RELEASE of A through F grades for state schools has led to some creative thinking. Sadly, much of that creativity has been expended explaining away bad grades rather than improving school performance.
The latest example comes from an Oklahoma Policy Institute guest blog authored by Jonathan Willner, an economics professor at Oklahoma City University. Willner says “multivariate regression” analysis reveals “that a good part of what is being graded is the parents” and that it's merely “convenient to blame the schools.”
Well, yes, it is convenient to blame schools for the educational product they produce — sort of like it's convenient to blame Ford when its Pinto model explodes on impact. And convenient to blame the restaurant if a meal gives you food poisoning. In fact, it's convenient and correct to assign blame for product or service failure on those in charge of providing them.
If public schools don't exist to educate children, regardless of family background, then many citizens may wonder why we're pouring billions of taxpayer dollars into the public school system. We know your students are doomed to fail, but here's a few million anyway, just for kicks?
The state report cards for schools focus on student achievement, overall student growth, improvement of lowest-quartile students and whole school performance, which includes factors such as student attendance, graduation rates, advanced coursework, school climate surveys, and parent and community engagement.
Willner claims “a significant part” of the grade developed using those factors “is driven by the socio-economic condition of the parents of the children in the school.” He says his analysis was able to accurately predict 57 percent of school grades based on socio-economic factors.
That may sound compelling at first glance, but it means Willner failed to predict 43 percent of school grades. He admits missing the mark for more than 700 schools. That's pretty telling and indicates some schools are doing well in spite of poor student demographics while other middle-class schools are underperforming.
The point of the A-F grades is to highlight successes and failures, thereby encouraging poor-performing schools to emulate the approaches used by higher-achieving counterparts. The beauty of the system is that everyone understands A-F grades and can easily make apples-to-apples comparisons — which parents are now doing. Notably, Willner and similar critics never felt the need to attack the old Academic Performance Index for schools, which the public largely ignored.
No one denies that children from stable homes with active parental involvement and middle-class income generally have a leg up on other students. But that doesn't mean we should dismiss low-income children from broken homes as being destined for academic failure. A major reason we have a public school system is specifically to provide educational opportunity to those students so they don't have to struggle as adults.
“With few exceptions,” Willner writes, “schools do not get to choose the parents of their students.” True, but a more common complaint is that a child's public school choice is determined by geography, not quality. That's why many parents, including struggling single parents, make great effort to ensure they live in a good school district to increase their children's chances of success. It's clear that parents disregard those who claim demographics are destiny and school management irrelevant when it comes to students' educational outcomes.
State policymakers should do the same.