Mediocrity Lobby Angry Because Grades for Schools Expose Their Incompetence

Letter grades for schools are a clear way for parents to know if their kids are being taught anything. Is that so terrible?
Letter grades for schools are a clear way for parents to know if their kids are being taught anything. Is that so terrible?
Daniel Fishel
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When do we start calling the anti-accountability lobby in public education by its true name — the mediocrity lobby? When do we begin to talk about the fact that poor and minority children are not held down half so much by mean rich people as by glad-handing mediocrats who earn their livings off the bones of failed childhoods?

What? You don’t give a damn? It’s not your kids who fail in life? Oh, believe me, even if they’re not your kids now, you will own every one of them by the time they grow up. You’re the one who will put a roof over all their heads and three squares on the table. That all goes on your credit card.

In the last 30 years, the amount nationally that state and local governments spend keeping people locked up for crime has increased at three times the rate of increase for spending on elementary and secondary education. Two-thirds of prison inmates in this country lack high school diplomas.

All black men between the ages of 20 and 24 have a greater chance of being locked up than of having a job. Meanwhile, research has found that a 10 percent increase in high school graduation rates can produce a 9 percent decrease in crime rates.

Maybe you’re not sure simply spending more money on education would do the trick. You’re certainly right, according to research, that spending won’t achieve squat unless it’s tightly and strategically focused on achievement.

Money is neutral. It depends on how you spend it. And as soon as you get into that question, then of course you are talking about achievement and accountability. Why spend a nickel unless you can demonstrate that your nickel can make things better? What, you just had an extra nickel?

The Texas Education Agency is rolling out a trial version of a new letter-grade system for schools based on a whole matrix of measurements. But it’s also based on copious research showing that there are specific things public schools can do, no matter how rich or poor their students, to improve performance.

One of the key elements in the experimental letter-grade system is a measurement of just that — improvement. The letter-grade system looks not just at what the kids know on the day they take a state test but also at how much they have improved their academic performance over a given period.

And right there, right in that spot, on that very dime is where we hit a huge social irony. Since the '90s when George Bush was governor of Texas — no, wait, let me go back even further than that, all the way back into the '80s when tech billionaire H. Ross Perot was funding a school reform movement and super-lawyer Tom Luce was his political battlefield commander, a certain moderate-conservative mainly Republican element in the state has insisted that the academic performance of poor children can and must be improved.

To my own everlasting dismay, it has always been all the people I know, my own friends, the people I tend to identify with politically on the left, who always have a story about how it’s mean and unfair and even brutal to hold poor kids to the same standard as rich kids.

But, there’s only one standard. You read, or you don’t read. You do math, or you can’t do math. You understand the world around you through your knowledge of history and politics, or you don’t understand it. That doesn’t change based on whether you’re rich or poor.

And then pause for just one moment, please, and ponder what I said a second ago about young black men, incarceration and employment. We should not take young black men simply as a marker for all poor young people. It’s worse for them, yes, but life is not good for any poor uneducated kid. This world is extremely unforgiving in its treatment of young people who can’t read, can’t do math and are ignorant.

When you factor in the machinery of envy — the relentless barrage of wealth and glamour with which poor people are bombarded through media — then the real world can be a kind of hell, the vacant lot of life, where getting wasted is the only way to taste success.

What explains the consistently conservative and often Republican pressure, then, to improve the academic performance of poor children? The answer from many of the people I know is that all efforts to achieve accountability and productivity in public schools are parts of a Trojan horse agenda to destroy public education.

This is a cruel world, indeed, for kids who leave school unable to read, write or do arithmetic.
This is a cruel world, indeed, for kids who leave school unable to read, write or do arithmetic.
Jared Boggess

In suburban DeSoto, an experimental beta-release version of the state’s new letter-grade rating system for schools gave the district “F” or failing grades in student performance and preparation of students for life. Dr. David Harris, DeSoto’s superintendent, fired off an angry letter to DeSoto parents in which he said, among other things, “… this continued attack on public schools, your DeSoto public schools, is an attack on the foundation of our country. The government ‘ranking’ and comparing schools, feeds the agenda of those claiming our schools are failing and vouchers are the answer. Meanwhile, public schools tend to be underfunded and over mandated by the state and federal governments.”

I can think of a different answer. It seems to me Dr. Harris could have said this, instead:

Even this tentative and experimental version of the new letter-grade ranking system is a devastating body-blow for DeSoto schools. It tells us that we are doing a terrible job preparing your children for the world.

The city of DeSoto is a story of success in America. Our population is a little under 70 percent black and 10 percent Latino. Over 90 percent of adult residents are high school graduates and a third have bachelor’s degrees or higher. Income and housing values here are strong.

DeSoto is a place where people are pulling themselves up into better lives by their own bootstraps, and yet we in your public school system are failing to prepare your children for the better lives that you are working so hard to build for them.

I pledge that we in this school system will devote our most intense efforts to turning this bleak picture around. No excuses for failure will be accepted. I am giving my letter of resignation to the school board today, to be accepted at any moment when the board feels progress has been insufficient or merely too slow.

I don’t mean to pick on DeSoto alone. Public school administrators all over Texas have been howling ever since the tentative letter-grades went out last week. Richardson ISD Superintendent Jeannie Stone also sent a statement to parents, in which she said, “Assigning a letter grade, based substantially on the outcome of a standardized test taken on one day of the year, simply can’t capture the year-long efforts of students, teachers, principals and everyone who supports teaching and learning.”

By the way, that’s a completely dishonest version of how the letter-grade system will work. Far from based on a single test alone, the grades will reflect a complicated matrix of factors. The precise formula is a work in progress, and part of the purpose in releasing the beta version last week was to solicit suggestions for improvement.

The knee-jerk reaction of school superintendents to even this trial version brings me back to my starting point. The average base salary for a school superintendent in Texas now is over $350,000. These people do well. I don’t necessarily begrudge them that. It’s a tough job requiring a complicated mix of skills, knowledge and talent.

But if you’re doing that well, if life in the public school business is that sweet for you, and if a report comes out showing that you are preparing a substantial number of your students for prison, then I think it behooves you to show a bit of modesty and gravitas. Screaming that you are the victim of a conspiracy to subvert public education sounds a lot like hiding the ball.

There is another possibility in all of this. That possibility is that the people pushing for school reform know something in their guts: They know the only shot a poor kid has in this world is to somehow learn and adopt values of diligence and difficult attainment, and the only way to learn those values is by facing reality head-on. That stuff is like reading, writing and arithmetic. It doesn’t change. It’s the same for all children, rich, poor or vegetarian.

If a person is pulling down a salary comfortably in the six-figure range, and if that person can’t be bothered to meet tougher standards, then he or she is what I call a mediocrat, defensively fending off all criticism while failing to accomplish a sacrosanct goal.

And here’s the real problem. It may be mere mediocrity for that person — a fat salary and a way to ward off pressure. But for poor children raised in that system, it’s the road to hell on wheels. The people who really need to figure that out are their parents.

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