Those of us who advocate for public schools tend to blame outside forces when we lament the move to grading schools on an A-to-F scale. In Indiana, we may blame former Gov. Mitch Daniels, former state Superintendent Tony Bennett, state legislators, business groups and others.
But public schools and school districts have helped validate this questionable policy. When they brag about their own grades, they’re endorsing the system as a measure of school quality.
Some of what they’re doing is old-fashioned public relations. At a time when public education is under attack, schools and districts can point to high grades to defend their reputation. “See?” they’re saying. “Our schools aren’t ‘failing’ like some of those public schools you hear about.”
And as public schools compete for students with charter schools and private schools, they are likely trumpet any endorsement they get. After all, charter schools are doing it – for example, here and here and here.
Most Indiana schools earn A-to-F grades on a formula that gives equal weight to performance and growth on standardized tests. But schools in their first three years of operation – most of which are new charter schools and Indianapolis or Gary “innovation network” schools – can have their grades calculated on growth only, with no consideration of performance. Those schools have an advantage.
As Dylan Peers McCoy of Chalkbeat Indiana pointed out, it means you can’t use the grades to compare schools in a district like IPS. “Of the 11 out of 70 Indianapolis Public Schools campuses that received A marks from the state,” she wrote, “eight were graded based on growth alone.”
So why not grade all schools on growth only, not performance? It seems like that would make a lot of sense. In any given year, schools may not have a lot of control over where their students start out in their math and reading performance. What matters is, do schools help students grow?
Last week’s election results were mostly positive for education. Not entirely – there were definitely a few missed opportunities. But the news was more good than bad.
Close to home, voters in the Indianapolis Public Schools district approved a referendum to raise property taxes and increase school funding by $272 million over eight years. Most of the money will go to operating expenses, including long-overdue teacher raises; some will fund building improvements.
This is a big deal. IPS has struggled for years with declining enrollment and reduced state funding. Officials were reluctant to try to raise property taxes for fear voters would shoot down the measure. The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce first called for a smaller increase, then got on board.
Around the state, eight school funding referendums were approved and four were turned down. That’s a worse success rate than schools have achieved in recent years, as officials have become more cautious and savvy in asking for tax increases. In May, voters approved 12 of 12 referendums.
Nikole Hannah-Jones had a blunt message for the largely well-educated and politically liberal audience that she addressed Thursday night in Bloomington, Indiana. Go home, she said. Look in the mirror. Reflect on the decisions you make about your child’s schooling.
Ask if they serve the common good or if they benefit your child at the expense of other children.
“To believe in equality is not enough,” she said. “Your beliefs don’t help a single child.”
Hannah-Jones, a New York Times Magazine writer and 2017 MacArthur genius award recipient, spoke to several hundred people in the Buskirk-Chumley Theater in a lecture sponsored by several Indiana University organizations and the Indiana Coalition for Public Education.
She promised at the start that her talk would not be “uplifting.” It wasn’t. It was about tearing down the illusions of people who think they can in good conscience enroll their children in mostly white, low-poverty schools and avert their eyes from segregation that harms poor children and children of color.
“It’s not good enough to have a Black Lives Matter sign in your yard if you make decisions about your child that harm other children,” she said.