By September 21, 2014 Uncategorized 8 Comments

In my previous post, “Assume the Position,” I suggested that the people of Oklahoma greet the release of last week’s State A-F grades with a loud collective yawn.

I’m with you, kid! However, I admit this is easy for me to say this since my school and district are lucky enough to be on the forward side of the A-F bell curve. I am well aware that these grades have significant negative implications for many other schools across our state.

In the OKSDE press release last week, State Superintendent Barresi emphasized that “the A-F grades enhance accountability and are not a punitive measure.” “This is about empowering parents and students,” said Barresi. “These grades do not tell the entire story of a school, nor are they intended to. But they do provide an important and concise look at how a school is performing in terms of academic achievement.”

I’ll be nice and say that Dr. Barresi is being disingenuous with her comments. In reality, she knows that these A-F grades are not a means to “enhance accountability”—rather they are a simple tool to rank, sort, and punish schools.

And how exactly does labeling a school as failing empower parents and students? The link between poverty rates and A-F grades is well-established, to the point that it really isn’t debatable. For further evidence, take a look at okeducationtruths post, “A Gentle Reminder, Poverty Matters,” from earlier today. I guarantee you would find the same correlations if you compared Tulsa-area schools as he did with Oklahoma City Schools.

Here is a quick summary comparing this year’s A-F score distribution  to those from 2013:

A — 289 (16.1 percent); down from 354 (20%) in 2013

B — 473 (26.4 percent); down from 499 (28%) in 2013

C — 504 (28.1 percent); up from 472 (26%) in 2013

D — 299 (16.7 percent); up from 263 (15%) in 2013

F — 200 (11.1 percent); up from 163 (9%) in 2013

Yippee. Based on Dr. Barresi’s description, we can conclude that Oklahoma schools are even worse than last year. This year, we have fewer schools earning A’s and B’s and more schools labeled as D’s and F’s. And those scores (2013) were even worse than in 2012. I certainly feel empowered, don’t you?

Of course, we need these A-F grades for accountability. At least that’s what Janet says: “The A-F report cards are vital to ensuring accountability. Parents and communities must know what schools are excelling and what schools need additional help.”  

Again, to translate: “We need to be able to rank, sort, and punish schools.”

Therefore, we continue to sacrifice children, teachers, and schools on the all-mighty altar of accountability and perpetuate this giant high-stakes experiment which has already failed, while ignoring the very real harm done to all involved.

Allow me to conduct a simple thought experiment. Suppose that next year almost all of the students in Oklahoma met the standards and passed their tests. As a result, our A-F grades increased dramatically and nearly no schools were rated D or F in 2015. What do you suppose would be the reaction from the politicians, the State Chamber, and Daily Oklahoma editorial writers? Would these folks all applaud these incredible successes and say, “Damn, those teachers and schools are GOOD”? That possibility, of course, is improbable to the point of hilarity.

What is much more likely is that everyone would immediately conclude that these increases in student scores were evidence that the tests were too easy. Or, possibly that the new state superintendent had ordered the lowering of cut scores to create the illusion of higher performance. In short, we either lowered the standards, cheated, or both .

If you really think about it,  “high standards” by definition refers to standards that everyone won’t be able to meet. If everyone could meet them, that would be taken as obvious proof that the standards were too low – and they would then be ratcheted upward – until failures were created.  A race to the top is always going to leave some behind on the bottom. Despite the reformers’ rhetoric, the whole standards-and-accountability movement is not about helping all children to become better learners. It is not committed to leaving no child behind. It is just the opposite. A-F is just a sorting instrument, used to separate “good” schools from “bad” ones, while ignoring the obvious impact of demographics, poverty, and community culture. As Susan Ohanion stated 15 years ago, we are still just separating wheat from chaff.

When the process of calling vast numbers of children failures, or forcing them to drop out, or turning whole schools into giant test-prep factories is rationalized as being in the best interest of poor and minority students – the ones who actually suffer most from high-stakes testing–we have lost touch with the true purpose of public education. It is a sickening paradox.

As writers like Alfie Kohn have pointed out, the reality is that most schools could succeed in raising test scores if they really wanted to. We could simply get rid of recess; schedule working lunches for kids; eliminate music, arts, PE, and other electives; vanquish field trips and interdisciplinary projects; print more worksheets and invest in more computer test prep programs; offer less time to read books for pleasure; double up math and reading instruction (at the expense of social studies and science); spend enough time teaching test-taking tricks, and, you bet, it’s possible for us to raise the scores.

