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When 'Grading' Is Degrading

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- 2023 days ago -
For the past three decades, one administration after another has sought to fix America's troubled schools by making them compete with one another.

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Kit B (276)
Sunday December 2, 2012, 9:08 am
(Image Credit: (Bee Things)

In his speech on the night of his re-election, President Obama promised to find common ground with opposition leaders in Congress. Yet when it comes to education reform, it’s the common ground between Democrats and Republicans that has been the problem.

For the past three decades, one administration after another has sought to fix America’s troubled schools by making them compete with one another. Mr. Obama has put up billions of dollars for his Race to the Top program, a federal sweepstakes where state educational systems are judged head-to-head largely on the basis of test scores. Even here in Texas, nobody’s model for educational excellence, the state has long used complex algorithms to assign grades of Exemplary, Recognized, Acceptable or Unacceptable to its schools.

So far, such competition has achieved little more than re-segregation, long charter school waiting lists and the same anemic international rankings in science, math and literacy we’ve had for years.

And yet now, policy makers in both parties propose ratcheting it up further — this time, by “grading” teachers as well.

It’s a mistake. In the year I spent reporting on John H. Reagan High School in Austin, I came to understand the dangers of judging teachers primarily on standardized test scores. Raw numbers don’t begin to capture what happens in the classroom. And when we reward and punish teachers based on such artificial measures, there is too often an unintended consequence for our kids.

I went to lunch recently with a fine history teacher, Derrick Davis, who is better known in my neighborhood as the basketball coach at Reagan High. He has a particularly wide vantage on the decline of Reagan High, which opened in the 1960s as the pride of the city, complete with consecutive state football championships, national academic recognition and a choir that toured Europe.

When he graduated in 1990, the yearbook still showed a significant number of white faces mixed in with larger black and smaller Hispanic populations. Parents could see from the annual state report that 82.4 percent of 11th graders passed all the standardized tests, just a tenth of a percentage point below the district average.

In 1994, the state education agency started applying its boilerplate labels, which became shorthand for real estate agents. Reagan High was rated “Academically Acceptable,” the second-lowest grade. Families of means departed for the exurbs, private schools and eventually charter schools.

Even so, returning as a teacher, Mr. Davis had high hopes for No Child Left Behind, the federal education reform legislation enacted in 2002 with bipartisan support led by President George W. Bush and Senator Edward M. Kennedy. The law turned a powerful spotlight on the second-class education being provided for poor kids in places like East Austin. Finally, the truth was out. In that sense, Mr. Davis believed at the time, “No Child Left Behind was the best thing that happened to us.”

But that was hardly the case: instead of rallying a new national commitment to provide quality public education for all children, the reform movement led to an increasingly punitive high-stakes competition for standardized test scores, school grades and labels. Within just a few years, Reagan High fell to “Academically Unacceptable.”

In 2009, I watched the teachers at Reagan High raise test scores just enough to stave off a closure order, working against a one-year deadline. Teachers “taught to the test” and did their best to game a broken system.

Most of all, though, their efforts focused on something more difficult to quantify. I watched Coach Davis revive the basketball team, dipping deep into his own paycheck and family time to inspire the school with an unlikely playoff run. I watched the principal, Anabel Garza, drive around the neighborhood rousting truants out of bed, taking parents to court and telling kids their teachers loved them. I watched a chemistry teacher, Candice Kaiser, drive carloads of kids to cheer on the basketball team, attend after-school Bible study and make doctors’ appointments. I watched the music director, Ormide Armstrong, reinvent the marching band as a prizewinning funk outfit that backed Kanye West.

Together, they gave families a reason to embrace a place long dominated by tension, violence and the endless tedium of standardized test drilling. They improved the numbers. Mostly, they did it through passion, intelligence, grit and love.

No longer “Academically Unacceptable,” Reagan High has started to reclaim its proud stature, though it still serves a disproportionate number of poor families. Mr. Davis still works there. So do Ms. Garza, Ms. Kaiser and Mr. Armstrong, all trying to build a sustainable public school for our neighborhood.

