Oct 4th, 2014. New York City schools Chancellor Carmen Farina recently announced her plan to eliminate letter grades handed out to schools annually. The new system, based on a framework utilizing an “six essential elements” that drives progress – rigorous instruction, a supporting environment, collaborative teachers, effective leadership, strong family-community ties, and a culture of trust – and utilizes an outside educator review to provide feedback will replace the older, harsher, stigma-attaching report card grading system.
Farina’s intention to switch the focus from accountability to sharing information, while noble, forgets the two most important reasons tangible grades are given in the first place: [a] so parents have transparent, if imperfect, information on the relative performance of their child’s school, and [b] so underachieving schools have an urgency to engage in more activities that improve student achievement. Continually low performances have consequences in all walks of life, and the performance of schools should be no different.
The problem with Chancellor Farina’s logic to replace the city’s school report card system is the implication that the old and new frameworks are mutually exclusive. In other words – one must replace the other.
To that I ask, ‘why can they not exist together?’
Effective institutions and workers today often employ a common framework requiring two mechanisms of success: constructive feedback and measurements of results. For example, supervisors often conduct quarterly, semi-annual, or annual meetings with their employees to spell out specific strengths and weaknesses along with areas of achievements and lessons from failures. In education, teachers hand back student papers full of red marks that yield a supported final assessment in the form of a letter or number grade. In the restaurant industry, restaurateurs cringe as Yelpers voice their disdain for every entrée that takes thirty minutes to arrive or every hair-like substance that shows up on a dish, only to find a solid four-star rating on the strength of their food. The intention of such mechanisms is twofold: to improve the work of the person or institution, and to hold them accountable for results.
For years, the report card system gave schools a tangible mark of success or failure. They, just like a child receiving a low grade, would then have opportunities to work harder to achieve success. The main limitation of the system was that schools did not receive feedback on how to achieve. Now, Farina is giving schools the opportunity to receive at least some information on improving performance. If the system is designed properly in such a way as to share the relative strengths and weaknesses of the school, along with best practices from academic research and educator experience and/or strong district resources to tap into, the new system can in fact become a strong complement to the old.
We have a school system that has failed many families in many ways for many years. There is certainly no quick fix and Farina believes that a culture of shared knowledge is the long-term answer. However, by removing the accountability aspect of the report cards many schools will once again lack the urgency to improve, a result to which Farina’s stance to use school closings as a last resort will surely contribute to. I am not calling her ‘soft,’ as she has shown the willingness to go against the grain. However, we can no longer fail the next generation by pretending that failing schools are not failing. Farina’s plan is good, but it needs to be better. The opportunity is here to improve on the current system, and not just to move sideways.