Notes from the Small Town Underground

How to Help Our Schools Make the Grade

No doubt the NC General Assembly intended their new A-F grading system for our K-12 schools to be another nail in their “schools are broken” coffin, but to their credit the schools are not taking this lying down. They have correctly pointed out that a grade giving predominant weight (80%) to students’ performance on standardized test scores is not a true reflection of a school’s overall performance, given that a student’s academic growth over a school year is hardly taken into account, nor does it factor in societal conditions that schools must contend with beyond academics, inconvenient truths such as poverty, hunger and broken families. Upon release of the grades, the schools are doing what they do best, using the new grades as a teaching lesson for their communities. They point out that if a particular school received a D or F grade it invariably indicates the school’s predominant low-income population, and they have been busy creating alternative grading formulas that show their schools in a much more positive light. That the General Assembly gave little credence to our schools and the Department of Public Instruction when coming up with this grading formula is an outrage and a testament to their willfully ignorant policymaking regarding education, and yet I’m not sure the schools quite understand that by protesting so mightily and deriving alternative grades they are playing into the GA’s hands and reinforcing their “schools are broken” mantra. What those of us trying to make sense of all this  back and forth need to understand is that it shouldn’t be entirely left to the schools and their staffs to fight for our public education system that is currently under attack. That burden falls on us, the parents of school age children and the communities that decline or thrive depending on the quality of education our schools produce.

Let’s just agree at the outset that these grades are crap and move on. A single grade is no more a reflection of a school’s worth than a single standardized test score is an indication of a particular child’s life potential. Anyone who has spent any time at all in our schools and has witnessed all that takes place there on any given day knows this only too well. We’ll give the GA this: we all want our schools to be accountable for our children’s education, but needless to say there are better ways to go about it, if the GA wasn’t so hellbent on predetermining their own conclusions. Parents are unlikely to base their assessment of a school’s value based on the overall proficiency of its students, whether broken out into subgroups (a legacy of No Child Left Behind) or lumped together into one grade. Instead, they are going to measure that worth based on how well their own child is doing, the strength of the teachers and the responsiveness of principal and staff to their child’s needs. School scores have always been a moving target. How many times have we seen our schools’ scores dip whenever standardized tests are “renormed” to incorporate new standards? And we’re told the same thing will happen with the A-F formula that next year will use a ten-point scale instead of the current fifteen, which could lower some school grades even more.

All this fretting over grades misses the point anyway. Any educator will tell you that test scores are assessments that measure how well a student is doing in a particular subject at that point in time. As an assessment, the score is used to pinpoint what supports or interventions a student may need to help her better master her subject. Instead, in our market-driven society we have perverted the scores to be the end-all, be-all of a student and school’s overall performance, the bottom-line indicator of whether a school lives or dies. That may work in business where the company has the ultimate say-so in who it hires and fires, but public schools have NO choice but to accept EVERY child, no matter where they are academically or what circumstances they come from. To think that every child can achieve at the same level, or that a single grade accurately captures the myriad of life circumstances within a single school, is absurd. Just like No Child Left Behind’s proficiency scores, the GA’s A-F grades, therefore, become punitive, no matter how many times the GA claims otherwise. Just ask yourself, when was the last time a school that had been identified as low-performing received the additional funds, materials and better teachers it needed? Instead, the state talks with a big stick in terms of turnaround and takeover.

Since the school’s grades were released on February 6, our three school systems in Catawba County have been busy putting out their counter-message, letting their constituents know that the state’s grades are a drastically simplified and imperfect measure of what goes on in their schools and their students’ performance. It’s only natural for our schools to defend themselves against poorly conceived accountability measures, but they fail to understand how this reflexive action only serves to heighten confusion and anxiety and further alienate their parents, as well as plays into the General Assembly’s own narrative of our schools being broken. After all, aren’t school staff PAID to defend their schools? Couldn’t their protests be used against them by the GA as self-serving defenses of their own livelihoods? They only further muddy the waters by coming up with their own formulas for grading their schools. Dr. Walter Hart, superintendent of Hickory Public Schools, and Dr. Dan Brigman, superintendent of Catawba County Schools, each released their alternate grades, described as “holistic” and devoid of “fluff.” Four schools (out of 9) in the HPS system improved by a letter grade, and, incredibly, all 27 schools in the CCS system received As and Bs. To see the problem with this tactic, just think back to your own time in grade school. How many times did you protest a bad grade a teacher had given you by claiming that if this, that and the other thing had been taken into account your grade would have been much better? This just leaves the GA an opening a mile wide to say, “See, the schools are just making excuses because they don’t like having the tables turned and being held accountable for the taxpayer dollars we give them.”

What the schools fail to realize is that there’s no winning an argument that pits them against the very body that determines its funding and standards. Meanwhile, the very constituents they are committed to serve – parents and their school age children – are left to figure things out for themselves. Rather than being able to discern which grading system most accurately measures their local schools’ performance, they tend to come away from these exchanges with the feeling that someone isn’t telling the truth. The only thing parents care about is that their children get the quality education that is mandated by our state constitution. Anything that calls the quality of their children’s education into question creates anxiety in parents, and anxious parents tend to vote with their feet. This, in turn, provides the justification for the GA’s introduction of market-driven forces into the public education system (vouchers and charter schools, for example) and gives parents the illusion of education as a buffet line where they get to pick and choose the best dishes for their child, choices that the majority of low-income families are not in a position to make and that only end up diverting taxpayer dollars into private (and unaccountable) coffers.

But schools are institutions, and institutions change slowly, one death at a time. If we as parents don’t like what’s happening to our schools after several successive years of draconian cuts, low teacher salaries and an overreliance on standardized test scores that no one gives any credence to, then it’s up to us, the “public” in our public education, to make the change that we want to see in our schools. This in and of itself is a daunting and long-term prospect – it behooves us to become more knowledgeable about what goes on in our schools and to take action in response to that information – but we really have no choice in the matter. Someone has to be the grownup in this situation, and it should be obvious to everyone we can’t count on that being the government or the schools when their first order of business is to protect what’s left of their systems at all costs, often at the expense of our children.

The first thing we need to understand is that truly taking charge makes this by definition a grassroots proposition, and this means, in turn, that in order for meaningful and substantive change to happen we must have all citizen hands on deck. Education is the beginning of the pipeline of human capital that feeds our economy in terms of those with sufficient education obtaining decent jobs that enable them to buy goods, pay taxes, live healthier lives and pass on the value of a quality education to their children, our next generation of leaders and productive citizens. If we don’t get the education piece right at an earlier and earlier age (beginning with preschool, which according to the GA, who took our nationally recognized preschool program from the auspices of Department of Public Instruction and put it under the Department of Health and Human Services, is glorified babysitting), the costs to remediate that skills gap becomes astronomical and burdens our communities with unsustainably high costs of social services, incarceration, poor public health and, yes, uninformed choices as to which political candidates to put into office. While our schools and government are at loggerheads, the community must step in to fill the leadership vacuum, and by community I don’t just mean parents of school age children but every single one of us who pay taxes, including businesses who benefit from education’s output through the skilled and qualified workers they are able to hire.

When we gather around the table, we should do so as “critical friends” of our schools. Critical in this sense has a two-fold meaning, a friend without whose help it is not possible to succeed and a friend who is committed to telling the schools not necessarily what it wants, but NEEDS, to hear. Granted, establishing this kind of trustful relationship can be difficult and take some time. As parents, it can be a challenge to fully understand the elements that go into a quality education, especially when the end goal of proficiency is an ever moving target. Confusing matters even further, it’s been my experience that we can’t always count on the schools to be forthcoming about their needs, for fear of appearing weak and less than authoritative. If we knew the formula for administering a quality education to every child, given all the extra-curricular circumstances our schools must contend with, we wouldn’t be having this debate. Therefore, schools and their communities need to establish relationships of trust, one where our schools acknowledge that they don’t have a lock on the answers and we assure them that they are not expected to. We’re partners building our communities together, regardless of the resources we are given to work with or circumstances that work against us. Can anyone think of a time when that hasn’t been the case?

Schools are not only correct to educate their communities about the elements of accountability that factor into a child’s education, but they are also the logical party to convene their community members. In this role they should take care not to approach these community meetings as self-promoting, feel-good exercises but to make them as productive for their constituents as possible. Otherwise, they are a colossal waste of time for all concerned and only serve to further erode the community’s confidence. It’s been pretty well established in the discussion around the A-F grades that rather than reflect a school’s educational output these grades highlight those schools with the greatest concentrations of poverty and thus with the greatest needs for additional resources. These grades do not reveal anything new about our poor and low-performing schools we didn’t already know. Schools should use their poorer schools’ grades as a way to put a spotlight on the needs of these schools, while refraining from talking about need only in terms of money, a resource that not everyone in the community has to give.

