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School Ratings Will Soon Be a Popularity Contest

Edweek Article on US Government Waivers

The U.S. Department of Education granted waivers to some of California’s largest districts including Los Angeles, Santa Ana, and Oakland. The waivers allow these districts to opt out of NCLB accountability measurements and instead be measured by a new accountability organization called California Office to Reform Education. This organization has been given permission to base 20% of school performance on culture and climate factors measured by student and parent surveys.

Here is a picture of the future in these districts. Think about every time you make a purchase and someone asks you to fill out a survey. Have you purchased a car recently and had the sales person and sales manager hound you for a positive survey result? This will now be in our classrooms with teachers and principals waving goodbye to students each day by saying, “Don’t forget to go home and give us a good rating.”

As a principal or teacher, what actions could cost you a good survey result? Suspending a student for defiance or other offence could reduce your positive rating from that parent or student. Giving difficult assignments could cause your approval rating to plummet. Telling parents they cannot move their students out of a class after the drop date will lower your customer satisfaction rate. Suggesting that students need to complete their work in order to raise their grades will put you down ten points in the polls.

People who are not teachers and administrators have never experienced and do not believe that parents and students react with tremendous emotion and personal bias to matters relating to school. It’s human nature. Kids are just kids and probably shouldn’t be calling the shots (remember Lord of the Flies). Parents are protecting their cubs. Political hype over the last fifteen years has led them to believe that school is a high stakes battleground where their kids’ lives will be made or broken.

I think that we forget that it isn’t the system of education that produces successful adults. Education is one component along with family and community. The purpose of education is to gain knowledge and the tools to produce knowledge. Knowledge is only gained by study, sometimes difficult and taxing study. Studying is never going to rate high in anyone’s survey, and because of that it is a real possibility that these schools will gravitate towards activities that will produce good ratings and not much knowledge.

We must choose what we measure and rank carefully because given any target to hit schools may take unexpected paths to meet that goal. Recently in our county there was a dramatic increase in in-house suspensions. This means that a student’s consequence for a behavior offence is removal from his regular classroom and placement somewhere on campus away from his or her normal classes. The student is supposed to complete school assignments during this isolation and is therefore still technically attending school. What was unusual was the number of these types of suspensions. Previously the same offences had resulted in traditional suspension. Many factors could have played a part in the rise of in-house suspension, but one possible factor was that the local newspaper took it upon themselves to develop a ranking of the public schools in our county (like US News). Twenty-five percent of that ranking was based on truancy and suspension data reported by the state about each school. Principals and district personnel were lauded for a top ranking and thus incentivized to move away from the suspensions that affected rankings to suspensions that were not reported to the state. There is nothing wrong with in-house suspension, nor traditional suspension for that matter. It is just that the choice among various behavioral consequences should be determined by factors other than how it will affect the rankings. Similarly, judging schools based on anything other than what students actually learn is bound to produce unintended negative consequences.

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