Helen Ladd: A-F Letter Grades for Schools Hide What We Must Do to Support School Children

Helen Ladd, professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and her husband, Edward Fiske, a former education editor of the NY Times, recently published an analysis of the meaning of North Carolina’s new A-F rating system for public schools.  They write: “Whatever their limitations… the letter grades sent a clear message about what North Carolina needs to do to improve outcomes for kids.  In a nutshell, we need to figure out how to break the link between poverty and achievement in our schools… The most striking pattern that emerged from the letter grades from the NC Department of Public Instruction was the near-perfect correlation between letter grades and economic disadvantage.  The News & Observer reported that 80 percent of schools where at least four-fifths of children qualify for the federal free or reduced lunch received a D or F grade, whereas 90 percent of schools with fewer than one in five students on the subsidized lunch program received As or Bs.”

Ladd and Fiske believe that public policy ought to treat the conditions social scientists have identified again and again as the reasons, in the aggregate, that students struggle at school: “When it comes to making effective education policy, the issue is not whether family background is correlated with educational achievement. The question is how we choose to deal with this empirical reality. The ideal policy response, of course, would be attack poverty itself.  Achievement gaps did narrow in the years following Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty” in the 1960s.  But doing so would take a long time. A second possible response would be to put one’s head in the sand and simply ignore the relationship. Unfortunately, that is exactly what the dominant federal policy initiative of the Bush and Obama administrations’ No Child Left Behind policy has done.  NCLB sets the same high—and ultimately unreachable—achievement expectations for all students, and it then holds schools accountable for assuring that all students meet them.  The inherent futility of this approach—echoed in the criteria that guide North Carolina’s system of letter grades for schools—helps explain why the administration has had to grant waivers to so many states.”

Ladd and Fiske suggest that while our society grapples with how to address the challenges of family poverty, federal and state education policy should, “address the particular challenges that disadvantaged children face as they pursue their education,” with three strategies currently being implemented by the East Durham Children’s Initiative: locate health clinics and social services at school, institute high quality early childhood and pre-school programs, and provide stimulating and fun summer programs to prevent “summer learning loss.”  These are the programs at the heart of full-service, wrap-around Community Schools and Promise Neighborhoods, of which the East Durham Children’s Initiative is an example.

Imposing an A-F school rating system is more stylish these days, however.  Such a plan is being formally launched in Ohio next fall as school begins.  Here is what Richard Rothstein, who, like Helen Ladd has studied the ways poverty makes it harder for children to post high standardized test scores, told the Cleveland City Club last week: “These rating systems really just describe the social class of the students in the schools. And the high ratings don’t necessarily mean they’re better schools. Many of these schools, that are rated A because they happen to have a lot of middle class children with highly educated parents, may add less value to their students than schools rated F, where parents may be working the kind of contingent schedules I described earlier. Those F schools may actually be better schools in terms of what they add to students than the A schools, but most people don’t understand that. And so if you label schools with A-F ratings, people who attend a C school, which may be integrated, are going to want to move their children to an A school.  This will increase the segregation of schools by convincing people that these A-F ratings accurately reflect the quality of the school.”

The editors of Rethinking Schools magazine explained the same issue very succinctly just last year.  They said that school accountability based on high-stakes standardized tests merely disguises class and race privilege as merit.

Two Important Articles Describe Widespread Attack on Core Value of Public Education

Here is a particularly strong critique of what the North Carolina legislature is doing to undermine that state’s public schools.  Helen Ladd,  one of the chairs of the Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education campaign and a professor of public policy at Duke University and Edward Fiske,  former education editor of the NY Times, describe their experience two years ago working with North Carolina’s state board of education to craft what was known as a “Vision of Public Education in North Carolina.”  They continue by describing how in 2013, that commitment was dismantled when the North Carolina “General Assembly, with the assent of Gov. Pat McCrory, enacted a sweeping set of new laws that represent a frontal assault on public education…”

Ladd and Fiske write:  “If one were to devise a strategy for destroying public education in North Carolina, it might look like this: Repeat over and over again that schools are failing and that the system needs to be replaced.  Then make this a self-fulfilling prophecy by starving schools of funds, undermining teachers and badmouthing their profession, balkanizing the system to make coherent planning impossible, putting public funds in the hands of unaccountable private interests and abandoning any pretense that the goal is to prepare every child in our state to succeed in life.”

Writing for the Education Opportunity Network and the Campaign for America’s Future, Jeff Bryant devotes this week’s commentary to the same theme.  He examines the situation in North Carolina and also tracks a much broader attack on public schools across the states.  “For quite some time, there has been a well-orchestrated, well funded, and extremely influential movement to literally get rid of public schools.”

Bryant traces an attack on the very survival of public schools  and castigates pundits and commentators who accuse public school supporters of unwillingness to compromise.  He corrects those who assume there is always a middle way by pointing out that in today’s extremely polarized education debate, “what ‘traditional public schools’ face is not so much a gentleman’s dispute as it is an existential threat.”  “All these factors—the deliberate assault on public schools and the declining resources, despite growing challenges—never seem to be considered in arguments by a pundit class that continues to rebuke public school supporters for being strident and uncompromising.”

Entirely different core values underpin the public school system that has historically served our children in the United States and the kind of education based on privatization and individual family choice that today’s school “reformers” endorse. That the two philosophies of education are radically different is a primary reason it’s impossible to find a compromise, middle way between privatized school choice and a system of traditional public education.

Education theories of privatization and school choice value individualism, competition, efficiency, deregulation, innovation, private management and creative disruption—closing so called “failing” schools and opening alternatives in an endless cycle as in a business portfolio.   Historically our society has instead built our education system for civic as well as personal benefit upon a foundation of democratic governance and oversight by elected school boards. We have counted on a vast and stable publicly owned system designed to serve the needs and protect the rights of all children.

Education writer Mike Rose would ask us to make ourselves consciously aware of the values embodied by our public schools as a strategy for protecting America’s public education system as a community asset.  In the 2014 revised and expanded edition of his classic philosophy of education, Why School?, Rose writes: “How we think about and voice the purpose of education matters. It affects what we put in or take out of the curriculum and how we teach that curriculum. It affects how we think about students—all students—about intelligence, achievement, human development, teaching and learning, opportunity, and obligation.  And all of this affects the way we think about each other and who we are as a nation.”  (Why School? 2014 edition, pp. 216-217)

I urge you to read the article by Ladd and Fiske and Jeff Bryant’s column this week. I also encourage you to find a copy of the 2014 edition of Mike Rose’s Why School?   This blog has explored the problems for public schools in North Carolina in these two very recent posts: here and here.)