Dial O for Outrage
If you’ve talked to a school administrator in the last couple of weeks, you’ve probably detected a palpable frustration. In the last few days, it’s turned to outrage.
The A-F Report Cards that the state is issuing are frustrating enough. Layer that with the school designations that districts received (which are kind of tied to A-F, but also kind of tied to the NCLB Waiver), and the explanations coming from the State Department of Education are just mind-boggling. During the last few days, people with whom I have spoken have heard the following statements:
- More schools were added to the Focus School list this week because we initially calculated the formula wrong. The SDE got their own formula wrong, and they expect school districts to sell these accountability reports to parents as somehow easier to understand? That’s just absurd.
- We’re not trying to label schools. Prior to 2011, the SDE had two lists designating school performance – Needs Improvement and AAA. They were pretty self-explanatory. Now the SDE has High-performing, High-progress, Focus, Targeted Intervention, and Priority. Schools can also be slapped with SIG and C3 designations. In case it’s not evident, only two of those are a good thing. There are letter grades and labels, and there are more labels than ever. Plus, we can predict from past experience with some certainty that the majority of High-performance schools will have low poverty and the majority of High-progress schools will have high poverty.
- We don’t feel the need to provide districts with the formula used to place schools on the various needs improvement lists. As schools try to compare their data reports with the information not provided by the SDE, it makes filing an appeal somewhat more difficult.
- We are trying to be more of a service agency and less of a regulatory one. The requirements for districts under just the A-F and Waiver reforms are more cumbersome than anything previous. That doesn’t even count all the other initiatives.
- We believe in transparency. Asking schools to inform parents they are eligible to transfer their students but not allowing the schools to communicate the reason for that eligibility is pretty damn opaque.
- We understand what you’re going through. They don’t. The people front and center giving the explanations at conferences and on webinars have limited experience in public schools and even less in decision-making roles in public schools. These people don’t know what they’re doing, and they’re not even proficient at the things they’re attempting.
- We are understaffed and answering questions as quickly as possible. I’d like to see what would happen if a school failed to provide the SDE with information because key positions weren’t filled due to budget cuts. Maybe they wouldn’t be understaffed if they’d quit firing people so capriciously.
- We created the A-F rules in response to legislation passed in 2011. Actually, the legislature wrote the A-F report card legislation in response to Superintendent Barresi’s request that they do so. When it scores political points, the SDE owns this reform. When it causes headaches, they try to act like they’re just responding to what the legislature made them do.
- If you’ll let these processes work themselves out, everything will be pretty self-explanatory. School district officials have no faith in that. Suggesting that they could shows a complete lack of understanding of the climate the SDE has created.
Districts are frustrated because the adopted A-F rules aren’t being followed as written. Some approved criteria aren’t represented in the formula. They are being asked to follow rules under the NCLB Waiver that were revised in August without a public hearing. They are being asked to bear financial burdens for transportation of open transfers and then told that they can’t explain to parents the criteria used to put the school on the Priority or Focus list in the first place.
Nothing the SDE has done this week has helped school districts manage these processes. They held a two day conference on two days’ notice, but spent 13 hours with an expensive keynote speaker and one hour explaining what the designations meant. They held a webinar that contradicted much of the information presented at an August webinar explaining what would be required of schools with their various labels. And in neither case did they actually get the federal guidelines for school choice correct.
With three weeks to go until the much anticipated release of these report cards, SDE staff has their work cut out for them.