Like many Philadelphia public school parents, I received an email from the district two weeks ago inviting me to weigh in on a new “school report card.” This report card was billed as a tool to give parents more information to help us make better choices about our schools. However, the school report card is the latest scheme in a series of efforts to grade public schools for questionable purposes. In Philadelphia, we’ve had AYP, School Annual Reports, and a school performance index (redone as recently as spring 2011). Interestingly enough, the Philadelphia School Partnership, a privately funded group, made up its own report card for schools last year, which was decried for its shady reliance on minimal data.
The idea for a new graded school report card didn’t come from parents. It’s not surprising that every parent I spoke with after receiving that email responded with distrust and indignation. We’ve been around this block before. We’ve watched the district roll out assessment after assessment. Frankly, none of it ever represented what is noteworthy or admirable—or weak or lacking—in our children’s schools. Very few changes came as a result except for school closings and charter conversion. And none of it compares with the best ways parents have of assessing their children’s schools, which are primarily from walking in the door and meeting with the principal and teachers, observing a classroom or the lunchroom, and watching your child’s engagement with or alienation from school.
Here’s What Else Is Wrong:
- The concept of assigning a “grade” to all schools in the absence of basic, never mind decent, funding and resources is outrageous. We don’t have guidance counselors or school aides but the District wants to judge us on school climate? How can you lay off teachers and classroom aides and push class sizes to the contractual maximum, and then turn around and grade a school on its academic program?
- A single grade, such as an A-to-F grade currently being used in a number of districts and states, not only fails to represent an entire school or the complexity of a school community; it also has the effect of simply labeling schools with a one-size-fits-all stamp. So Masterman is an “A” and another school is an “F”. Does anyone care to figure out why or what to do about it?
- We know from experience across the country, as well as in our own city, that the data used for these sorts of “tools” comes down to the same old test scores. These are data we already have, and they tell us nothing about whether a school provides a well-rounded, engaging curriculum that truly educates students.
- Finally, as we have seen in Philadelphia and across the country, the primary uses of “school report cards” are not by parents, but by districts and private interests seeking to label schools as failing, to close down neighborhood schools, and to turn them over to charters.
Inputs Versus Outputs?
If you asked any parent what the most pressing issue is for schools, I doubt you’d find anyone who would pinpoint developing a rubric for grading schools as the most critical priority. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’d know the critical issue facing all our public schools is the fact that they have so little in the way of funding. At the vote to pass this coming year’s school budget, SRC Commissioner Dworetzky said:
“Wherever the line falls between a school and not a school, [the budget] being proposed here is very close to the line.”
Last Monday at the first of the parent meetings on the school report card, dozens of parents asked questions about what validity any “school grades” would have in the absence of resources. The meeting was led by a consulting outfit called Tembo Consulting, which is receiving over $80,000 for this project from a Dell Foundation grant. This was the response we got from one of the paid consultants for the project:
“If were a parent, I wouldn’t care about the inputs when it’s the outputs that matter.”
The entire room erupted in outrage. A factory metaphor for our children and their schools? What did he think the “inputs” we shouldn’t worry about were anyway? Actual teaching? Decent resources? Books and supplies? Was he suggesting we just drive those teachers, staff, and students until they fill in those bubbles on the tests, no matter how few supports they have?
Maybe it was the condescension of someone who is not a parent telling a roomful of parents—who are incredibly anxious about the underfunded schools their children will walk into in the fall—that the lack of resources does not matter. Whatever the reason, every parent knows resources matter. No parent would expect a child to meet the goal of physical health without providing “inputs”—say, nutritious meals, good sleep, and opportunity to exercise. Why are our schools any different?
“Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain”
It’s important to understand that the impetus for this new report card came from the Gates-funded Great Schools Compact. Creating a school report card for the district was one of the primary objectives in their grant proposal to the Gates Foundation in late 2011. And it is the Compact Committee that is pushing for new “accountability” measures amidst the District’s financial ruin.
Great Schools Compact meetings are private. You and I cannot attend them, nor can we have access to the information to which they are privy. At Monday’s meeting, the consultants confirmed that they had been working with the Compact since starting the project last January and that the Accountability Working Group (a committee within the Great Schools Compact) would be briefed about the public sessions.
You’ve got to wonder about a district where private consultants and secretive bodies representing wealthy “donors” have more say over our children’s education than we do. There’s no question parents should be suspicious of the new graded report cards. This spring, the SRC closed 24 schools, forcing nearly 10,000 children to find placements in other schools now being stripped of resources and staff. It’s not rocket science to figure out that “accountability” without resources is false advertising and a recipe for failure.
As of this morning, there were five more public meetings left for parent comment. However, at the very last minute, the District cancelled today’s 11:00 a.m. meeting and all the rest of the public meetings saying it did so in response to parent concerns. A reporter told a parent that the District is no longer interested in “open-ended conversations” and will restructure the sessions to require parents to give narrow input into the school report card content.
Apparently, the SRC and the District still haven’t gotten our message: we don’t need grades to label and punish our schools. We need the resources to fix them.