That said, everyone in the community IS capable of finding some way to lend their time and/or talents to the cause. This makes it incumbent on the schools to organize specific ways for the community to help around all three Ts – time, talent and treasure – with built-in ways to measure the success of these efforts (improved academic performance, reduced absenteeism, fewer behavioral incidents, etc.). Does this mean extra work and time for school staffs to prepare? Unfortunately, I don’t know any other way to create change except by doing something new and different, but this time and effort can be mitigated depending on the extent to which they involve the community, and the more work that is done on the front end of this process, the more it will pay off and require less effort down the road.

In addition to our schools and government, members of the community must also hold accountable two parties that typically get a pass in these discussions, businesses and parents. Because businesses are so heavily vested in the outcomes of our school systems for the skilled and qualified workforce they need to hire, and they have the means, they have the greatest opportunity to make a difference. To underscore their key role in education, business leaders need only do the math: our county is among the LOWEST in educational attainment and HIGHEST in the state in unemployment. Do they expect those trends to be reversed by making more cuts to our schools and refusing to pay our teachers what they’re worth? Business understands that certain investments must be made in order to generate profits, so why shouldn’t we make the necessary investments in our schools in order to produce the desired outcomes in student performance? If the state insists on taking away these needed resources, business should do whatever it can, working hand-in-hand with its community, to make up the difference.

We’ve all been bruised and battered by these recent economic storms, and businesses are struggling along with everybody else, but for too long business has equated the skills gaps of their applicants with the schools failing to do their jobs, without acknowledging that cutting back on their own training has shifted the burden for training on an already overwhelmed system. It may be convenient to blame the K-12 and higher education systems for not producing qualified candidates who can operate a specific make and model of machine or software, but it’s not education’s role to produce such specifically identified outcomes. Given how quickly technology evolves these days, for schools to attempt that would doom a particular curriculum to obsolescence before it ever got off the ground. Besides, that contradicts everything I’ve ever heard businesspeople say about the skills they need their employees to have: a decent work ethic, showing up to work on time, an ability to read and write, basic computer skills and knowing how to think creatively to solve problems and work as part of a team. Pretty basic stuff, right? By working together, schools and businesses can come to a common understanding of what a quality education entails and teach these broader sets of work-ready skills to our students, and then businesses can pick it up from there to train them on skills specific to their industry.

The only way for business to give more than lip service, or to provide more than token support, is to get involved in the schools. This really is not an unrealistic goal when the majority of our businesses’ employees are parents of school age children. Businesses can create internal policies that provide time or paid leave for their employees to be involved in the schools, while at the same time creating a mechanism for those employees to report back on the particular needs of the schools. This would provide our businesses with an excellent opportunity to model the same creative and critical thinking they desire in our students by devising ways to address these needs. However, this should always be done in partnership and coordination with the schools to make sure the solutions they and their employees come up with are not ones the schools do not need or have no way of utilizing.

The other party typically not held accountable for our schools’ success is our parents. We’re told that parents are our children’s first and best teacher, so who better to instill the value of education and to create the conditions at home that make it possible for them to learn? When the community rallies around a school, they need to drag the schools’ parents – kicking and screaming if necessary – in with them. And yet the community must recognize – not excuse – that today’s parents, particularly those from low-income and limited education backgrounds, present their own challenges that can stand in the way of this happening. Nearly three quarters of today’s parents are dual-income earners, meaning they both work, and often work more than one job, to put food on the table. Many of them are raising their children as single parents as well. These conditions are not the most conducive for being involved in their child’s education, but neither does this make it impossible, especially if the community communicates clearly with a single voice the expectations that apply to all parents.

Some parents are capable of doing more for their children than others, but surely everyone is capable of creating a quiet place in the home for the child to do homework, limiting the amount of television watched and making sure they go to bed at a decent hour. If for whatever reason they may not be aware of these basic parental responsibilities (perhaps they did not get that example from their own parents or had terrible experiences in school themselves), the schools can provide ways to educate them through parent meetings and other avenues. Parents within a school can also speak more directly to other parents by way of reinforcing the school’s message. Businesses that employ these parents can also reinforce the message, as well as make it possible with paid leave for them to attend school meetings, parent-teacher conferences and so on.

