Objections to Utah’s school grading system are demeaning, hypocritical

800px-School_bus_invasionUtah’s education associations – representing the interests of various adults in public schools – have come out of the woodwork in opposition to Utah’s new school grading policy.

This is not surprising, since the idea of school grading is new and innovative, and these associations tend to reflexively oppose anything new and innovative in public schools. But while association opposition to changing the status quo is normal, the demeaning and hypocritical arguments they use to justify their opposition are not.

Up front, let’s clearly summarize the school grading policy: Utah’s local public schools will get a performance-based letter grade (A to F), based on student academic growth and achievement. No legal rewards or penalties are attached to these grades. The grades are simply to inform interested parents about the strengths of their child’s public school, as well as the areas that need improvement.

Now let’s consider the associations’ arguments in opposition to school grading, based on quotes published in The Salt Lake Tribune.

According to Utah’s largest public school teachers union: “Your average parent doesn’t know what’s going on. … And if we don’t wake up the citizens of this state, it’s going to be too late.” So the problem, according to the union, is parental ignorance, from which they intend to save us.

According to the Utah School Boards Association: School grading “demoralizes teachers and is not an accurate picture of most of our schools.” The odd, and hypocritical, aspect of this argument is that we grade schoolchildren every day based on the same academic achievements that Utah’s public schools will now be graded on. So, extending the association’s logic, it seems to be OK to demoralize children with grades that may not be accurate, but to extend the same treatment to teachers collectively at the school is to cross the line into bad policy.

According to the Utah School Superintendents Association: “At an ‘A’ school, if you’re in a small, neglected group of learners, who is going to pay attention to you?” For some reason, the association believes that those at schools with good grades will lose the capacity of normal human beings to notice and seek to alleviate the struggles of vulnerable children around them.

So in this view, school grading – the effort to provide a simple way to inform parents about school quality – is an action, based in the ignorance of parents, that attacks schoolteachers and tosses struggling children in successful schools to the wolves. What could have been a reasonable dialogue about how to best help children learn and succeed has turned into hysteria about the end of public education as we know it.

And yes, the associations believe their own hysteria. Once again, in the words of the School Boards Association: “Rather than creating a standard and saying we want all schools to reach this standard, they’ve created a grading system where there will always be failing schools. Why would you do that? Because you have to have enough failing schools to push the argument for privatization.”

Informing parents about school quality by grading on a curve, in their eyes, is simply a nefarious ploy to turn private schools over to private-sector interests. Of course, to sincerely believe this you have to set aside the fact that schools across Utah – even across the country – grade students’ work on a curve every day. You have to ignore the simple extension of logic that would ask, “If we grade children this way all the time so they know how they are performing, why not grade schools the same way so parents know how schools are performing?” You have to believe that those who disagree with you on policy are not simply reasonable human beings with a different point of view, but part of a conspiracy to destroy public education by privatizing it.

In other words, you have to buy into a worldview that legitimizes otherwise hysterical conspiracy theories by objectifying and demeaning those who think differently about education policy, and is willing to attack as evil the education practices it applies to children.

Hopefully, Utahns and Utah’s elected officials can move past the demeaning and silly arguments being currently peddled by many of those opposed to school grading, and move on to an honest dialogue about how to help children and families in Utah by saving and improving public education. For those concerned most about the children, rather than the adults, in public schools, it is the responsible thing to do.

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  • jotab

    As a high school teacher for over 20 years, I didn’t know one teacher who graded on a normal curve. I didn’t know one teacher who would raise the requirements for an A or a B if too many students garnered those grades. In a school classroom it is possible for all students to get an A if they earn it. Not so in the school grading system.

    In addition, the grades follow the economic status of the schools pretty closely. You could almost assign the grades by just using the zip codes of the schools. It really doesn’t show much, it is not innovative or revealing. It doesn’t show strengths or weaknesses to parents.

    What strengths or weaknesses does Viewmont High’s F grade show? It only showed that they didn’t test enough students. A real accountability program would examine the data and design an improvement program based on that data. Much like the school improvement plans that are done by the School Community Councils do now.

    School Grading will not improve schools in Utah. Don’t even refer to Florida, they have had to make over 30 changes to their program and they still aren’t happy about. In addition they have put a lot of fiscal resources behind that we know that won’t happen here.

    • Derek H Monson

      Your experience is what it is…but my experience has been different. Many teachers in the span of my education graded on a curve. If you haven’t experienced that yourself, then fair enough. But it happens…regularly.

      In a system that uses geography to determine each school’s student body, it’s not really surprising that geography (e.g. zip codes) generally correlates with outcomes. The surprise is that we don’t then start to question how we educate children, since in reality it seems their educational opportunities are so defined (or confined, as it were) by where and to whom they are born, as opposed to things like their abilities or educational needs.

      Your suggestion for creating improvement programs based on data is an intriguing one. I think you would be better served spending your energies trying to add such a component to the state’s school grading policy, rather than simply trashing those of us who are actually trying to take action to improve public education for children and save public schools for future generations.

      Derek Monson

      • jotab

        Derek,
        I don’t believe that I “trashed” anybody in my comment. I simply pointed out that the economic level of the parents, usually determined by their educational level was correlated to the school grades.

        The schools with most challenging demographics that have fared the best under this misguided attempt to measure school success have been the ones with the most resources to provide students with the best adult to student ratios. We saw that when many reported to the Legislative Education Task Force last week. School improvement plans provided a unifying vision, teachers with time to collaborate and analyze data, and realistic adult to student ratios led to better than expected outcomes for these schools. These are the types of realistic solutions we need to implement.

        • Derek H. Monson

          Simply having more adults relative to children in schools is not an effective strategy for improving public education in Utah…or a realistic one for that matter, since it is one of the more expensive options available. Though I’ll grant that it would be financially advantageous for the adults in the public education system.

          A better approach for children would be to find ways to use the time of adults currently in schools more effectively. For instance, implementing models of schooling that let teachers spend more time developing their skills and teaching children difficult concepts, rather than grading, simply keeping students’ attention, or teaching basic skills or concepts that things like learning software can do cost-effectively and well. If we free teachers to just teach rather than do data entry and babysit, we will be doing something that has real potential to improve public education for children, rather than adults.

          Derek Monson

  • tiredoffighting

    Derek, what you are doing is simply spewing negative rhetoric in slamming folks who disagree with your position based upon facts, experience and data. Jotab is absolutely correct. This is a flawed system and no amount of disparaging remarks agains those who oppose it will change that. I must say that when someone speak disrespectfully about others in their arguments for or against something, they usually have a weak basis for their rationale.

    • Derek H Monson

      I have spoken disrespectfully of no one personally. In fact, look back at my post and you will find that I have not named anyone person at all.

      I have named organizations who chose to publicly speak out on a public policy issue, and then analyzed/criticized their arguments. That is called public debate. In fact, by posting on my blog you are similarly engaging in the debate…doing exactly what you have criticized me for doing, ironically.

      I do have one suggestion for you, though. Rather than simply dismissing an opinion whose reasoning is placed before you with unsupported statements about the “weak basis for their rationale,” do everyone the courtesy of actually explaining your opinions and defending your arguments. While that process can be difficult and time consuming, it has the benefit of actually contributing something positive to a conversation.

      Derek Monson

  • tiredoffighting

    One more item, when you quote someone, you must put the entire quotation in context. Another example of the weakness of your argument.

    • Derek H. Monson

      Ironically, what you cite as an “example of the weakness of your argument” includes no actual examples from my argument to illustrate how it is weak. Once again, I would suggest actually attempting to explain and defend your opinions, as I have done in my blog post, rather than just throwing unsupported statements around. The former can actually contribute positively to public debate and learning, while the latter tends to be a waste of time for everyone involved.

      Derek Monson

  • Harvey1950

    “The odd, and hypocritical, aspect of this argument is that we grade schoolchildren every day based on the same academic achievements that Utah’s public schools will now be graded on.”
    NOT TRUE. Schoolchildren receive a “report card” that gives grades in different subjects, accounts for citizenship, attendance and other factors. Imagine the outcry if we actually assigned each student a single grade! Yet many seem to have no problem doing it for schools…now that’s what I call demeaning and hypocritical.

    • Derek H. Monson

      Actually, Utah’s public school system assigns a “single grade” to every high school child each year: it’s called a GPA. A GPA combines a student’s grades from every class and subject they’ve taken each year and combines them into a single number, placed on a scale that conforms with letter grades (4.0=A, 3.0=B, and so on).

      Utah’s school grading system does the same thing conceptually, but applied on a school wide basis. Once again, I submit that for organizations – which support and work in public schools applying such a grading scheme to Utah children every year – to argue that grading scheme is wrong when applied to schools is both odd in tone and hypocritical in substance.

      Derek Monson

  • Sam Blaine

    So if this is to inform me as a parent what does the letter B mean for my local school? Because I have no idea what information I am supposed to glean from that letter.

    • Derek H. Monson

      The same thing that a B grade would mean for any child in a local school – that the school or child is performing adequately, but that we expect it could perform even better by making some improvements to how they do things. That is the beauty of letter grades: they can be viewed by parents just like the letter grades that they deal with on a yearly basis with their own children.

      No one is arguing that is a perfect way to measure academic performance or inform parents about that performance. But it is a fair bit better than the previous state policy which lacked meaningful measurements and did little to inform parents. And by instituting this system we can start a dialogue about better ways to measure student achievement and inform parents about that achievement.

      That is one reason why school grading is a good policy for Utah to adopt, despite all of its opponents’ complaints. Of course, this assumes that they will actually start contributing positively to the dialogue, rather than pushing demeaning and hypocritical arguments meant only to destroy, rather than to build.

      Derek Monson

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