Monday, June 23, 2014

This is your school on Reform....Get the picture!

My colleagues and I frequently muse that if people really looked at and understood what’s going on in education, or in their local school, they would never stop muttering in astonished disbelief.  The seeming “good” news that Tacoma's Lincoln High School was able to lift itself off the state’s watch list of low-performing schools is a case in point.

Just two months ago, Lincoln was heralded as the 22nd most challenging high school in Washington.  (Note the district’s pride.)  

“Challenging” was awarded by Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews, and was based on the ratio of graduates to AP course enrollments.  This sits nicely with Tacoma’s conviction that more AP courses, into which students will be automatically enrolled if their performance meets certain markers, is the “best practice” for everything from pushing student performance higher to closing the African-American (and, presumably, Hispanic-American) achievement gap.

This week, though, administrators breathed a sigh of relief when Lincoln dodged the bullet that is the state’s watch list of low-performing schools.  They found enough clerical errors in their own records to get Lincoln off the dreaded list.  It seems that some 13 students who had actually graduated were left on the rolls in such a way that they were counted as dropouts or otherwise not graduating.  Some further 30 students had transferred from Lincoln and should not have counted against the school.  

Good for Lincoln...but not really.  Schools are assigned to the state’s watch list for 3-year rolling graduation rates below 60%.  Before identifying the clerical errors, Lincoln had been at 59.8%.  After fixing the errors, they climbed to 65%.

In other words, the very same school touted as "challenging" because it had a high ratio of graduates to AP enrollments didn’t even graduate two out of three students in the last 3 years.

When Lincoln was awarded its status as most challenging, a colleague observed that one way to get a high ratio of graduates to AP enrollments is to drive down the number of graduates.  At the time, we both thought he was playing farcical with the logical possibilities, but apparently not. 

Unless you're part of the educracy, and therefore understand all of this, you might be surprised.   Don't be, though.  This is part and parcel of the strange game--you might call it the fog of assessment--that goes on when it comes to evaluating student, teacher and school performance by way of few high value data points.

Such is the bureaucratic quagmire that is education today.  We grope, like the blind men describing an elephant, for little bits of information with which we satisfy ourselves that we really have got to the heart of the matter.  

The answer?  Get involved in a school.  Sure, your kid’s, but better yet, a school in another neighborhood.  If you can’t invest that much time, at least visit a school.  Watch a couple of classes, for several days.  What you see just might surprise you, and you certainly will understand education and schools better than any test scores could possibly inform you.

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