JUDGING by a recent hearing at the state Education Department, grading schools isn't such a popular idea. But then again, that's the sort of response one would expect from a public hearing.
People don't typically flock to such hearings — especially not one held during spring break — to tell pubic officials what a great job they're doing. The hearings are a forum for people to share their thoughts, in this case on the rules governing a letter-based grading system soon to take effect. And share they did.
Educators in Oklahoma have made it loud and clear that they're uncomfortable and sometimes downright mad about the direction of education reform in the state. They were none too thrilled when some of the reform proposals met with legislative approval last year or when the state's No Child Left Behind waiver was approved. They're even less happy now that the reforms are weeks away from becoming reality.
Educators should offer their critique of school reform measures. Their input matters. Unfortunately, public education advocates in Oklahoma do a shockingly poor job of stating their case in a way that resonates with policymakers. Shouting “fire” with every new proposal is not effective. People stop listening. Even worse, the voices of reason presenting detailed and valid concerns are drowned out.
Educators have some valid concerns about some of the reforms, including an A-F letter-based grading system. Policymakers at the Capitol and lower down the food chain should listen, even if it means sorting through the rhetoric to get at core concerns.
But here's what we'd urge policymakers, educators and especially parents to remember about a letter-grade system: It will never be inclusive of all that parents should or do consider when making school decisions.
The system is designed to include a variety of factors to arrive at the letter grade. Test scores are a major factor along with graduation and dropout rates, attendance and participation in advanced courses. The goal is to give parents and taxpayers better information about how a school is performing. It certainly has the potential to be an improvement over the existing Academic Performance Index.
But one lesson learned from No Child Left Behind is that the criteria educators and policymakers think is important isn't always in line with the information parents deem critical. When Oklahoma parents had the opportunity to transfer from poor-performing schools to better schools, few did so even though schools had to provide transportation.
Districts are partly to blame because they haven't always done a great job of informing parents of their options, or they only allowed parents to choose from “better” schools that were only a marginal improvement. But parents also consider other factors that aren't typically accounted for in school grading systems. Some want a particular curriculum. Others are influenced by real or perceived safety issues. Some want their children close to home, work or perhaps grandma. Some go to church with or otherwise know the teachers or principal at a school.
Public schools haven't historically needed to sell themselves, but they better get comfortable with the idea. Schools are more than an index number or a letter grade — just as their students are. The sooner they embrace the opportunity for greater inward reflection and to make their case to parents and the public, the better off students will be.