Still, the most significant obstacle they face is the very same myopic policy suggested by Mr. Obama’s erstwhile opponent, Mitt Romney, in the weeks before the election: we grade our schools, he said, so parents “can take their child to a school that’s being more successful.” As for the parents, teachers and children who can’t make that choice, they’re left to salvage what remains.

By Michael Brick | Common Dreams |

Past Member (0)
Sunday December 2, 2012, 4:04 pm

pam w (139)
Sunday December 2, 2012, 5:48 pm
There's NOTHING wrong with academic competition and NOTHING wrong with pushing kids to improve performance.

The issue is HOW to accomplish that goal.

I'm old enough to have seen ridiculous plans proposed....teaching in "ebonics" was one....and seen a lot of money wasted on nonsense dreamed up by people who viewed phonics and multiplication tables as "passe."


JL A (281)
Sunday December 2, 2012, 6:00 pm
One size fits all mentalities end up fitting not one well.

Giana Peranio-paz (398)
Monday December 3, 2012, 4:43 am
This process just widens the educational gap between the schools and does leave the weak behind.

Sharon Bodman (0)
Monday December 3, 2012, 5:58 am
There are a number of excellent points by Kit B and though it is generally true that academic competition can bring out the best it is also a valid point that the poorer the area the less able the parents are to participate with their children to achieve. Not all children want to go to college;nor should. We need to bring back tech/training schools that provide opportunities to acquire skills that will lead to jobs in automotive,small engine repair,construction and life/home skills like home economics where young women and men can learn to keep a budget,plan and cook meals and run a household.

Sheryl G (360)
Monday December 3, 2012, 9:38 am
I think if they spoke to the teachers and found out what they needed to make the schools more successful that it would be better. This No Child left Behind did exactly as the article stated, started teaching to the test and it also stressed out the teachers and the students. What a mess, my own children got caught up in that one.

A lot of outside influence affects the students as well. When we have an economy that is on the decline for many it is hard for students who are not eating well to think, when they are homeless that affects their education, when the adults in the family are crying or arguing over finances that affects the students, when children don't have a coat to wear and are shivering in the cold waiting for the bus, that affects their education.

At the same time more and more students are coming to school in with serious home issues we expect those who teach to perform miracles. And they do, many times, but lets help those teachers, let us build them up so they can help those who sit in their classrooms not keep this punishing tone and system upon the teachers. We as a Nation need to do a better job of getting families out of poverty, for children who have food to eat and a stable home to go to will always do better. We can't shoulder it all upon the teachers.

Kit B (276)
Monday December 3, 2012, 10:47 am

In truth the teachers are speaking out. Though not necessarily in the way one might expect, they are leaving the profession. In Texas a state with some really expensive testing, and newly instituted draconian laws, teachers are being asked to do the impossible. Often the response is to look for other work.

We have a majority of students, through no fault of their own, that come to school not prepared or expecting what is being asked of them. Teachers are expected to "push" through these problems, and accomplish high results. It should be said that this is the goal of teachers, to bring about the best possible results for all of their students, that is why they have chosen the profession.

Now we have these Charter Schools, which are de facto private schools. The teachers have no better education or training than others, but are still expected to deal with the same insurmountable predicaments to achieve superior results.

This is not a time when a parent can afford to stay home to teach and prepare their children for school, this is the here and now, and in most homes, both parents work, or are looking for work. Money is very tight in most families; the purchase of equipment or tutors is outside the bounds of realistic possibility. If that sounds hopeless it is not. We have as a society alternative choices, like public schools we could have public day care for children, not to keep children "occupied" but to use and teach those hungry little brains from an early age. That will remove one big obstacle for children, coming into the kindergarten years, without a foreknowledge of reading or mathematics. Tutoring for students that need the extra assist should be considered a part of the school day, this is easily done within the schools. The majority of students return home to an empty house, let them stay in the unused school building, then either higher extra "second shift" or part time teachers for tutoring or offer additional pay to those teachers who wish to work later hours.

