Monday, August 13, 2018

School grades as snake oil that is good for no one

Just because someone offers you a snake oil cure for how to improve the quality of public schools doesn’t mean you have to swallow it. In fact, you shouldn’t.

The latest snake oil cure in Texas is school accountability via school grades. I know a good bit about school accountability—I make a living from the topic and have a deep-seated belief that true accountability is both necessary and achievable. And that snake oil isn’t the answer.

It’s easy to see the snake oil for what it is if you back up and ask a simple question: how does accountability work in successful organizations? I’ve explored the answer for years, written a book and a bunch of articles on the topic, and now work with schools to put in place what I’ve discovered. The answers to the question reveal the difference between a false accountability that will miss every policy goal it claims to support, and a true accountability that can move an organization in a desired direction.

I’ll mention three principles of true accountability to make my point.

Principle number one is that true accountability requires a complete, not a partial accounting. You wouldn’t invest in a company that provided one month’s worth of records and insisted it represented the entire year. You wouldn’t know the meaning behind a set of financial records without the shareholder’s report that explained the company’s performance and its plans for the future. Nor would you trust a non-profit that claimed to help people but refused to disclose how your donations were being spent.

Partial accountings that attempt to substitute for a full accounting must always be considered invalid. They can tell a story, but it will never be a full story, and risks being a wrong story. Any action against a partial accounting risks being a wrong action that makes things worse.

Principle number two is that true accountability must account for the mission of the organization, not just what is convenient to see or measure. The example I use all the time is the mission of the light bulb verses its measures. I can measure a great deal about a bulb—in fact, lights bulbs have measurable standards down to the tiniest detail so that any light bulb will fit into any socket and be as bright as any other 60-watt bulb no matter who manufactured it.

But if I focus only on what can be measured I miss the mission. The Louvre at night, the lit stage at the Metropolitan Opera, or a city skyline just after dusk represent the mission of the light bulb. If you only care about what can be measured, you risk that mission never being realized. And most of what matters in life and in organizations is at the mission, not the measurement level.

Principle number three is that true accountability demands contextualization to be accurately understood. Raw data that shows one company’s profits at 30%, and another’s at 1% aren’t comparable absent a context. Grocery store chains build hugely successful business models at very low margins, while a tech company needs a much greater margin to keep up with a constantly changing world. Some companies considered successful haven’t yet turned a profit and don’t plan to for years.

Absent the context for each, no judgments can be made. The grocery business cannot be judged as more or less successful the others absent the context. The business that has not yet turned a profit may in fact be the most successful of them all. It is the context that reveals the truth.

Note that context never equals excuse.

Make no mistake about carrying out these principles: some leaders do so far better than others, which in a quality organization necessitates changes. The most productive change occurs when individuals learn and improve, and while most can do just that, some either cannot or will not and for the good of the organization are asked to work elsewhere.

The snake oil of school grades violates each of these principles (and, just for the record, they violate each of the other principles not mentioned here as well) to the point that to call it accountability is to misname it.

First, school grades are by definition a partial accounting. They combine reading and math scores from end of a year tests (which given the design of the tests don’t mean what most people think) with several other annualized variables to produce a grade. This is in fact a partial accounting of the few things being analyzed, which in turn are a partial accounting of what happens in schools. Therefore the stories that results ask being wrong.

Second, school grades occur at the moment of the measure and never account for the mission of schooling. The mission of schooling should be to maximize the educational benefit for each child in the finite amount of time we have them in the educational system, so they are well-prepared to tackle life. By stopping at the measure, we put that mission in jeopardy, which harms kids.

And third, school grades are presented absent a contextualization. What was the focus of the school for the year? What were the issues unique to the student population and what was done to properly serve those needs? What are the hopes and dreams of the parents for their children, and to what degree is the school making those a reality? To what degree was the school effective? Understanding the context may well reveal that a school with fairly low test scores is serving its students, their parents, and the community effectively, while a school with fairly high test scores is not. That truth would be useful and actionable. The potential falsehood presented through decontextualized test scores and their resulting decontextualized grades would not.

A better way is possible. Asking the main accountability question: for what and to whom? offers anyone willing to ask it an insight into the mission of schooling and what it must attempt in order to properly serve students. A true accountability to that mission is a higher accountability than anything represented in the snake oil of school grades, and far more demanding of educators. A true accountability incents the truth, demands continuous improvement, and puts benefitting students front and center. It will reveal that some leaders do all of this better than others and insist that that those who lag behind their peers learn and grow themselves, with consequences when they do not or cannot.

The school grading system in Texas needs to be recognized for the snake oil it is. Don’t buy into its false promises of being clear and meaningful or offering a true path to improvement. Its failure to align with even one of the accountability principles reveals it for the charlatan that it is, and if you pretend otherwise it is the children of Texas who will bear the brunt.

We can and must do better.

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