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Perspectives in Education- Part 16: Transparency and What To Do With It

The Carrot, the Stick, Nurturing and Tough Love

There are a few things both sides of the educational reform debate agree upon and one of them is accountability in the educational process. However, accountability means little without transparency. This includes not only funding, but also student outcomes and performance, how schools compare to others in the area or throughout the state or nationally and a host of other metrics. Most of the differences between conservatives and liberals is in what should be done with that transparency. The result has been the creation of the so-called “school report cards.” Anyone with access to the Internet can go online and see how their child’s school compares on a statewide basis and against national norms.

Increasingly, these reports are used for two main purposes, although they were originally intended for a third, more important purpose. The first recognized purpose is for state policy makers to make informed decisions with respect to educational reform measures. They help state departments of education to pinpoint exceptional, average and poor performance districts and then investigate the dynamics of what works and what does not work. Unfortunately, this often translates into a fund allocation program- the legacy of years and years of liberal responses to failing schools. The second and most-often used purpose is for individual schools to recognize where they are doing well or bad in certain areas and at certain grades. This can lead to a host of remedial actions such as retraining teachers, establishing special classrooms, adjusting the curriculum to meet shortfalls, hiring of remedial specialists, etc. Conversely, for the better performers, it can be used for advanced placement designation or the design of programs to push quick learners ahead and basically continuing to do what is successful.

The third and most important purpose of school report cards is to inform parents of how their school is performing and how their children performed against the school, state, and national norms specific to their grade level and the subject tested. Often, these come in the mail, looked at and then discarded with a host of junk mail and advertisements. It is doubtful that many parents actually act upon those notifications other than perhaps a passing, talk with their child. The child will inevitably put forth a host of excuses for the poor performance ranging from test anxiety, a hot classroom, or stupid teachers. Regardless, absent some options for parents, these report cards are obligatory notifications. Every state has some form of the report card which was required under NCLB. In some states, they are more informative than others while in other states, like Florida, they are simplistic with an “A” to “F” designation. But what about the individual student? Does a student who excels exceptionally in a school being designated an “F” make that student an “A” student or a “C” student? That is the reason the individual is compared against national or state norms expressed as “percentiles.”

There are variety of policy decisions at the state level that can be derived from these report cards. This article will look at some of those options. Eventually, they boil down to the “carrot and stick” dichotomy- do we reward the good schools and punish the punish the bad schools? Instead of that dichotomy, this writer likes to think of it as the “nurturing parent” versus the “tough love parent.” In this scenario, the state rewards the exceptional schools while creating incentives for the other average schools to adopt programs that work at these exceptional schools. At some point, these incentives may cease to work in which case the state has to adopt some tough love methods. These can run the gamut from the state taking over the school and replacing the teachers to providing more money to actually closing the school, or converting it to a charter school.

Because states are and rightfully should be the drivers in educational reform methods, they have adopted a variety of tools over the years to deal with these realities. As a result, we can look at how some of these methods play out. For example, some 37 states have adopted a program where schools are rewarded for average or above average performance. Looking at the 4th grade level, which incorporates elementary school, on only the math and literacy portions of the NEAP (or its state equivalent) and also at the eighth grade, which incorporates middle school education, this analysis will use those grades going forward. For high schools, the graduation rate- the primary purpose of a high school education- will be the basic metric. In some areas, SAT scores, an indicator of college readiness, will be used. For those states that reward the good schools, there is absolutely no difference at either the 4th grade level (230.8 to 230.7) or eighth grade level (273.9 to 273.2). For high schools, the graduation rate for rewarded schools is 5.1 percentage points higher. Similar results are seen at these grade levels for states with programs that provide additional financial assistance to poor performing schools. This clearly indicates that the traditional money solution is not always effective at improving bad schools. For states that provide options for state sanctions against poor schools, we do see a difference at the elementary and middle school levels. Fourth grade scores are 6 points higher and 8th grade scores are likewise 6 points higher, but graduation rates show no difference. Thus, the mere threat of sanctions- “tough love”- seem to improve performance at the lower grade levels.

