Opinion
Accountability Opinion

Giving Excellence a ‘D': When School-Accountability Grades Fail

By Justin Minkel — April 22, 2015 9 min read
Students at Jones Elementary in Springdale, Ark.

What grade would you give Jones Elementary, the school where I work?

Consider the following data:

  • Ninety-seven percent of the children at Jones live in poverty, and 85 percent are English-language learners. Despite these obstacles, the school had the highest literacy growth in the entire district on the state’s 2014 benchmark test: 78 percent. In the eight previous years, proficiency in literacy soared from 26 percent to 73 percent. Individual student growth on the computerized MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) test is consistently strong in both reading and math.
  • This year Jones Elementary was one of five schools in the nation profiled by the U.S. Department of Education in recognition of its strong academic growth, effective use of data, ethos of collaboration among teachers, and support services like a school-based community health clinic, three pre-K classrooms, and a breakfast program where every child eats every morning.
  • Despite such a high-poverty student population, staff turnover is virtually zero percent. Five teachers at Jones hold certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and two teachers are finalists this year for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching. Each year, 10 interns from the University of Arkansas master’s degree program in ele-mentary education are placed with master teachers at Jones. Principal Melissa Fink, who is one of a handful of school leaders completing the Master Principal Institute at the Arkansas Leadership Acad-emy, was recently tapped as one of 15 principals in the nation to advise the U.S. Department of Education.
  • Jones Elementary regularly hosts visitors from around the state and nation who want to learn from its success in teaching high-poverty English Learners. The school is a state model for Cognitively Guided Instruction in math. This week a film crew from ASCD, an association specializing in educational leadership and professional development, will tape a video series in several classrooms for national use. During the same week, an education professor from Sweden will visit the school to learn from its strengths.

I have taught at this remarkable school for the past 11 years. Before you decide on our final grade, consider these first-hand accounts, too.

  • Every year I see children at the school become more creative, compassionate, curious human beings as a result of the teaching and support services they experience at Jones.

    One example of the school’s culture: A few years ago, one of our students was sexually assaulted by her stepfather and was placed in an institution in another city. The student had made remarkable progress at our school, including two years of reading growth in a single year in 2nd grade. She had become happier and more confident. She had begun smiling again.

    Our principal wanted to make sure our teachers, counselor, and nurse could continue meeting the child’s many needs, so she called the facility to make sure she would come back to our school when she was released. The director of the facility was quiet a moment, then said, “In 17 years in this job, I have never had a school try to get a student back. Usually, given all the behavioral problems these kids have, schools want to make sure a child will be sent somewhere else.”

    The student returned to Jones the next year. She’s now in middle school and has plans to go to college and become a nurse.

  • Our school supports individual students, but we also support their families. We host regular parent literacy nights, we implemented a family literacy program that involves parents learning English alongside their children, and we recently started a Parent University to address community needs, including the prevention of gang violence.
  • Our school’s vision is to help children “live the lives they dream.” While our students display impressive growth on standardized tests, we also focus on 21st-century and non-cognitive skills: creativity, integration of technology with higher-order thinking, persistence, and collaboration. Students leave Jones Elementary as strong readers, writers, mathematicians, and scientists, but they also leave our school as strong thinkers, engineers, and problem-solvers, not to mention kinder and happier human beings.

Formula Fail

So: What do you think of us? What grade would you give our high-poverty, high-performing public school?

The reason I ask is that the Arkansas Department of Education, acting on new state legislation that requires each school to receive a letter grade, recently awarded us a “D.”

Why, you might ask. Well, in my view, the formula used to come up with the school grades contains flaws that range from the subtle to the profound.

Too much attention is given to overall proficiency and too little to growth. As a result, schools with more affluent populations look like they’re doing better than they are, while schools with high poverty or high numbers of English-learners look like they’re doing worse.

The formula does look at the gap between students with particular needs (high poverty, English-learners, children in special education) and students without those needs. Our school had no such gap, which is rightly considered a good thing.

