Who Exactly Does A-F Help?

imageFor many years, we have counted on the Tulsa World to be the voice of reason when it comes to discussion of educational issues in our state.

During the four-year reign of terror of our previous state superintendent, the Tulsa World was a beacon of optimism for many educators across the state. The World served as a counter to the overtly biased reporting of that news agency on the other end of the turnpike–the Daily Oklahoman.

I am not implying that the Tulsa World reporters have been “soft” or treated anyone with kid gloves. To the contrary, several of their articles about specific individuals, schools, and educational issues have been justifiably critical and hard-hitting.

Even during my somewhat public “kerfuffle” with Superintendent Barresi over parent opt outs in Jenks in 2013, the World reporters presented a consistently fair and balanced accounting of the facts. As a result, I have tremendous respect for the journalistic credibility and integrity of Andrea Eger, Nour Habib, and former World reporter Kim Archer.

This is why I was completely dismayed and disappointed when I opened the paper this morning and was hit immediately in the face by this atrocious headline:


And it didn’t stop there. The extended headline went on to essentially report that (1) a whole slew of Tulsa schools really suck; (2) more schools suck than last year; and (3) administrators were already making excuses to avoid taking responsibility.

What puzzles me is the lack of proportionality. This is the type of headline one might expect after a major world event– like the bombing of Pearl Harbor–yet NOT the release of state grades, especially ones which have been thoroughly discredited by educational researchers from our two major state universities.

Furthermore, this A-F system is currently undergoing a complete review and will be likely be overhauled in the next legislative session.

While Andrea and Nour accurately detail the concerns over the statistical accuracy and validity of the state’s A-F grading system, someone at the World still felt the need to sensationalize this story.

I am not sure why anyone would decide this was necessary or appropriate. In short, what was the purpose of introducing this story in such a loud and meretricious way?

The editors were certainly aware that earlier in the day Superintendent Hofmeister and the state school board essentially proclaimed the A-F grades “too flawed to have any real meaning.” In fact, board member Lee Baxter was so reluctant to approve the grades he asked, “So we are compelled to report these even though we are apologizing for them?”

Superintendent Hofmeister was forced to spend considerable time to persuade the board that it was their statutory requirement to certify and release the grade cards, even if “they are recognized as not valid.” Not what you would call a ringing endorsement.

I know there are many in our state who have bought into the narrative that a significant number of public schools in our state are just lousy. They believe that the A-F system is needed to compel lazy administrators and teachers to work harder and start caring about kids.

Nothing wrong with a little public shaming, even if it is based on shaky, incomplete data from students filling in bubbles on a few standardized tests during a few days last spring, right?

The reformers’ theory of action is by ranking and sorting students, teachers, and schools, that competition and fear of punishment would drive schools to improvement. It has not worked. After 15 years of failure, isn’t it time to put this absurd premise to bed?

The bigger question is how does a headline like this help our community and state?

How does it help children who are now told (or reminded once again) they are FAILING students attending a FAILING school?

How does it help overworked and under-appreciated teachers to be told that their efforts are for naught. That despite everything they do for kids, they are still FAILURES.

How does it help parents and homeowners whose property values plummet as a result of them being located near a FAILING school?

How does it help neighborhoods when functional families decide to abandon their FAILING home districts in pursuit of a “better” school across town?

How does it help business owners when families move away from the FAILING community and take their dollars elsewhere?

How does it help civic leaders when their FAILING communities become blighted with empty homes and deteriorating business fronts, and are then taken over by gangs, drug dealers, and other criminal elements?

How does it help our Chamber of Commerce when outside corporations and business interests read this headline and decide to take their investments to somewhere that is not FAILING?

How does it help the State of Oklahoma when investment in our major cities dries up because the single most important magnet for productive companies and citizens–our public school system–is labeled a FAILURE?

How does this help our society when unemployment goes up, tax revenues go down, and public support of our most precious resource–our children–falls well short of what is needed?

Come to think of it,  I think I know whom the A-F system was designed to help?

The A-F system was put in place to help the corporate reformers “confirm” their narrative of FAILING schools and lazy teachers.

Once the reformers convince enough Oklahomans that our public school system is damaged beyond repair, they will be more than ready to swoop in with their solution of school choice, vouchers, and corporate charters.

Local school boards will be replaced by out-of-state CEOs and investors. The only children left to attend the “FAILING” public schools will be those children who have already been dealt the most difficult cards in life and need our help the most.

And the dream of a fair, equal, high quality education for all American children will be gone forever.

Now THAT will be a FAILURE of epic proportions. It might even warrant the headline we saw this morning.

No one working in education is claiming that every principal and every teacher and every school is doing a wonderful job. We have some major challenges to overcome. But, we desperately need parents and community partners is this struggle to help each and every child reach his or her full potential.

Labeling schools as FAILURES is not at all helpful in this endeavor.

I will close with an insightful comment from author and educational researcher, Alfie Kohn, on the topic of raising test scores (and A-F letter grades). This is especially relevant if you happen to have a child in a school whose A-F grade went up last year. Uh oh!

Of course, any school can succeed in raising average test scores. You deprive kids of recess, eliminate music and the arts, cut back the class meetings and discussions of current events, offer less time to read books for pleasure, squeeze out the field trips and interdisciplinary projects and high-quality electives, spend enough time teaching test-taking tricks, and, you bet, it’s possible to raise the scores. But that result is meaningless at best. When a school or district reports better test results this year than last, knowledgeable parents and other observers respond by saying, “So what?” (because higher test scores do not necessarily reflect higher quality teaching and learning) – or even, “Uh oh” (because higher test scores may indicate lower quality teaching and learning).

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8 thoughts on “Who Exactly Does A-F Help?

  1. What are your thoughts when we place these in a normal distribution curve or percentage?
    A’s State=.12 TPS=.065, B’s State=.28 TPS .092, C’s State=.30 TPS=.092, D’s State=.10 TPS .065, F’s State=.10 TPS .68 Do you see a problem here? I am not a fan of A-F but why is Tulsa so far behind the state? We can say poverty rates but in our eastern Oklahoma counties such as Haskell and Leflore we have higher poverty rates. I would appreciate your thoughts on this. Ed

  2. I wonder if any school or district benefits financially or otherwise when they make exemplary grades or make substantial gains or progress over previous poor results? Particularly any schools that are under some type of turn-around model or procedure.

  3. So many elements of the A-F grade are completely out of the school’s control such as attendance, or a faulty test such as we had last year, yet we are blamed. As a teacher, I work constantly to help my students be as prepared as they can possibly be to test while making sure they are also learning the skills and knowledge they will need to succeed in life. When a student who had worked tirelessly as we spent countless hours preparing last year had the news flashed to him on the screen that he had failed yet again, he and I both were crushed. We had felt confident he was ready. I cried for hours after school for him and several other students who also tried so hard. Yet he is an outstanding student who makes A’s and is recognized for his leadership ability and kindness to others. He just can’t test. One comment he made was, ” I am sorry I let you and the school down.” This student was apologizing to me because his score would hurt ours! He will be so much more successful in life than this stupid, punitive and useless system is. I have seen so much damage from this so-called “reform”. Kids come to me knowing less than ever due to all the focus on certain tested skills. How can I make up for all that wasn’t taught in the one year I have them? When will this madness end? Thank you, Rob, for continuing to fight the good fight.

  4. As we try to review/fix this A-F system this year bc of state law, I’m curious HOW we measure the quality of schools? Is it even possible to create a metric that can evaluate schools or districts and report those results to the community? What would we even measure?

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