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.