This does redirect funds to education as a main priority for this country, and does mean less wasted money on useless but expensive testing. I would much prefer tax dollars used to enrich the education of children to build a better future, than spending billions on counterproductive wars and a bloated military.

Sheryl G (360)
Monday December 3, 2012, 11:07 am
It doesn't surprise me Kit that teachers are leaving.

I know of many young people, due to the fact I have the twentysomething children in my life, who tell me that their good friend is no longer going to be a teacher due the turmoil in the teaching profession. My son, was thinking of teaching as a profession but he might not do that now, he said, teachers are getting no respect from many places he reads in the news. He is in the military now, but that was one of his goals, my daughter thought of teaching as well but has changed her mind due to what she is reading.

It hurts my heart as I can think of no more noble a profession to join than to be a teacher and I was so delighted in that my children were both thinking of doing so, until all of the messes they read about is turning those thoughts to dust. I can't really say I blame them. But what does that leave us for a Country when we do this to our educational system? In my life span I have watched teachers go from being highly respected to being thrown under the bus. As the private schools increased so did the mistreatment of our public education, I do see a direct correlation here and more Corporate attitude at work.

Kit B (276)
Monday December 3, 2012, 11:36 am

I do feel that statement, Dandelion. Charter Schools have corporate backing so as this movement grows so does the privatization of schools.

At one point time, when I entered the teaching profession it was highly regarded though not well paid. The compensation for teachers was considered to be wrapped in the benefits. That of working short hours, or having an excellent insurance program, additional sick leave. Those benefits are long gone, in some states the pay has increased, not in any way equivalent to task being required.

It is false information to think that teachers have 3 months off with no responsibility. First, there is required "in-service" and that is not a choice, also most school districts do require that all teachers participate in some form of continuing education. I have not heard teachers complain about these requirements. Most want additional education, they want to be on the cutting edge of all new information. I'm not saying that some do not grumble about the "in-service" many do, as professionals we have a right for additional time required to be used well, far too many "in-service" projects are a waste time, effort and money.

Also teachers are paid only for those months they are considered on the job, and not for additional time or mandatory meetings that may last 2 or 3 hours per week. We have a choice to be paid only for the 9 months school is in session or to spread that pay out over the year.


. (0)
Monday December 3, 2012, 2:37 pm
In the last paragraph, the author referred to a quote by Romney as "myopic":"we grade our schools so parents can take their child to a school that 's being more successful."
In NJ, schools are once a year graded for a series of performances. There is no reason to do this, except for the following study. Couples with children move mostly for 3 reasons: change in jobs, having outgrown their present home, and are looking for a better education for their children.
Some districts do not publish, others preen over their standardized test results. Towns with higher test results keep real estate values up, as people want to live there.The suburban schools love it as they can testify that due to the excellent education their child will receive, the community is thriving.
Who is this author kidding?


Kit B (276)
Monday December 3, 2012, 3:15 pm

The author is not attempting to "kid" anyone Allan. I wonder how well you or your school district would manage if you and all other school districts had to divide the money pool evenly? They top rated schools because of the higher tax base get the more money to spent on the schools, teachers and students, of course those students do better.

Dorothy N (63)
Monday December 3, 2012, 4:41 pm
I think they should hire Dandelion G. and Kit B. as advisers...

I must say that I'm a little surprised that President Obama wasn't able to improve the situation, but on the other hand, he HAS been dealing with an impossible situation...

Kit B (276)
Monday December 3, 2012, 5:25 pm

There is one perspective from a class room teacher, one from parents, another that has no reality based on the media, and the one that government advisers offer the president. In the end - only the students matter. The only advisers the government wants are those that sound good to the people, whether they work or not, one say, "We tried." Though that really should not be good enough.

Carmen S (611)
Monday December 3, 2012, 5:58 pm
Thanks Kit, something needs to be done about the schools, and yet, there is not a single answer that works across the board, different schools have different needs.

