Maybe Letter Grades for School Districts Should Be From Greek Alphabet

Letter grades for school districts might go down easier if fewer people could understand them
Letter grades for school districts might go down easier if fewer people could understand them M. Adiputra Wikipedia
There must be some ancient instinct buried somewhere in our Cro-Magnon genetic roots that makes people start squealing and whining like they’re going to die if you dare suggest there might be something wrong with their kids. And not just their own kids but kids who are in their care only part time.

I am thinking of the coming statewide rollout of the new letter-grade system for school districts in Texas. I see Dallas School Superintendent Michael Hinojosa quoted in The Dallas Morning News complaining that the lowest letter grade will be F.

“There's no need to be that harsh about them,” Hinojosa told the News. “You don't need to shame them in order to support them.”

So maybe the grade for the worst districts could be a Greek letter or something, like lamda. I always thought lamda was very classy sounding, but I don’t remember why. It may have had something to do with a girl in college who wouldn’t go out with me.

“How did your district come out this year on the letter grades?” “Not too shabby. Got a lamda.”

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So the letter grades, which won’t be assigned to individual schools until next year, could be A, B, C, D and lamda.

“How did your district come out this year on the letter grades?”

“Not too shabby. Got a lamda.”

“Wow, a lamda. Cool.”

Here’s a point I think should be made. Hinojosa says, “You don’t need to shame them in order to support them.” Well, I never saw the letter-grade thing as aimed at support, exactly.

Fifteen states have adopted letter grades for schools. One of those systems has been repealed. All of those states, I hope, want to support their schools. But giving them letter grades is not support. It’s measurement. I think the idea is that you don’t know who needs the support until after you do the measurement.

Here is where we get into the squealing and bemoaning. In a half dozen states with letter-grade systems, the public education lobby and the teachers unions have stirred up a lot of animosity by taking the position that letter grades are racist, insensitive, heartless and oppressive because the worst grades go to the poorest schools with the most minority kids.

First of all, that’s not true. The public discourse on achievement always seems to stay stuck on the same racial dime for some reason, and that gap is a big one. But Stanford researcher Sean Reardon produced findings two years ago showing that the achievement gap between poor kids and affluent kids is twice the racial gap. A gap’s a gap. The point is not the gap but why it’s there.

Let’s suppose that the whining and the alligator tears are not only for the kids but also maybe for the teachers and administrators doing the crying, because they may fear they will get in Dutch if their schools get lamdas. We can all sympathize with that. It’s human nature not to want to get lamda’d. But two very important points need to be made there.

First, the teachers and administrators who resent being blamed for factors beyond their control have at least one leg to stand on. The more Reardon and other researchers look at learning gaps, the deeper they are mining into other important contributing factors all the way back to prenatal issues. It would be foolish and ignorant to look at a letter grade for one school and assume it reflects only that school and everything at that school.

But, wait, there’s an important second point to consider. The world isn’t all about teachers and principals. A bad letter grade reflects what is going on with the kids at the school, no matter why it’s going on. Poor kids, no matter their ethnicity, really can’t afford to be at schools that can’t teach them.

At this point in these conversations, I always think we need to divide up the room. Research all over the country, going back decades, has found that the very poorest children from the toughest backgrounds can be taught en masse to read, write and be successful by the end of the third grade.

If you just do not believe this, if you cannot make yourself believe it, if you are convinced down to the bone that certain categories of children simply cannot by nature be taught, I must ask you to please exit the room and wait in the hallway until the rest of us are done with the room.

Now, for those of you still here, the research I’m talking about has to do with so-called anomalous or outlier schools — schools where the demographic would predict lamdas all over the place, but instead the kids are almost all at A and B. That means somebody knows how to reach and teach those kids.

Research is ongoing all over country to identify, distill and define the factors that make those anomalous success stories happen. The hunt is for consistent factors, things the same in all of those schools that can be reproduced, as opposed to eccentric factors and one-offs.
And what an exciting field of study. Can you imagine a society that knows how to bring all children to full academic competence regardless of social, cultural or ethnic origin? This would be a whole different world.

Excuse me for one second. We seem to have a problem out in the hall. It’s making them mad for me to say all kids could achieve. They have a big investment in not believing it. My argument in rebuttal to that point of view is only 10 words.


That’s my best iambic pentameter, by the way. Do I hear a lamda? Anyway, where were we?

The most exciting prospect and the real news in the letter-grade system next year when it is applied to schools will not be the lamdas but the A’s and B’s. Some of those A’s and B’s are going to light up over anomalous schools, illuminating the path to better answers for all.

The letter-grade system developed under Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath will have at least one element that feels like a version of reforms put in place here in Dallas when Morath was on our school board and Mike Miles was our superintendent. Like the Dallas Teacher Excellence Initiative, the statewide letter grades will have an important element measuring degrees of progress in student achievement.

In other words, it’s not just toting up all the kids who can solve Problem X in math or read and comprehend a certain passage. It’s more like marking the point where the kid is when he enters the school and then seeing how far he advances in a year. The teacher and the principal don’t get blamed for where a student was on entrance. Instead, the system measures the amount of progress.

Presumably, if we see a low measure of progress at one school but see that all schools of that same demographic have an identical low measurement, then we know it’s not the school’s fault. But if we see greater progress at other schools with identical demographic profiles, then we know something needs to change — and can change — at the one with the lower mark.

But let’s go back to my theory about Cro-Magnon man. Remember? I said there must be a primitive instinct buried somewhere in our anthropological past that makes us scream and wail whenever someone criticizes our kids.

A cursory amount of research has led me to believe that there is absolutely no scientific basis whatsoever for my theory. But I just like it. Hey, other people deny good science. I make up bad science. It’s a balancing act.

Poverty in this world is angry, a little bit crazy. There’s a lot of self-destructive behavior but also some destructive behavior that’s more aggressive and outward bound.

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I like my theory, because I don’t want to believe that adults disparage and attack systems of measurement in public education out of entirely selfish, crass, self-seeking motivation. I would rather believe it’s something parental, protective and ancient.

But here’s the big story. The National Center for Children in Poverty estimates that 15 million children in America — one in five of all children — are born into poverty. The research shows that the walls of poverty are hardened and raised higher by incompetent public schools. The very kids who can least afford a bad education are most likely to get just that, and the generational cycle just goes on.

They can’t afford it. We can’t afford it. We can’t survive as a successful society if we must harbor an ever growing populace who can’t share in the fruits and benefits of that society.

I don’t know how much you get out, but I’ll assume it’s some. It doesn’t take too deep a study to recognize that poverty just ain’t what it used to be. At least it’s not what we told ourselves it was.

Poverty in this world is angry, a little bit crazy. There’s a lot of self-destructive behavior but also some destructive behavior that’s more aggressive and outward bound. Wait for one second, will you? I need to go speak to the folks in the hall again:


The letter-grade system devised under Morath is full of promise and positive expectation. It offers a path toward solving the toughest, most intractable problems in our society, not by cracking the whip on kids but by making this a better society and talking more children into joining up.

Morath, by the way, is a genius — one of those tech entrepreneurs who was able to retire at age 17 or something. We are extremely lucky a guy that bright is devoting his life to making this a better world for children.

OK, that’s it, now I need a volunteer. Would one of you be willing to go out into the hall now and scream fire?
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze