Yesterday, the Florida Board of Education voted to change the rules by which the state Department of Education labels local public and charter schools with letter grades each summer. The 4-3 vote was far from its usual unanimous endorsement of the education commissioner’s recommendation.
The focus of the controversy was a proposal by Commissioner Tony Bennett to limit the extent to which a school’s letter “grade” would drop because of changing achievement score thresholds on state tests and previous changes to the grading scheme. Bennett was responding to concerns of superintendents that drops of two or more grades would cause more havoc than productive discussion, and so he proposed that the state continue to limit drops to one letter grade. In effect, the state board approved a safety net of sorts for local public schools and charter schools.
Eventually the board approved Bennett’s suggestion, but not before considerable debate, or perhaps more accurately a political Sturm und Drung that doesn’t usually pop up on the state board. Sally Bradshaw argued that the change was a lowering of standards, echoing talking points distributed by the conservative Foundation for Florida’s Future: “I don’t understand when it became acceptable to disguise and manipulate the truth simply because the truth is uncomfortable.” Kathleen Shanahan argued that the system itself made less and less sense: “I am struggling with the integrity of the accountability system … and the reliability of the grades.” Board Chair Gary Chartrand said, “I don’t think the truth is being revealed in the current grading system.”
During the debate, Bennett struggled to explain how his proposal was consistent with a hard push on accountability, especially since he had changed his position on the “safety net” only in the last week. The morning after, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Cavallo had no difficulties in questioning the whole arrangement:
On FL's accountability system and its validity issues; question is how many more bandaids do we apply to this critically-unstable patient?
— Alberto M. Carvalho (@MiamiSup) July 17, 2013
And according to Miami Herald reporter David Smiley, other states that are implementing some version of letter grade labels were watching the debate in Florida.
So among the Republican ruling class in the state, is this a crisis of confidence in school accountability? Probably not, though it points to the fact that the state Department of Education is operating much less of a technocracy than it is functioning as a clunkocracy.
First, we should remember that with any system of labeling in education, the boundaries of categories are somewhat arbitrary. This is true whether you are talking about a weekly math quiz or the annual apparatus of labeling schools. We just hope that the dividing points are arbitrary in the sense of careful arbitration rather than in the sense of “arbitrary and capricious.” There should be no place for the macho attitude of Sally Bradshaw; anyone setting thresholds for grades or classifications should be a little more humble. But we tend to invest the arbitrary labels of schooling with more moral weight than they can carry, and Bradshaw is far from unique in viewing details of school policy as a morality tale.
Second, I agree with Rick Hess, whom Smiley quoted as saying that with any system of labeling schools, tinkering is inevitable. Since the creation of the school-labeling system in 1999, the State Board of Education has changed the grading rules in the majority of years. Sometimes the tinkering will be uncontroversial, and sometimes it will raise political hackles. Exercising one’s hackle muscles is the price of sitting on a state board of education.
Third, the political appeal of Florida’s “school grading” is hard to fight. There is no inherent value in having five categories to label schools, versus three, four, or six. But if there is no practical reason for five categories, there is political genius in mapping an education policy onto common adult memories of what a “real school” does–grade students. You were graded in school, so why shouldn’t the schools be subject to the same? The stability of having school grades is the operation of political feedback in a school accountability system: it has face validity to the general public, and anyone who wants to change it can be accused of lowering standards.
The political stability of labeling schools with letter grades is not inevitable. The dynamic is different in New York City, which tried importing Florida’s notion of grading schools, and where the annual exercise is generally considered to be illegitimate (see the 2012 roundtable in the New York Times for a sense of views). But New York City does not have a political system tidally locked to one party that has a school grading system as its landmark policy initiative. As long as the Republican Party holds onto the Florida legislature and Jeb Bush is alive, the school grading system is likely to remain in some form.
What this week’s debate shows us is how little resemblance school accountability policy has to the ideals of technocracy. What we do not have is a lot of smart people in shirtsleeves figuring out how to crunch numbers to identify exactly the schools that need help and the school that should be highlighted as great. That does not mean that smart people don’t work in the Florida Department of Education; I have met many in the time I have lived in Florida. Rather, I mean that any school accountability system is inevitably jerry-built, an odd-looking contraption driven by somewhere between five and twenty people–the drivers being the state commissioner or superintendent, the state board, legislative leaders, and the governor. On occasion the drivers agree that the contraption needs to be partially rebuilt while it’s in the middle of operation, and the greasemonkeys need to hold on for dear life while they change the tires and swap gears, all while the engine is chugging along.1 For those who remember Rube Goldberg, every school accountability system is a Rube Goldberg device.
In other words, I mean that school accountability is a clunkocracy.
Given the clunky nature of accountability, and the likelihood that Florida is stuck with something called “school grading” for a decade or more longer, are there ways to improve the current system? Absolutely! Four come to mind:
- Split the single “grade” into separate labels for different important qualities of schools: student achievement in core subjects, achievement in other parts of the curriculum, graduation and college attendance (for high schools), and the environment of the school. Students don’t receive just one grade; they receive grades for different subjects. Why should schools have a single label?
- Splitting the school “grade” into different components would allow improvement plans to focus on the pieces with the most urgent needs. That would also allow the state department of education to identify major areas of need and develop statewide or regional technical assistance centers that are focused on the most urgent areas of operation.
- Have improvement plans be funded at the state level. Right now, districts have the bulk of the burden for funding the improvement of schools in deep trouble. Because poorer districts have a disproportionate number of schools needing assistance, they need to redistribute more of their local resources. While district leaders need to be held accountable for supporting local schools in need, the other schools in the district should not be penalized by forcing resources to flow from them.
- Make private schools receiving a significant number of students with vouchers participate in both the state assessment system and the school grading system. Right now there are dozens of private schools that essentially are funded by public policy but are not accountable to the public. We can use the same threshold that both local public schools and charter schools use; small charter schools are not given school grades, and that would also be true under my proposal. That means that private schools accepting a small number of voucher students would not have an overwhelming administrative burden, but private schools that would never be open except for vouchers would be accountable publicly… and it would eliminate the incentive for poorly-performing charter schools to turn to vouchers and thus escape accountability.
Both politics and policy are the art of the possible. If we are stuck with some form of labeling Florida schools with A, B, C, D, or F, we should rework the clunkocracy to waddle in a more productive direction.
- In Florida, political rules forbid the existence of pit stops for accountability systems. [↩]