It's a cardinal rule of sales: Create the problem, and then provide the solution.
Ohio education officials did a good job of creating the problem last week when they released newly revamped report card data for state schools. The new district report cards jettison descriptors such as "continuous improvement" and "effective" and replace them with an A-F grading system in nine categories. Seven of the nine are based on high-stakes testing results. The other two are based on graduation rates.
Not a single category involves any qualitative measure of districts. The new report cards do not look at how many students are involved in music and art, how many participate in extracurriculars, or how many stay after school for tutoring. Officials rate schools without talking to a single student, parent, teacher or administrator. Supposedly objective, quantitative numbers rule all.
Even schools that fared well under the old (flawed) system find themselves struggling in some parts under the new (still flawed) system. Districts earned A's in some categories and F's in others, but no overall grade is forthcoming until 2015. Officials haven't even decided exactly how they'll compile overall grades, but like the bureaucrats at the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," they give every assurance that they have top people working on it.
Meanwhile, parents and community members who are accustomed to report card formats can make their own judgments on districts with D's or F's in, say, "standards met" and "four-year graduation rate" and A's and B's in "disabled value added" and "annual measurable objectives." Likely, they will just assign traditional number values to each letter grade, add them and divide by nine, even though the state says that's not how it will be done in two years.
Like the good salesmen they are, state officials haven't yet shared the solution, but are instead happy to let districts, kids and parents stew in the problem for a bit. When it arrives, the miracle cure will likely involve sanctions and penalties for persistently poor performing schools (even if these punishments go by more euphemistic and progressive names) and a continued reliance on charter schools that follow a for-profit model.
That's hardly a surprise. As a teacher, I used to scoff at colleagues who said the accountability movement was a plot to systematically dismantle public schools and open the doors for mega-rich handlers of politicians to plunge their greedy fingers into the educational pie. Now, those conspiracy theorists sound more like prophets.
The bottom line is this: Whether old report card or new report card, Ohio's results are based on the erroneous assumption that the only useful data is testing data, and that the accountability model is the only way to "police" education in America.
P.L. Thomas, an associate professor of education at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., presents a better alternative on his blog, "The Becoming Radical." He argues that students and the public would be better served if politicians target growing economic inequalities in the United States. The widening gap between rich and poor means that more students come to school hungry and without adequate health care. These issues directly affect their classroom performance.
Further, Thomas argues that accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing should be stopped, replaced by "a small and robust measurement system" that tests random samples of students and gathers descriptive (qualitative) information about districts.
He also believes that experienced teachers must be assigned to impoverished and special needs students just as they are to affluent, typically developing students; that teacher education should become more rigorous; and that current grading systems, like the A-F model that is so prevalent in our schools, should be replaced instead with models that provide rich, individualized feedback.
Significantly, Thomas says that the kind of crisis management model so prevalent in state and federal education mandates must be replaced with patience. Patience, however, isn't part of the paradigm where lawmakers and their rich puppetmasters are concerned, so the accountability model isn't going anywhere anytime soon. There's gold in "them thar halls," and millions to be made for testing companies who sell products that create the problem and charter school charlatans who sell the solutions.
I love my students and I love my school, but increasingly, I fear for both.
Chris Schillig is an Alliance area educator and journalist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/cschillig