores, stack them against a pre-made yardstick and issue a determination. Nobody bothers to look at the school, talk one-on-one to people who work and learn there, or watch a single class.

Why can't the plan that works for nursing homes work for schools? Why can't teams of teachers and administrators, trained to look for the good and the bad, walk in some morning, observe classes, evaluate lesson plans, talk to students, parents, teachers and administrators, and make an overall assessment based on both qualitative and quantitative data? People and numbers, not just numbers and numbers.

Is it because this method is too expensive? Or is it because such first-person evaluations might reveal a different reality than the one politicians sell to the public, one that allows their rich, opportunistic friends to establish a foothold in public education and exploit it? Might such evaluations show that many educational disparities are caused by income disparities, a problem made worse by a widening gulf between rich and poor?

I used to believe this was the stuff of paranoia, but that was before I watched billionaires open their wallets and make huge donations with strings attached (I'm talking to you, Bill Gates), running -- and ruining -- education like a business to further their own ends while sending their own kids to ritzy academies exempt from such ridiculous mandates.

Public education still works. Don't let the latest contrived reports tell you otherwise. Do what our lawmakers can't or won't -- come to our persistently poor performing school and see for yourself.

Chris Schillig is an Alliance area educator and journalist. Contact him at chris.schillig@yahoo.com or @cschillig on Twitter.

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  • The best and brightest that run our country are products of the U.S. public education system. If your system works, how come all the problems in the U.S.?