Tuesday, August 2, 2011

School Accountability Ratings Are Misleading

Each morning, wanting to believe in our schools,
we take a leap of faith.

-Davis Guggenheim, Waiting for Superman

The TEA release of school and district Accountability Ratings for 2011 last week led to much hand-wringing in Texas.  The number of school districts rated 'academically unacceptable' jumped from 37 districts in 2010, to 88 in 2011; those rated 'exemplary' dropped from 241 to 61.  These drastic changes caused many to wonder what had happened.

The short answer is "nothing."

Many parents and community leaders were completely unaware that for the past two years districts had been masking performance results with something known as the Texas Projection Measure. The TPM allowed schools and districts to interpret TAKS results in some rather creative ways. While there is a formula one must follow to apply the TPM, essentially it permitted schools to deem students as 'passing' when they had actually failed the test, if the school 'projected' the student would pass in the future. I have heard several contorted arguments in support of the measure, but the bottom line is that the TPM was used to hide actual results of student testing.

Of course for those who have been paying attention, even higher test results are not necessarily encouraging, since it is no secret that many schools are 'teaching to the test.'  A friend of mine, who formerly taught in Leander ISD, described to me how her school paid for an expensive TAKS 'coach' to guide teachers in an attempt to boost results.  Teachers in that school spent as much as six weeks teaching nothing other than TAKS strategy.  The school did indeed boost results, but when the administration praised the staff and announced a celebration party, my friend quietly refused to participate. "We did not teach those kids anything," she says.  "We failed to educate them."  Not surprisingly this former teacher has chosen not to place her own children in public schools.

Standardized testing is an attempt to provide a measure of accountability for our schools, and accountability is essential.  These tests, however, do not address the fundamental problems with our current system. 

While it is certainly a worthy goal to provide educational opportunity for every American child, somewhere along the way we decided that there is a 'one-size-fits-all' model of education.   The problem is that children do not come in only one 'size.'  We know there are a variety of learning styles, different rates of physical, intellectual, and social maturation, and a multitude of background cultural references.   Even the very best of schools cannot possibly meet the needs of every child.  Assigning children to schools based on zip code is a recipe for mediocrity, if not disaster.     

There are numerous other problems in the current public school system, not the least of which is the burden of the 'bad teacher.'  These 'bad' teachers are known to both school administration and co-workers, but because of the power of teacher unions, it is nearly impossible to fire them.  Instead, as described in the excellent documentary Waiting for Superman, districts simply engage in the 'Lemon Dance,' and continuously move these 'lemons' from school to school. 

We need serious reform in the way we structure education, and obviously the answer is not 'more money.'  Per pupil funding, adjusted for inflation, has increased by over 50% since 1970, but academic achievement has remained statistically unchanged.   And while some educators plead for more parental involvement, our current system tells parents that they are not responsible for their own children's education and do not allow parents to make determinations about schools.   The elitist attitude of many educrats is "We know what is best for your children," and even elected school boards routinely reject measures to give parents more choices and control.

Documentaries like Waiting for Superman, The Lottery, and The Cartel, (also excellent,) are helping America become more aware of the inherent problems in the public education status quo. These films show that the difficulties are not limited to urban schools.  In Waiting for Superman, which profiles children desperate to escape their assigned public school, one child is from a suburban, white, middle class district in northern California.  Her assigned public school was Woodside High, a highly ranked school with a large, modern Performing Arts Center, and new library and athletic facilities.

Here in Williamson County, some of the community might have been surprised to discover their school is no longer 'exemplary,' or even 'acceptable.'   The deception perpetrated by the Texas Projection Measure was unjust and parents are rightly disappointed.  Parents should also know that half of Texas High School graduates who attend college will need remedial courses.  Perhaps these revelations will lead to more parents investigating public education and demanding the right to choose the school best for their own child. 

As policy analyst Jennifer Marshall notes:  "Public education should describe a goal (an educated citizenry), not prescribe a means (a government monopoly school system dominated by unions.)"


Looking for some solutions?  Check out Jennifer Marshall's commentary, Texas Education Reform, and Florida's Success Story.


Azucena Overman said...

Excellent blog. As a public school teacher, I think one of the big problems is that our students are often taught the "how" but not the"why". When I expressed this peeve to other math teachers, I am sometimes met with the reply "that's how we were taught." I just don't get that attitude. Luckily my team is very much into teaching why, not just how. My first goal for every new class of kids is to get them to actually think instead of grabbing an answer out of the air.

Matt Stillwell said...

Bravo... excellent post spotlighting a real problem with no easy solutions. Our collective placidity at a situation that should be enraging the taxpaying public instead barrels on with not less but more standardized testing in store for our students. Many years from now we will reflect on this time of TAKS, TEKS, STAAR and other testing accountability and wonder what the hell were we thinking.

gwynnetx said...

Texas doesn't have teachers' unions...

Holly Hansen said...

Gwynnetx: Respectfully, yes we do. The TSTA, Texas AFT, etc., are careful not to use the word 'union' to describe themselves, but their respective mission and work is identical to that of unions. Furthermore, when referring to AFT, the AFL-CIO refers to them as the Teachers Union, so this isn't just a right-wing opinion. If it quacks like a duck...