JL A (281)
Monday December 3, 2012, 8:31 pm
In CA there was a court ruling for all students to have the same per capita spending due to the historic disparities between rich and poor areas, with the latter being disproportionately persons of color. Thus the property taxes go to the state then out to the counties/school districts. Poor areas still show up more often as underperforming per NCLB measures.

Do not forget the private companies who make the tests and contracts to develop the tests and score the tests...that is also tax dollar diversion to private businesses--that is a lot bigger than when ETS was about the only game around.

Kit B (276)
Monday December 3, 2012, 8:37 pm

It will take time to see results of that J L, but money equality will help. ETS is the biggest testing firm in the country and I shall remain more than a little dubious of basing much on mass tests results.

Sheryl G (360)
Monday December 3, 2012, 9:10 pm
Wall Street financiers and philanthropists such as Bill Gates have put money behind private-sector ideas, such as vouchers, data-driven curriculum and charter schools, which have doubled in number in the past decade.

There are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school. There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions. Finland’s schools are publicly funded. The people in the government agencies running them, from national officials to local authorities, are educators, not business people, military leaders or career politicians.

Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States, and 66 percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union. Yet Finland spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States.

Teachers in Finland spend fewer hours at school each day and spend less time in classrooms than American teachers. Teachers use the extra time to build curriculums and assess their students. Children spend far more time playing outside. Finland provides three years of maternity leave and subsidized day care to parents, and preschool for all 5-year-olds, where the emphasis is on play and socializing. Schools provide food, medical care, and counseling if needed. Stu­dent health care is free.

Since it implemented huge education reforms 40 years ago, Finland's school system has consistently come at the top for the international rankings for education systems. Maybe instead of trying to invent the wheel again, we look to Finland and some other Countries whose students are doing well and implement those measures instead of what we do.


Patrice M (84)
Tuesday December 4, 2012, 10:41 pm
I was saddened to learn that the new evaluation system in our county is directly the result of Race to the Top. I had high hopes for teachers and schools in the Obama years. This evaluation ensures that most teachers will measure up as mediocre at best. But I am tired of the changes I see in students and teachers across the board. More and more, I meet students who have extremely low skills. Each year their overall skills in communicating and basic math get lower. Every part of their curriculum is geared towards passing tests. Each year the testing becomes harder. End of Course Exams are replacing the old, republican state testing. In Algebra II, for example, students are asked to know college level algebra and a little trig as well. I meet seniors who have failed math for several years. They have Alg. I, Alg. II, Geometry - all on their schedules and all at once, as if more is simply better. I ask myself if the yearly drop in overall skills is somehow the result of such singleminded emphasis on testing And when we make teacher evaluations hinge upon student test results, aren't we pitting students and teachers against each other? This is just wrong.

I am all for beefing up teacher training, having high standards for students and teachers, but there has to be more. With the state assessment testing, many electives were dropped from high school curriculum in favor of more remedial reading and math classes, solely geared towards helping students pass the test. We took away a lot of the things students loved about school when we did that.

faith v (16)
Wednesday December 5, 2012, 1:45 pm
"When 'Grading' Is Degrading"

Grading is ALWAYS degrading - especially for the one who imposes it.

"Teaching to the test" is not actually teaching at all. At best you could call it conditioning.

The only serious purpose of a test is to find out if I have done MY job adequately in conveying the information or developing the skills being examined. Only the teacher can fail here, never the learner.

Spoiler: Teaching has been the essence of my life. Ex-victims (!) tell me I did a good job.

Talya H (10)
Thursday December 6, 2012, 6:05 pm
Exams prove nothing!

g d c (0)
Sunday December 9, 2012, 8:53 am

Stephen Brian (23)
Sunday December 9, 2012, 7:43 pm
Standardized test-scores are not a good way to grade teachers, nor are they really designed well to grade students. However, some means of evaluation is needed, and by nature it must be standardized.
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