The fraudulence of school grades

Quick: can you tell me how your school grade is calculated?

There was a time a few years ago when I would dutifully trudge through the equation each year so I could point out its absurdities. I've since decided it's not worth my time.

The most recent edition of school grades came out last week. And I received an email from someone asking about my plan for improving school grades. Here is how I responded, with some minor tweaks for clarity:

I reject the school grade concept as a measurement. No one can say how they are calculated. They are not consistent from year to year. They are not helpful in assessing individual educational progress. They are political tools. If getting an F or a D actually drove resources and elite teacher programs toward F or D schools, I might think differently. But it doesn't. It's just an empty branding exercise. So I won't be defining success by school grade. Turning Polk County from a C to an A district is not my goal. Because we can't control it.

I'll be defining success numerically by teacher and student retention (the teacher shortage is the biggest problem we face, compounded by the fact that we've made the profession miserable enough that we're chasing away our best teachers); by graduation rate; by college acceptance rate; by actual test score performance against statistical prediction. If a rich school and a poor school get the same score, the poor school is outperforming the rich school. I want to know who is overachieving or underachieving.

My plan to improve performance generally starts in placing more autonomy with teachers and principals -- and aggressively improving the support culture at the district level, which is non-existent and actually harmful to schools today. That means personnel changes. It starts with the School Board Attorney, who is a powerful impediment to any serious cultural change.

But you should know, there are no miracle plans to turn a C-district to an A. Indeed, I doubt the state would ever allow it. They will only give out so many As. If Polk gets close, they'll just recalibrate the calculation. The only thing school grades are good for is to allow a parent to say, "My kid goes to an A school." I care about the individual educational experience, which is necessarily subjective. But I'm comfortable with subjectivity. And I find that objective numbers often are not objective at all.

That was before I read The Ledger's half-hearted story about this year's grades. Indeed, Polk's pattern matched the state's almost perfectly it seems. Tallahassee engineered the grade system to produce fewer As and fewer Fs. That's what happened statewide. And it's what happened in Polk. It tells us nothing remotely useful. The Polk School District is deeply foolish to make "A" district status part of its strategic plan. One should never create a goal or define success for oneself or organization that some other organization controls through simple manipulation.

So when Madison Fantozzi calls me next year to ask about school grades, I can tell you right now the quote I'll give: "I don't care. It's a stupid measurement dreamed up by distant politicians for political reasons. I'm focused on treating our kids like human beings and preparing them for long rich lives. Tallahassee can engineer the grades however it wants to. I've got much more important and useful ideas to pursue."