Parents Deserve Clear Information About School Performance

Letter grades work for students, they can work for schools too

Photo via Wikicommons

Michigan’s new state education plan finally got the green light from D.C. Yet while the approved system ranks schools more fairly, the Legislature will have to act to ensure that information about school performance is made clear and useful to parents and other local decision-makers.

States need the U.S. Department of Education’s sanction of their plans in order to continue receiving federal education dollars under the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act. Like most states, Michigan public schools receive about one in every 10 dollars from Washington, D.C.

Getting Secretary DeVos’s approval means clearing the low bar of following a law that gives states more flexibility to craft accountability and support for local schools. To the good, Michigan’s ESSA plan gives schools more credit for the year-to-year progress students make, rather than heavily weighting raw achievement numbers that underrate higher-performing schools serving low-income populations.

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As a recent report by the Fordham Institute highlights, while Michigan has done a better job of judging schools fairly, the state has fallen down on creating a system that is “clear and intuitive for parents, educators and the public.” State leaders have an opportunity to show they trust local decision-makers with important information that may affect their children’s education:

If we can reasonably believe that a new reporting system will identify substandard schools, there’s no good reason to complicate that information or hide it from parents, businesses and other community members who will foot the bill for changes. An early warning system will work most effectively when enough people can hear and recognize the alarm.

It has been widely reported that a forthcoming legislative proposal would add easy-to-understand letter-grade labels to public school performance. The idea of earning a D or F may make some school officials uncomfortable, but Florida’s experience shows how a well-implemented policy can help drive needed academic improvements. Michigan certainly has a lot of room to get better.

Letter grades give more parents a vocabulary to talk about school quality. They also send a strong signal that motivates educators in struggling schools to focus on improving what takes place in the classroom. A 2013 study of Florida determined that “schools facing accountability pressure changed their instructional practices in meaningful ways,” resulting in higher test scores.

Research from New York City adds supporting evidence. Two separate studies of the Big Apple’s now-defunct school letter grade system found that issuing a school an F grade led to clear and persistent improvements in student learning.

The time is ripe for lawmakers to embrace an idea that is both sensible and popular: Assign schools meaningful grades that people can understand.

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