Friday, December 14, 2018

A wrong solution for Michigan's schools

"Stacked rankings" are the business equivalent of education's bell curve for grades. A few "A's" and "F's" and a whole lot of "C's".

Microsoft has used stack rankings. Some argue that it led to Microsoft's "lost decade"; a loss of collaboration and creativity. 

Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft.
Kurt Eichenwald
Vanity Fair, August 2012

HB 5526 (page 68), recently passed by the Michigan House and forwarded to the Michigan Senate has a "stacked rankings" component. It requires the following when grading schools:

While the language is not clear, the intent is very clear. Similar schools will be grouped and compared to one another. This requires some schools to get an "A" grade and some to get an "F" grade.
Stacked ranking - enshrined in state law.

Microsoft thinks so much of it that they have abandoned it. Brustein says that "corporate America has largely lost confidence in management programs that jam employees onto bell curves."

Yet, HB 5526 requires failure.


The cynical side of me is inclined to believe that it is because those opposed to public schools want to ensure that there will be failures. 

This model refuses to accept that all schools within a class or grouping could be doing well. 

Why not create a real system that honestly evaluates what is occurring without mandating that there be failure? 

Secondly, there is an assumption in this bill that schools can be grouped by similar characteristics. That may be true in general but not in specifics. Any one who has been in schools knows that each school has its own culture, its own unique characteristics that make it different from every other school.  

But HB 5526 requires that within this narrow band of similar schools some schools will fail.

What this means is that a school with high performance could receive a low grade when compared to others within its "class." However, a school with lower performance may receive a high grade when compared to schools within its class.

The bills sponsors say this, and other provisions of the law, are done to give parents clarity on school performance. This bill does nothing of the sort.

Public schools are doing good work. Instead of mandating failure let's create a system that honors the hard work and the success is occurring in public schools.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

When the grade is wrong

The Michigan House passed a bill that will soon pass the Michigan Senate and be sent to Governor Rick Snyder for his signature. It is almost assured that he will sign this legislation. 

Among other things it will require each school to receive a letter grade of A-F not later than September 2019 in the following areas:
  •  Proficiency on state assessments in math and English Language Arts
  • Student growth on state assessments in math and English Language Arts
  •  Growth of English Language Learners
  • Graduation rate of high school students
  • The academic performance of students on state assessments compared to student performance in schools serving a similar population
The legislation also requires that beginning in September 2019 each school shall receive a ranking of significantly above average, above average, average, below average, or significantly below average in each of these categories:
  •  Rate of pupils who are chronically absent
  •  Participation rate on state assessments
  • Pupil subgroup performance (typically these are racial/ethnic categories but also include special education and English Language Learners) on state assessments compared to statewide performance
This advocates for letter grading and these rankings suggest that this will make schools more accountable and will lead to improved performance. 

This is a lie.

I was clear with our state legislators that I was opposed to this legislation for several reasons. First, it was not needed. The Michigan School Data website already provides parents with a dashboard of information. This dashboard provides relevant information on every school in Michigan in easy to understand charts and graphs. 

No letter grades are provided on the Michigan School Data website because they are not needed. The information is clear. Letter grades would not add any appreciable information or clarity that is not already available.

Second, letter grades and rankings cannot summarize a school’s character and performance. Even dashboards do not reveal the culture, climate, individuality, or resources of a school. Letter grades certainly do not do provide that information.  

The letter grade bill does not provide a parent or community member with any of the following information:
  • Class sizes
  • Available Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes
  • Available advanced classes at all levels
  • Available extra-curricular activities
  • Available curriculum in science, social studies, art, music, physical education, library/media
  • Instructional support available in math and reading
  • Dedicated space for art, music, library
  • Teacher turnover rates
  • Availability of extra experiences in science, technology, engineering, and math
  • Available technology in the schools
There are many other factors that this letter grade bill does not provide information on that are relevant and important to parents as they consider whether a school is a school to which they would want to send their children. But this bill ignores those factors because it is a bad bill.

But now it is law. And schools will suffer. The law does nothing to improve schools. In fact it will lead schools to focus on these factors at the exclusion of providing students with other experiences that are meaningful and important. 
  • Why promote science when the school will not receive a grade in that subject?
  • Why promote social studies when the school will not receive a grade in that subject?
  • Why have Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or a rich and deep curriculum then the school will not be graded or rated in those areas?
  • Why promote the arts when schools will not receive a grade in that subject?
  • Why create Maker Space classrooms and provide those experiences when schools will not receive a grade in those experiences?
  • Why provide a dedicated media specialist and a dedicated media center when schools will not receive a grade for that?
The legislation requires "similar schools" to be compared and graded against one another. Some may argue that is fair. But the circumstances and context of an individual school are not taken into consideration. Only the performance in reading and math will be considered. What will result is a school that pays attention to student mental health or provides great after school activities or provides reading and math support will be graded low in their "similar school" ranking even though they score higher in reading and math than the majority of schools in the state.

This bill will not improve schools. It has the real possibility to make things worse as schools, in an effort to improve a grade, narrow curriculum and reduce opportunities for students. 

Chasing a grade has never proved to be a good strategy to learn deeply. 

This letter grade legislation will not improve schools in Michigan. In fact, it will make things worse.