Thursday, December 19, 2019

School Report Cards CAN Have a Happy Ending

This year’s unveiling of the ‘new and improved’ school report cards always creates the same knot in my stomach it has for nearly a decade. I understand some kind of school measure is a federal requirement...but I hate all the metrics that rely on testing data. And now the attendance measure has hit a special nerve. 

As I’ve said, I have history with this process. March 19, 2012 found the Board Room at OSDE packed to the gills. I saw a sign-in sheet and dutifully signed, then found a seat. The Spring Break morning was blustery and we were there for public comments. Much smarter folks than I shared their concerns and frustrations as a tape recorder (I kid you not!) whirled. My name was called. Little did I know, the sign-in sheet was a speaker’s list. I had written a message that I’d delivered to the superintendent and any other office that was open, so I dragged up my last copy and read. I used the name of the ancient heroine Cassandra, who, according to Aeschulus, was cursed to forever tell the truth and to never be believed. And here I am, seven years later, stifling my ‘I told you so!!’

So, this year, before I even studied the data when it was released, I was upset. I wasn’t the only one. Responses from educator leaders started pouring in. Rob Miller, Superintendent of Bixby Schools and Dr. John Thompson, retired teacher and school historian, are much more analytic than I am, and spoke up. More response in this Daily Oklahoman article. I will quote Superintendent Joy Hofmeister below. 

Teachers are, indeed, the most influential factor of student learning IN SCHOOL. That still is a small percentage of student learning. But we use test scores a straight achievement number, and one a ‘growth’ number. From what I understand, at least the growth measures the same students’ scores. But graduation (for secondary) and postsecondary opportunities? Attendance? We cannot control those. I spent weeks calling one student every morning to wake him up and get him to school. It worked. Until it didn’t. And now my school would be graded on what? My efforts to get my student up and dressed and to school? 

So, in this seething state, I browsed FaceBook and saw a post by my friend, Sandra Valentine. I’d noticed her response was more nuanced than my unfocused anger. Her question: 

Sandra works with schools and teachers to finesse the data and make changes to their curriculum. I know from experience, she understands our state standards and education issues. I was interested in joining the conversation, sooo...

I unloaded (shocking, I know). “Full funding. A revamped report card that reflects those variables under schools' and teachers' control.” But, truly, that is my wish list. I’ve talked about accountability and what is and is not within the control of classroom teachers and schools before. Sandra, as is her practice, asked probing questions to get me past that first anger...we had a spirited back-and-forth until she wrote: 

“For example, if the community looked at the chronic absenteeism and decided to say, like we have in Shawnee, more “Mom Transits” that would be helpful.

Until then it looks like a big stain on our schools. It doesn’t serve the purpose of here’s a problem, oh I didn’t know this problem existed, let’s come up with ways to help instead of hinder, brainstorm, brainstorm, bam, what once was a blemish is now a community commitment to get things going in the right direction.”

For me that was the nudge I needed to totally pivot my thinking.” It came in a flash as I reflected on Sandra’s words...we need to flip the entire conversation about school grades. These descriptions reflect the community in which schools are embedded. Even test scores are a community matter...what can families do to raise achievement? What kind of community support do they need to accomplish it? Questions swirled in my head.

And that brings us to this question...what if school report cards were straight descriptive, with no evaluative grades? Just statements of the needs of a particular school? And what if the next step was a community meeting with all investigate the needs and brainstorm ways they could address needs? Public transportation routes? Public library access? More Big Brothers Big Sisters? What do our schools need from their communities? What can communities offer to their schools? 

That changes the conversation from: Rotten schools. Rotten teachers.

Now the conversation could be: Here are the needs. How can we contribute to addressing those needs with the resources we have at hand?

Interestingly enough, we both saw a short op-ed in the
Daily Oklahoman by Mary Melon. She brings up in passing the same idea we’re batting around...what if report cards were descriptive instruments, not evaluative? “Educators and the community can use this tool as part of the evaluation, along with many other measures. Knowing where you are is a critical part of determining the plan to get where you want to be. Finding common ground and changing the narrative about public education is the only way to truly make progressive change for our kids.”

So. Let’s flip this conversation. There is descriptive data in the reports. Let’s use it...convene groups of stakeholders. Let’s dig into the data and see, first what those descriptions mean to us as a community, and then how can we bring resources to the conversation?

Let’s ignore the letter grade that is supposed to be so informative. It’s not. It’s pejorative. It’s inflammatory. It’s abused by uninformed critics and reformers with their own agenda.

Let’s bring students and parents and teachers and administrators, AND city council members, AND Chamber of Commerce representatives. Let’s bring business owners, higher education representatives, technology center educators. Let’s bring them together to discuss the descriptions in the data.

For example, one of my favorite schools, an alternative high school for students who are struggling with many issues in their lives, got an “F” on “Postsecondary Opportunities.” This is measured by the state of ‘beyond high school’ resources available to high school students: industry certification, college preparation coursework (including AP), dual/concurrent enrollment, or work-based internships. Dimensions Academy ‘earned’ .2 points out of a possible ten. My first thought was, “well, duh! Some of these kids are struggling to stay warm and fed. Some have extra jobs to support a family. Some are working to recover credits to graduate.” There are too many reasons Dimensions Academy students might not be focused on POST graduation opportunities. That is a description of the challenges...

But rather than rail against the unfairness of the grade, what if that group of stakeholders could look at the description: students at Dimensions Academy are surviving in the moment -- how can WE support them and welcome them into the community of post-high school? Could we offer job shadowing? Internships for credit? What resources do we have to help? 

What if the community looked at attendance data and pooled resources...public transportation? Car pooling? After school care? What other creative solutions could be discussed by experts in their own fields, looking at ways they could contribute to their neighborhood schools? One community discovered that installing washers and dryers at school actually improved student attendance. Kids didn’t have clean clothes to wear to school, so they stayed home. But one community looked at that information and together found a creative way to contribute!
That ought to be the conversation. How can we help? Where can we fit our skills into the needs of our community public schools? What do we, as a community, have to offer our schools and students and teachers? How can we successfully partner to lift our schools?

Each school’s story. Oklahoma’s indicators and grades help tell each school’s story. More importantly, I think the community needs to look at what those indicator scores tell in that story.”

Superintendent Joy Hofmeister says it right there...Report cards are detailed, nuanced stories of each school in Oklahoma. Its strengths, its needs. Not hammers to blame, judge, attack. 

But for many the happy ending is up to all of us working together.