Labels. As kids we’re told it’s impolite to label one another. “He’s skinny.” “They’re poor.” “He’s an F student.” Those are taboo. So why are schools receiving grades as the label of their academic achievement?
In the past week the Arizona Department of Education released the school “grades” which are based on the state standardized assessment, called the AIMS. In a letter to the parents on the Arizona Department of Education website, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, John Huppenthal, states:
"Letter grades should be used as just one measure of how well a school is performing. With the A-F Letter Grade Accountability System, parents benefit by having, at their fingertips, an easy-to-understand, equitable school grading system to help decide which educational environment best meets their children’s needs. Schools benefit by identifying both areas of strength and areas that need improvement. To hold schools accountable in a fair and systematic fashion, each school is equally evaluated both on AIMS performance and how much students grow academically from one year to the next. Other factors such as AIMS improvement, dropout rate, graduation rate and English language learner proficiency rates are taken into consideration, when applicable."
If “letter grades should be used as just one measure of how well a school is performing,” then where are the other measures? How are they communicated and reinforced to hold schools accountable? When did it become okay for schools to be known as the “A” school or “D” school? How does that impact the morale of students and staff? What impact does this have on the opinion of the public of our schools?
Let me tell you a story of 2 schools, and you tell me which school is the “A School.”
School #1 has teachers who work collaboratively together to lesson-plan as teams on their time off. Prep time during school is spent on crafting rigorous, data-driven small group instruction, targeting students who need more intervention within specific academic areas. Instructional aides, specialists, and interventionists work closely with teachers, making instruction seamless and consistent between classroom settings. This school has a principal who is data-driven AND relationship-focused. The principal creates initiatives for teachers to mentor students on a one-on-one level as well as before/after-school tutoring. Character education is encouraged at all staff meetings, motivating teachers to create closely-knit communities with their classes and grade levels. Parents are welcome in the school building at all times, and the teachers and administration work cooperatively and positively with the community. The leadership team at the school is varied and teacher-driven. Professional developments are carefully planned to differentiate valuable pedagogical instruction to teachers with hands-on methods. Teachers are encouraged to work together as vertical-planning teams, and several initiate their own Professional Learning Communities, determining the course of their own professional growth without the accountability of the school district. As AIMS (Arizona’s state-wide standardized assessment) is approaching, teachers provide test-prep materials and instruction to the students, but the classrooms are also incorporating hands-on, collaborative projects. Instruction remains purposeful and interesting during the months of test preparation. Although the teachers and students are exhausted by the end of the district and state standardized assessments, they continue with quality instruction for the month of school afterwards.
School #2 has teachers who work collaboratively together to lesson-plan as teams during their prep time, and small group instruction is instilled in each classroom on an individual basis, but inconsistent without accountability. This school has a principal who is solely data-driven. Grade-level teams are given ultimatums and threats when quarterly standardized test scores are not “Meets” or “Exceeds.” Any special one-on-one teacher-student mentoring is teacher-initiated, so it is inconsistent and fizzles by the second semester. Character education is present but not included in staff meetings, becoming lukewarm in the classrooms. Parents are not welcome in the school building except for conferences, and there is a noticeable distance between the school and community. The leadership team at the school is predictable and principal-driven, giving the staff the sense that their voices are not valued. Professional developments are formulaic and disorganized, unprofessional and uninspiring. Vertical team-planning is unheard of, and the Professional Learning Communities are mandated by the district, making the meetings forced and miserable. As AIMS is approaching, the school stops all hands-on collaborative projects from January- April. The classrooms are designed as test-prep communities, creating students into “process-of-elimination” robot bubblers. After AIMS is done, the teachers and students are so burned out by the intense test prep that all quality instruction afterwards is half-hearted and unproductive.
Which school is the “A” School? You probably guessed it- School #2. As a teacher, which school would you like to work for? As a parent, which school would you want your child to attend?
If we are to assess our schools by other means than just the grading scale, where are these measures and what do they focus on?? Here are my suggestions on what schools should be graded on, in addition to standardized test scores:
• Volunteer ratio in the classrooms
• Student volunteer hours in the community
• Tangible acts of good character throughout the school and city environments
• Teacher development- gaining an addition degree or certification
• Parent involvement within the school community
• Before-school and after-school student tutoring, clubs, mentoring
What really matters when students leave our schools and are released into the workforce? Are labels the answer to ensuring their success as professionals?