When we get to specifics, however, things change. The sanctions most often used are school closings (18 states), reconstitution of the teaching staff (30 states), converting public schools to charter schools (18 states), allowing transfer to another public school (15 states), privatized school management (22 states), or withholding funds to some degree (only 5 states). But, guess what? Even when those options are available and the threat of sanctions- the tough love/stick option- is available, performance in these states show either no difference or a negative difference. This would lead one to conclude that unlike real children who do not respond to threats and do respond to action, schools respond to threats but not actual actions. The method that showed the most promise- and even then it was not significant- was the privatization of school management. One can further conclude that consistency in state enforcement likely plays a great role. When poor performance schools are designated, they are generally given a specific time period in which to improve. If not, even then enforcement is piecemeal and inconsistent. One can read stories of how an entire school’s staff in a particular school district was terminated and new teachers brought in- an example of reconstitution- but that example is the rare exception to the norm. Besides, we have years of data on individual schools that indicate that poor performing schools today were likely the same culprits in the past. Perhaps, threats without consistent enforcement is not the way to go.

The solution would be to have these hosts of sanctions available to states with more rapid and consistent enforcement by the state. This would be coupled with a reward system where the good K-8 schools would be left alone and the good public high schools rewarded for increasing academic achievement and graduation rates. However, because schools would be chasing economic resources, the threat of fraud and gaming the system would need to be guarded against. Thus was the case in certain well-publicized examples of schools cheating on the reporting of test scores, coaching of students during tests, and other fraudulent actions. It could also lead to a “dumbing down” of standards required for graduation or specific course workloads. In effect, it would lead to a teaching of the basics required to achieve a certain prescribed level on a test and teaching to the test. I have seen teaching to the test at all grade levels in language arts, math and science. It leads to a boring, rote curriculum where the student temporarily shows proficiency with respect to what is tested. However, a subject like math builds upon previous knowledge as one advances in grades. Soon after the test is taken, the student “forgets” what was learned to pass that test and the result is a certain degree of “review” and remedial actions the following year. In science, for example, electrical circuits are an inevitable question on an 8th grade test. A teacher may spend up to a month of instruction on electricity and circuits because they know there may be a question or two on the state test come April. Also, it has been my experience that after the test, teachers react in one of two diametrically opposed ways. They either “dumb down” the remainder of the year in an endless series of reviews, or they suddenly pick up instructional and academic rigor. This latter option is usually justified as giving the student a head start on what they will need to know for the 10th grade test in science.
In language arts, instead of a well-rounded curriculum, it is generally geared towards the test including strategies on test-taking and practice in that area including timed tests to prompts so that the student can learn to “pace themselves” come state test time.

One of the unfortunate outcomes and probably one that partially explains why the United States lags behind other industrialized countries in math and science is that strict adherence to state standards actually holds back some students at various grade levels. That is, the individual schools teach to that standard or requirement and nothing more. Nowhere is this seen more vividly than in the elementary and middle school treatment of science. It is nothing more than a hodgepodge of exposure to a variety of scientific principles, subjects and disciplines. For example, in New Jersey second grade, students learn about types of life forms and ecosystems, geology, recycling and ecology, and the planetary system. Hence, a second grader is exposed to biology, ecology, geology and astronomy in a single year where none of them are given the proper treatment they deserve. And in the upper grades, like 8th grade, no sooner are they done learning about mitosis (and generally confused), but they then move on to electricity or energy systems. In the end, they learn a little about everything and a lot about nothing. And the reasoning for this method is simple- “It is on the test.”

State standards are certainly a must lest any district or school just go about the motions. However, getting back to the subject at hand- transparency and what to do with it vis-a-vis school report cards- the system adopted by Florida where schools are assigned a grade of A through F, just as students are, is the most understandable and least complicated method. At the level of the parent/student, however, it is nothing but a piece of paper mailed to a household every year often discarded with other less-important mail. Providing parents and students with this information is “feel good” legislation and solves nothing unless parents or students have the means to do something with that information. It may very well be that a school receives an “F” but the child performs 5 times better than the state average, or at the level of an “A” or “B” student at an “A” school. In that case, the parent/student would have little incentive to exercise any options available to them. But, if the student is a “C” student at an “F” school, then obviously they are not getting all they can from that school’s educational process and they could possibly do better elsewhere- either another public or even a private school. Yet, absent a vibrant private educational option or the financial means to try it, they remain stuck. Not only must parents and students be armed with knowledge of their school’s performance, they must also be armed with the means to do something about it. States can only do much to pressure failing schools and even then the data is ambiguous in its effectiveness. Instead, states partnering with parents would most likely be the best method of improving academic achievement. The states provide the information to make informed decisions along with some financial stipend while the parents/students act on that information with their feet if necessary. When public school enrollment begins to decline along with the money that goes along with it, only then will public schools finally get truly serious about necessary reforms.

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