Yesterday newspapers across Ohio published the new A – F grades the Ohio Department of Education is assigning to all public and charter schools. We are away from home on vacation in Minnesota, but when I happened to go on-line to the Plain Dealer‘s website to check the local news and saw the grades for our community’s schools—the grade of the school district and each of the public schools—my heart fell. We raised our children in these schools, and I know them well—members of the school board, teachers, principals, and current students and parents.
Here is also what I know about our schools in Cleveland Heights-University Heights. We have worked hard as a Cleveland inner ring district to be successfully diverse. Our student body is majority black. We have a wonderful school music program. We have over a dozen Advanced Placement classes at our high school. The high school supports an array of co-curricular activities and sports teams that encourage students to be better students. The TigerNation football spellers participated in an adult spelling be to raise money to support small grants for classroom projects and private music lessons for children who cannot afford such a luxury. In a diverse school district, we struggle in an ongoing way with the sins of white privilege and racism, and we are humble enough to struggle actively to learn to live together. Sixty-three percent of the students in our schools are poor enough to qualify for free lunch. In a state with a tax freeze law that means school districts have to pass levies just to keep up with inflation, we have continued to post the second highest voted millage in the state to support our children and our community. In my community we value our public schools as the expression of who we are and how much we care for our children.
Imagine, then, how the grades look to me: Performance Index Grade – C ; Value Added Grade – A ; Annual Measurable Objectives Grade – F.
Even though I know the grades are based purely on standardized test scores and that standardized test scores are pretty much a wealth indicator, I find myself dismayed by a system cooked up by a governor and legislature who believe that shaming is the way to improve education. The presence of such a system blames teachers who our elected officials believe must be made to work harder; it doesn’t put any pressure on the legislature itself to carry out the mandate of the Ohio Constitution to provide a thorough and efficient system of common schools..
The grades themselves express the biases of such a system. Here are the school districts with straight As. Cuyahoga Heights, among the school districts with the highest tax base in the state; Rocky River, a homogenously white, high-tax base district on the West Side; and Solon an outer-ring suburb. Those with only one B are Beachwood and Brecksville-Broadview Heights, both wealthy, belt freeway communities.
In Ohio we have had a rating system for quite awhile: Excellent, Effective, Continuous Improvement, Academic Watch and Academic Emergency. You can, or course substitute A, B, C, D, and F for these descriptors. But I think they are different. For years in Cleveland Heights our schools have been in “continuous Improvement,” which has given a bit of credit for how hard we try. The poorest school districts, those in Academic Watch and Academic Emergency do need attention; our school funding system needs to direct funds and attention here for equity, and the old rating system could at least be interpreted to indicate that. I guess I’d quibble with the Excellent and Effective rankings, as I think “wealthy” and “insulated” might be more appropriate.
The new system simply blames the teachers —to shame them into improving these awful grades. This letter grade system doesn’t attach any responsibility to the broader community for addressing the macro-conditions that affect student achievement in greater Cleveland and everywhere else: poverty, inequality, and segregation by race and economics. Our state constitution makes it the state’s responsibility to ensure that all children can thrive. That would, at the very least, imply raising state taxes to supplement the meager programming in the poorest, F, districts.