Tuesday, October 4, 2011

School Grades: Chicken or Egg?

Which comes first; an excellent school program or a motivated and academically engaged student body? When the school grades are announced this week by the Department of Education, many parents will be led to believe that their children's teachers are incompetent or lazy or both. They will have one more reason to just blame schools for poor student performance instead of doing their jobs of motivating their children and insisting on students doing their school work. That's because the current education reform craze producing the new school grades has incorrectly decreed that schools and teachers are totally responsible for the academic success of all students who happen to be enrolled.

Added 10/5/11: The school letter grades were released today and there are absolutely no surprises. Out of all the alternative schools in the state (30), all but two were assigned an F. Out of 68 Recovery District schools receiving letter grades, 87% received either a D or an F. Out of all the student selective magnet schools in the state, all but three received an A. Does this mean that all the teachers and administrators in our alternative schools are incompetent and that all teachers in magnet schools are highly effective? Will we get similar results when we apply the new teacher grading system? This is nuts!

All of my analysis of school performance shows that the qualities of student motivation and engagement in school are at least as important as the hard work of teachers in producing school success. The school reformers would probably be shocked to learn that a school could have top notch administrators, excellent teachers and a great academic program and still be rated as a "D" or "F" school by the new grading system. That's because the new school grades are completely dependent upon test data and attendance or graduation rate of students. If many students in a particular school miss a large number of school days, if they refuse to study and do homework, if they fail to get necessary sleep and proper nutrition, and are careless and skip some of the questions on their LEAP test, the school will likely be labeled as bad or failing. How is it that a school rather than the parents can be held responsible for the factors mentioned above?

If public education is to improve, the general public and our education policy makers must understand that it's not just the effectiveness of the school and it's not just the quality and motivation of the students but a complex mix of factors that determine student success.

In a school system like the Zachary Community Schools, we have both factors clicking to produce a truly excellent school system. Administrators and teachers are hard working and demanding of excellence in both their own performance and their student's performance. At the same time, children come to school prepared to work hard and learn. Parents won't let a student miss school unnecessarily and regularly use the Internet and teacher communications to check assignments and insist that students do homework. The school culture has become one of excellence and academic achievement. Everyone, whether educator or student is expected to do his/her part.

The Zachary schools will get A's and B's on the new grading system. The teachers and administrators in Zachary deserve to take their bows and accept credit for a job well done, but they also know that parents and students deserve their share of the credit. Unfortunately many educators in neighboring Baton Rouge will be unfairly demoralized by a grading system that puts the entire burden on their shoulders instead of promoting a unified effort by parents, students, and educators. In those schools, the new school grading system will do more harm than good. Because of this destructive impact on many schools staffed by dedicated professionals, the school grading system itself deserves an F.