Can We Just Stop?

straight talk about students and learning

State Rankings in Education Results – What are they actually telling us?

Last I heard, public education was a state’s right, and a state’s responsibility. Indeed some states fare much better than others when the state rankings come out, but let’s think about what those rankings mean, and where the real debate should be taking place.

States are made up of many, many school districts, each district is typically composed of many schools, even within those schools are various “cohorts” whose academic progress is measures and aggregated/disaggregated many times in many ways. Each state and district has many ways of assessing student growth, normally tied to specific initiatives within the school, district, or state. Beyond that, some schools have individualized student plans with student-specific goals and measures.

How do we get information about how “well or poorly” public schools are doing? Doesn’t it usually come out in some sort of splashy news story which indicates states that are doing well, and others that are doing poorly, and who moved up in the rankings, who moved down, etc. This “ranking” is typically based upon some very important measures such as graduation rate, SAT or ACT scores, high stakes test results, etc. at a macro level for the entire state. Then everyone scrambles to find out what the “good” states are doing and what the “bad” states are doing or not doing that is making a difference so we can “fix” everyone. Once the flurry dies down, everyone gets back to business as usual. Maybe implementing a new program or investing resources in complying with the latest federal program promising money in exchange for oversight and control.

There are so many things wrong with this process that I’m not even sure where to start, but I’ll give it a try:
1. Somehow we need to be able to sort through all of this static to get to what really matters in public education – are students learning? What is working at the student/class/school level? What are the specific individual local challenges that a student/class/school are dealing with, and how are those being addressed? States don’t prepare for employment or go to college, students do. I know we can’t rank states based upon individual student successes or failures, but it seriously calls into question why we would even bother to rank states at all.

2. What benefit is there to students to have their state ranked high or low? Will students work harder or slack off based on these results? Are teachers likely to do anything dramatically different based upon these results? I would posit that there are likely more negative effects to students in that they may not only have challenges of poverty, gang violence, low expectations, or other issues to deal with, now they get yet another blow – even if they are students who are succeeding and doing their very best, they are at the bottom, yet again.

3. Is there any one thing that “works” that could be implemented across the board that would magically save states who are ranked lower? The success of an entire state’s education system is grounded in a complex matrix of factors related to history, the state and local economies, culture and values, education funding formulas, infrastructure, and many others, none of which can be changed significantly in any short period of time, and I question whether they should be.

4. Perhaps the most ridiculous of all is the fact that in some states that rank consistently “high”, there are horrible failures, horrible schools, terrible practices, and miserable results that are not reflected in the overall ranking of the state simply because of the size of the state.

The more we aggregate data and control, the less we see the real winners and losers in the debate – students. Children who depend on their local public school for some structure in their lives and for the positive outcomes that can make or break a student’s shot at a life that raises them above their parents in education and circumstance. Who is more invested in the success of children than their own parents, their own teachers, their own school leaders? How much does or should the federal government tell these people how THEIR students should be educated? Does putting incredible amounts of time and resources into dotting I’s and crossing T’s for the feds to earn one-time grant dollars make any sense at all?

Many states obviously feel they do. I disagree, and I hope that individual schools and districts who either chose not to apply or were not selected for Race to the Top funds continue to serve students every day in the ways that they know are best. Only they know if they are doing right by their students. If they can’t figure out ways to improve their own practice to help improve student success they should get out-of-the-way and let others do it. This is where the educational “rubber meets the road”, and this is where the success of our country lies – with individual students. We owe each and every one of them the very best we can offer.

This topic is not over. As I was writing it, so many related topics have come to mind. I’ll be continuing to address what I believe are the keys to student learning in the coming days.


September 20, 2011 Posted by | Education Reform | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment