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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