Just Do What They Did? Really Jay Cronley!?!

Dear Jay,

Like thousands of other Tulsa World readers, I look forward to your fanciful yet insightful commentaries about life which you publish several times a week, typically on the front page of the news section.

I even wrote a previous post based on one of your excellent columns from July 2014, entitled, “But That’s Just Me.

But today’s column really has me scratching my head. Do you really mean what you wrote, or were you trying to be satirical?

You began by openly criticizing anyone who questions the validity of the current A-F school grading system and imply that we just need to get to work improving these meaningless grades.

If people focused more on improving themselves and their families than complaining about everything from the headline in the newspaper to the testing procedure, maybe more schools would improve their grades.

As shocking as the ridiculous number of F’s was the overall lack of improvement from one year to the next. Once you know the system, you should improve at least a little bit. But barely half a dozen schools made better grades this year than the year before, led by Lee Elementary’s jump from a D to a B-minus.

Yes, I did catch that little dig at people who made comments about the ridiculous headline the World chose to run to accompany the A-F article on Friday. I wonder who you might have been talking about.

You also mentioned Lee Elementary’s increase from a D grade to a B- last year. While this is certainly a noteworthy accomplishment, you failed to mention that the school saw an even larger decrease from a B+ to a D in 2014. In your opinion, were the teachers and principal at Lee in 2014 just being lazy?

You go on to discuss the importance of money to pay our best teachers. I agree that increasing teacher compensation is vitally important to recruiting and retaining a high quality teaching force. Will you be writing a followup column indicting our state legislators and Governor for failing to adequately support our public school system? Do you agree with reducing the state income taxes during a significant fiscal crisis?

I also agree with you that poverty is not the cause of low achievement. At the same time, it is beyond dispute that generational poverty, lack of food, dysfunctional homes, and neglect/abuse are negatively correlated to student success in school, and in life. It would be wonderful if more struggling children in our community had fully functional and committed parents willing to do anything to help their children achieve.

The sad reality is that students who are loved come to school to learn. Those who are not, come to school to be loved.

In every one of these so-called FAILING schools, there are incredibly caring and dedicated educators who are giving their very best to meet children’s needs. Of course, this includes improving student competencies in math and reading, but it also includes arranging for counseling services, meeting medical needs, procuring school supplies, and providing clothes, shoes, and backpacks full of food so that students can eat over the weekend. They are NOT FAILING!

Finally, you challenge these FAILING schools to simply do what the high performing schools are doing.

Eisenhower Elementary wrote the book on A-pluses. Carnegie has made all A’s for three years. Zarrow also has straight A’s.

In the middle schools and junior highs, Carver has all A’s, Thoreau has all B’s.

Edison High School went from a B-minus to a B-plus. Booker T. Washington sets the high school curve with all A-pluses.

Do what they did.

Do you even know what these schools did, Jay?

Every one of the schools you mentioned in a magnet school. This means that their student populations are selected through one of three criteria: interest magnet; lottery magnet; or academic magnet.

But, you are absolutely right. I cannot believe that these FAILING schools didn’t think of this earlier.

To improve their test scores and A-F grade, here is all every Tulsa school needs to do for next year.

Every school should only accept students who meet the following entrance requirements (from TPS magnet school policy):

  • Score in the top 50% on all state testing
  • Have a high GPA
  • Have superb attendance
  • Have excellent behavior and no major discipline infractions
  • Have positive recommendations from three current teachers
  • Be willing to participate in a competitive entrance examination, interview, or audition

With this criteria in place, schools will be able to filter out most of those pesky kids who don’t do well on testing, like children with dyslexia, behavior problems, kids whose parents move a lot, have significant learning disabilities, or who are learning English. That will certainly help the A-F scores.

Additionally, these schools should only accept children with committed, involved parents who are willing to take the time to complete the application, volunteer for school events, and provide transportation to their children’s various school activities. According to the district criteria, parents should also be expected to make a commitment to remain at that school for the duration of the grade levels served by the school.

Mr. Cronley, you offer a brilliant idea. Fixing the problems of low grades on A-F is as simple as turning all of the TPS schools into academic magnet schools—all containing students in the top half of state testing—with high GPA’s, superb attendance, excellent behavior, and generally the type of kids all teachers want to teach.

It would be so easy. Just do what the “good” schools do.

All sarcasm aside, Jay. The solution does appear simple for many people who don’t fully comprehend the wide range of challenges faced by teachers and school leaders in Tulsa and other high poverty districts. This is evident from perusing many of the online reader comments that accompanied the main story.

The A-F system is highly flawed, yet is difficult to explain why to those who don’t have the time or interest to really evaluate how the grades are computed. Allow me to help with one piece by briefly discussing the growth component of the A-F formula.

Half of the final A-F school grade is computed from Whole School Growth (25%) and Bottom Quartile Growth (25%). By having a school where the vast majority of students earned passing test scores the previous year (top 50% of test takers), it is virtually guaranteed that the school will earn a high grade in both of these components the next year.

This is due to the fact that, by state rules, schools are awarded a growth point if a student maintains a score of proficient or higher from one year to the next.

Therefore, a student who earned a perfect score of 990 last year would earn a growth point even if their score decreased to the minimum passing score of 700. This would reflect about a 30% drop in overall score yet would still count as GROWTH. Does that make sense?

Conversely, a student who scored an unsatisfactory score of 500 last year may demonstrate significant growth to 550 this year. However, if that level of growth did not cause them to move up one category or exceed the state average growth for that test, the school will earn a zero!

As a result, a magnet school where nearly 100 percent of students scored proficient or higher one year, earns a growth point for EVERY kid who stays proficient or higher this year, even if EVERY child’s score were to go down. On the other hand, a school with large numbers of very low performing students could cause EVERY student to experience growth, yet earn very few points because of the SYSTEM!

Moreover, because of the way these students are counted in both growth components, low scoring schools get smacked twice, while high performing schools get a double gift.

The A-F system is flawed, inaccurate, unreliable and invalid. It’s not making excuses to say so. It is the truth.

Your argument of just “doing what they do” is akin to telling all of the NFL teams that all they need to do is copy what the New England Patriots did last year and go win a Super Bowl.

School improvement is a difficult and complex process which must be viewed through the unique context of each school and its leaders, teachers, parents, students, and resources. There are no short cuts.

But, that’s just me!

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11 thoughts on “Just Do What They Did? Really Jay Cronley!?!

  1. I understand your point regarding the grading system but the A-F system, which is based on a range of points for each letter grade, is and has always been based on a point spread for each letter grade. For example, I score 100 on my first exam and receive an A and score 94 on my next exam. I’m still going to receive an A even though I have a drop in score. It’s true that I don’t have growth in points, but I am maintaining my proficiency at the A level. Should I be given a B even though I’m performing higher than that? The same can be said for the child who, in your example, scores 990 one year and 700 the next. They are still mastering the material at the A level.

    Conversely, if I score a 50 on an exam, I’ll receive an F. The next exam, I score a 55. I’m still receiving an F even though I’ve demonstrated growth in my points because I’m still performing at the F level. Should I be given a D even though I’m not at that level?

    I understand the frustration with the current system and I’m sure there is a better system. I think most of us “get it” and understand there are flaws in the current system. But, to say that the A-F system is flawed, inaccurate, unreliable and invalid is, in my opinion, an overly broad statement. It does give us a framework in which to work or at least a starting point as to where a particular school is performing.

    • Teri, Have you read the OU/OSU study from 2013? It is not just me who says the A-F system is flawed and invalid. These are people who have spent their professional careers conducting educational research. Do you beleive they are wrong as well?

      Relative to the analogy you used, I don’t think a student going from a 990 score (A+) to a 700 (about a 60% or D-) should count as growth. They have not mastered the material. The student has gone from mastery level to basic proficiency. Would a parent whose child always earned an A in math be concerned if the grade went down to a D the next year? Would the parent be placated by a teacher saying they “they still passed?”

      Thanks for the comments.

  2. Thank you for your response — your sentiments are greatly appreciated. One error in your blog post — Carnegie Elementary is not a magnet school.

    • Thank you for pointing this out, Cathy. Carnegie is not a magnet school yet does have a rather favorable demographic profile compared to the average TPS elementary school. The FRL % is also low relative to other schools. My previous school in Jenks had a rate 15% above Carnegie and a higher level of diversity. Again, nothing at all against their success. Just trying to point out that other TPS schools cannot just copy their “recipe” and have similar success. Thanks again.

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful response to a complex problem. We need to be diligent and cognizant in our effort; dismissive soundbites have been the response all too often by the media and our legislators. It’s (beyond) time to make a positive change.

  4. Excellent as always. I am continually amazed at how uniformed so many of the A-F apologists are on the below the surface level mechanics of what constructs the grade. Your point on this was well made. There are so many flaws to the methodology and to how the data is being used it’s overwhelming. Like taking scores from one grade level and subject standards and comparing those to a completely different grade level and subject standards—it’s just not a valid way to measure growth. As a coach, had I compared my cross country runners to the standard of a “proficient” 400 meter time one year and then to the standard of a “proficient” 3200 meter time the next, I’d be teacher of the year bc we would have tremendous growth. It’s really no different than what the A-F system is doing. I suppose Mr. Cronley’s solution to the high crime rates in Chicago and NYC, would be to mirror the local government and police practices in Edmond. It works there, surely Edmond officials are a model for big cities to copy. To Mr. Cronley, better to keep quiet and let people wonder about your knowledge level on this subject than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

    • I love your examples, Corey. The analogy to crime rates is spot on. The contexts between schools are completely different. The A-F calculations are slanted towards affluent, white schools in suburban communities. It has little value for assessing the contribution of a school towards student learning.

  5. Thank you so much for saying exactly what I thought when I read Cronley’s column. If an educated professional writer is so far off base in understanding what challenges schools face, what hope is there for the rest of the voters….

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