The role of facilitator, convener and coordinator of the community’s involvement in education will be an exceedingly difficult one for the schools to play. For too long, their mindset has been reactive rather than active, defensive rather than offensive. They will tell you in one breath that they are happy to have the community’s help, and in the other tell you that they don’t need it. Anyone who has spent any amount of time working with the schools, only to be held at arms’ length by the respective firewalls of superintendent, administrative staff, principals and teachers, all of whom give you a thousand regulatory or logistical reasons why a particular action can’t be taken, is familiar with this ambivalence. Nobody disputes that state standards and requirements can be onerous, but it’s one thing to be genuinely constricted by these requirements and quite another to use them as excuses for not attempting different courses of action that will ultimately benefit students.

School personnel with any seniority have seen their share of rules and regulations and standards come and go, along with superintendents and board members and elected officials. After so much of this, it’s easy to see how a mindset of forbearance sets in: whatever they may not like or agree with, this, too, shall pass. If enough personnel within a system or school develop this mindset, then you end up with a culture of mediocrity instead of excellence and true accountability. Perhaps one way to overcome this is for our schools to be more deliberate and insistent on identifying best practices within their system and spreading those to other teachers and schools. You’d think this would be commonplace, and the schools do occasionally talk about horizontal and vertical alignment and establishing professional learning communities (PLCs), but the reality of individual schools operating in silos is a far cry from the ideal.

Just as it’s untrue to say that great teachers are born not made, these best practices are not “owned” by any particular person. Schools must work to overcome the mediocre mind’s view of another’s accomplishments as alien, something that they’d never in a million years be able to achieve themselves. And yes, unpacking successful teaching practices, testing and implementing them, takes considerable time and is not always successful, but it seems the reward of having all schools, principals and teachers constantly exchanging ideas and learning from each other, keeping the best practices and discarding the others, would far outweigh the challenges. It’s easy to forget that this was the intent behind charter schools, which were originally set up to serve as laboratories for best practices (longer school days and years, for example) to be later introduced into the public schools, but that never happened. Could it be that schools, perhaps out of spite for having their money taken away from them, rejected any lessons to be learned from charter schools, leaving them an opening to position themselves as market alternatives? If the schools don’t start uncovering the many points of light hidden under bushels among their own staffs or even the community that supports them, they will only hasten their march toward fulfilling the GA’s “schools are broken” prophecy.

Recently, my wife and I came to the difficult decision that we could not afford to wait for our local schools to figure these things out in order to provide our children with the quality education they needed. While this was a very painful decision to make because it went against our ideals, it does not in any way mean that we don’t still support of our public education system in North Carolina. We do – unequivocally. We believe that the quality education we have the means to provide for our own children should be available for ALL children. We believe that the only efficient and equitable way to provide this service to all is through public education, not the marketplace that relies on creative destruction, churn and winners and losers. When our economy requires EVERY citizen to be educated beyond high school, we can no longer afford to have losers. Until our elected officials in the General Assembly take to heart government’s constitutionally mandated role in providing essential services like education for all citizens, not just the paymasters that put and keep them in office, we have no choice but to do this ourselves, up to and including exercising the accountability of our elected officials at the ballot box. My wife and I may have sent our children away to school, but we remain members of a community that depends on our local schools to produce creative thinkers, problem solvers, good workers and lifelong learners. As such we will continue to support and be involved in our local schools, which we can only hope will recognize and treat us and our fellow citizens as true partners, so that together we can improve upon the system that demonstrates through the productive lives of every successful student it is anything but broken.

One thought on “Notes from the Small Town Underground

  1. With your grassroots community and business input, the drive towards better education standards cannot fail, though as you say, it will take time. Throw local people at the problem, and with the right direction, their time, experience and heart will make a difference.

    Your discussion here prompted me to wonder more specifically how schools can better prepare for a very different future in the face of economic uncertainty; yes, we can go in and tutor Math and English skills, and they are measurable components for assessing educational improvement, but here are other areas where community and businesses can contribute, and where the positive outcomes will feed back into the local community creating resilience and well-being. https://www.transitionnetwork.org/ingredients/deepening/education-transition

    Like

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