But that result would be meaningless at best. Let me explain.

I was pleased to see that Howe Public Schools, a district I profiled in three posts last spring (HERE, HERE and HERE), was able to bring its elementary school grade up to a C+ from an F the year before. I am confident that Superintendent Scott Parks and his staff worked exceedingly hard to make this happen. But what does this increase really reflect?

Here is what I shared in my post, “What Now for Howe” back in April:

What has happened to the district’s culture of innovation as a result of this grade? Will district leaders have the staying power to stick true to their vision or will they have to abandon their beliefs in the pursuit of higher test scores. Will the district be forced to sacrifice its approach to teaching and learning in the hopes of a better A-F grade? Will the students’ computers gather dust while teachers drill their students with worksheets and Buckle Down test prep books? Will Howe’s project-based learning model be replaced with more textbooks and traditional teaching techniques? And how will teachers respond when their evaluation and their very livelihood becomes dependent on their students’ performance on state testing in two years?

According to Howe’s leaders, as a direct result of the district’s “F” grade, some teachers have moved away from an emphasis on project-based learning to more test-prep activities. They are making fewer requests to the district Technology Instructor, Tammy Parks, to implement technology-based learning in their classrooms. I get it. This is a very natural response to this situation and most of us would behave in the very same way.  An “F” is unacceptable and the teachers of Howe are focused on ensuring students are better prepared to take these tests this year.

But what happens if bringing back more traditional teaching strategies actually brings their scores up? This will simply empower the naysayers and it will be very difficult to return to the district’s original vision for 21st century teaching and learning–processes that create globally competent critical thinkers instead of just good test takers.

I plan on following up with the administrators at Howe to get their feedback on this year’s improved grade. I am particularly interested in their perception on whether these higher test scores reflect higher quality teaching and learning or just an increased emphasis on prepping students for tests. I fear it is the latter. If this is true, will the leadership have the courage and fortitude to continue their previous initiatives to innovate and use technology and problem-based learning to create true 21st century learners? Or, rather, will they be forced to scale back on their efforts in the interest of staying off of the state’s failing list?

As I have said many times, as a state and nation, we will eventually come to the recognition that there is much more to school than preparing kids to pass tests. Further, we must realize that the current tests are unreliable indicators of quality and a poor measure of the real potential of students. At that point, what will be our rationale to continue to subject kids – usually poor African-American and Hispanic kids – to those mind-numbing, spirit-killing, regimented instructional programs that are designed principally to raise test scores?

The Oklahoma A-F grading system simply institutionalizes the flawed premise that high stakes testing will improve student performance and reduce the achievement gap. It serves as an obstacle to the true reform that we need to be discussing in schools, reforms designed to create a different type of learner focused on creativity, innovation, and developing individual strengths.

A-F is nothing new. It represents the failed status quo of the past fifty years. It has monopolized the conversation relative to school improvement in Oklahoma for the past three years. It has done absolutely nothing to improve schools in our state or tell us anything we don’t already know. It is beyond useless and irrelevant.

At the same time, it is harmful. When schools like Howe try to move outside the box and innovate, the A-F system punishes them and forces them back into compliance. The lesson learned is unambiguous. It’s really not about improving student learning; instead, test scores are all that really matters.

Shaming teachers and school leaders does not motivate. Labeling students as failures does not promote engagement or interest in learning. Blaming schools for the greater ills of society does not help us move forward as a state or nation.  This conversation must change.

The paradigm of rank, sort, and punish has no place in promoting the greater ideals of public education.  If those in our state government truly want to help, they need to focus on a philosophy of serve, support, and recognize.

In short, don’t give schools less and expect more. Don’t call us failures and expect gratitude. Don’t pass mandates and bureaucratic requirements and tell us we have too much administration. Don’t cut taxes and say we have no money.

Treat us like professionals. Listen to what we have to say. Visit a school. Learn about the lives of our kids. Support our public safety net and social services. Figure out how we can educate more and incarcerate less. Work together with us for the benefit of our schools and communities. We’re ready to talk. Are you ready to listen?

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