But in a bizarre wrinkle, our school has so few students without some type of special need—fewer than 20 of our 500+ students, most of them children of Jones teachers who choose to send their own sons and daughters to our school—that we got no points for closing the gap. If we were just 80 percent high-poverty instead of 97 percent, we would have done better on the state’s formula.

Misplaced Priorities

The goal of all education policy should be to improve schools for students. Policymakers should pay particular attention to the needs of children living in poverty, who have to rely most desperately on schools to break that cycle.

In reality, of course, policymaking in the No Child Left Behind era often penalizes children living in poverty. State legislators and data analysts may have thought that giving our school a failing grade would make us work harder (hardly possible), or take a closer look at our students who are below grade level (as if we weren’t already doing that). Maybe they thought they were giving families greater school choice by creating an incentive to leave Jones Elementary for a school with an A or B grade.

Here’s what happened instead:

  • The “D,” reported in the local newspaper, felt like gut punch to every teacher and staff member who works at our school. It made a very difficult job that much harder. No teacher at Jones believes that poverty is destiny. We are committed to ensuring that our students make enough growth to reach and surpass proficiency. But when you elicit greater growth than schools with more affluent students, despite the daunting obstacles that poverty brings, you don’t expect to be publicly labeled a failure.
  • The grade labeled Jones Elementary a failure at least in the eyes of those who don’t know the school firsthand, adding stigma to a neighborhood already afflicted by poverty. It has created a potential disincentive for talented teachers and principals to consider working at the school in the future.
  • For those of us who regularly partner in good faith with legislators and policymakers to better serve children, our trust in their judgment and intentions has been profoundly shaken.

Just to be clear, we are always willing to listen to constructive criticism and work to become better. Given how many children and families depend on us, we know it’s not enough to do an exceptional job; we need to improve upon excellence every year.

We welcome input from anyone—legislators, policymakers, members of the public—who can help us get better at our work. But to have years of dedication, expertise, and accomplishments reduced to a “D” on the basis of an arbitrary evaluation makes you question whether those who should be supporting your work will ever see you clearly.

A Question of Credibility

So whose credibility has been eroded by this failing grade?

Families at our school know that we do an exceptional job of teaching their children, meeting their health needs (we even send backpacks of food home each weekend so students won’t go hungry), and ensuring the safety of every child in our care.

Teachers at our school know we have the great fortune of working with dedicated colleagues who care deeply about children and work to become better every year.

Partners, including the University of Arkansas, Scholastic Books, foundations, and businesses like Farmers Insurance (which awarded one of five $100,000 grants in the country to our school for a home library initiative this year), all see our strengths. They witness the remarkable student learning happening every hour of every day of every year, and they are a part of it.

So whose abilities, judgment, and intentions have been called into question as a result of this grade?

In my view, it’s state legislators who passed the school-grading bill. And the data analysts who created a formula that can draw such distorted conclusions about school performance. And the policymakers and think tanks who have still not learned, after 15 years of failed policy, a proven point:

Publicly shaming schools that serve high-poverty students—including those that elicit greater academic growth than schools with affluent populations—is a terrible strategy to improve outcomes for the children who need high-quality schools most.

Earning Trust

Schools need data. We need high standards. We need accountability, so long as that accountability is balanced with autonomy for teachers, administrators, and school systems with a proven record of professionalism and academic achievement.

Grading systems like the new Arkansas formula undermine these core elements of education reform. They hurt students by driving away talented teachers and leaders. Those of us who teach in high-poverty schools are often willing to work harder for less pay on behalf of students who need more. But we are not willing to add public stigma to that lopsided equation.

There is no group of talented professionals I would rather work with than my colleagues at Jones Elementary. We collaborate daily, using our collective strengths to address our weaknesses. We support each other, and we push one another to become better teachers every year.

We give our days and hours to the children we teach, and we love the work. Our job is often exhausting, but it is also renewing, because we have the great honor of teaching such remarkable little human beings.

They place their trust in us, and we do all in our power to earn that trust.

We will never fail the brilliant, funny, courageous students in our care. But the system that gave our school a failing grade has failed every one of these children abysmally by sending the message that their remarkable growth constitutes failure. They deserve better.

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