Friday, October 7, 2011

School letter grades are intellectually dishonest

Letter grades have an important function in schools. In each subject, children receive grades as indicators of their progress and to identify areas that need improvement. Letter grades have become so ingrained in our culture that everyone understands "A" means excellent and "F" means failure.

But no child ever comes home from school simply labeled "A", "F" or anything in between. The letter grades indicate levels of progress in a range of subjects.

Which is one reason why the letter grades issued to schools this week are so intellectually dishonest. They simply slap a label on a school without explaining anything. School letter grades take advantage of a common understanding in order to create an impression that can be very misleading.

A second reason why this week's exercise is intellectually dishonest is that the school letter grades tell us nothing that we don't already know. Before Wednesday, schools were rated by a system of stars and labels. The new system assigns grades of “A” through “F” to schools and school districts. There is no other difference in the way that school data is collected or analyzed.

Governor Jindal and his political cohort simply repackaged what we already know about schools in the most negative light possible, then held a press conference to bang the drum for their own idea of reform just weeks before an election.

The news media took the bait, as this article, which occupied most of The Advocate's front page on Thursday, demonstrates.

The media frenzy validated the Louisiana Federation of Teachers' concern that "assigning a single letter grade to a school oversimplifies complex issues and trivializes the numerous factors that contribute to the performance of a school."

It should be no surprise, for example, that magnet schools with selective admissions policies earned an "A," and no one should be shocked that alternative schools which take in troubled children for short periods are labeled with an "F."

What is lost in the hoopla over the new labels is the fact that most schools are improving, and that teachers are going to extraordinary lengths to help their students succeed.

These gains are underway even though resources for public education have shrunk dramatically. The main funding source for schools, the Minimum Foundation Program, has been frozen for three years, even as costs to local school boards skyrocketed.

Over $76 million for after school tutorial programs, classroom technology, reading and math initiatives and stipends for nationally certified teachers - the very programs that help students succeed - was cut by Governor Jindal.

The governor called Wednesday's press conference and touted these questionable labels to further his campaign on behalf of his hand-picked candidates for the legislature and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Their agenda is clear. They want to abolish teacher tenure, turn more schools over to private operators and seize authority over schools from locally elected school boards.

If the governor and his allies are really concerned with improving education, they will fully fund the Minimum Foundation Program and restore the programs that work to achieve student success.

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