I recently learned that I teach at a persistently poor performing school.
It happened after Ohio bureaucrats unveiled new, “more rigorous” criteria for determining success and failure in the state’s public schools. My district, previously deemed worthy of “continuous improvement” status, suddenly got downgraded.
It wasn’t alone. Some schools previously rated “excellent” suddenly ranked poorly according to Ohio’s bean-counters — based not on new information, but on a reevaluation of old information.
Confused? Me too.
I’ve never liked how the state judges schools and issues report cards. It’s insulting, demeaning, and — most importantly — inaccurate.
Test scores bear too much weight. And test scores, while important, don’t tell the whole story.
So far this year, my students have written and published three books. They’ve read and analyzed dozens of short stories, essays, poems, and novels. They’ve interviewed senior citizens and written papers about the results. They’ve debated issues of equality and gender.
Just next door, students have walked a simulated Oregon Trail to experience pioneer life in the 1800s. Down the hall, they’ve participated in track-and-field events and measured the results to see real-life applications of science and math. One floor down, they’re welding, working on automobiles, and rehabilitating injured legs.
Students in my school routinely earn full-ride scholarships to prestigious colleges and universities, excel in athletics, sing and act in professional-quality plays, produce daily news programs televised to their classmates, cook phenomenal meals, volunteer for local service groups, collect thousands of cans of food to help the less fortunate, and enrich their community in dozens of other ways.
Teachers in my school include first-rate graphic artists, home economists, mathematicians, journalists, valedictorians, researchers, and career educators. All of us share a common goal: to give kids what they need to succeed.
And we’re nothing special.
Across the state, in almost every school and district, students and teachers excel in similar ways and achieve similar results. But the state takes none of this qualitative information into account when it measures schools.
My wife works in a nursing home. When the state inspects her building each year, four or five evaluators from Columbus arrive, unannounced, for a week. A dietitian looks at the quality of the food, safety personnel look at the physical building, nurses pore over records and charts. Employees are interviewed. Patients are interviewed. When it’s over, the company receives citations for its mistakes, a window of time to fix them, and a later evaluation to determine that corrections have been made.
But in education, faceless bureaucrats pull graduation rates, attendance numbers, and — most importantly — test scores, stack them against a pre-fabricated yardstick and issue a determination. Nobody bothers to visit, to meet people who work and learn there, or to observe a single class.
Why can’t that nursing home assessment approach work for schools? Why can’t teams of teachers and administrators, trained to look for the good and the bad, walk in some morning, observe classes, evaluate lesson plans, talk to students, parents, teachers and administrators, and make an overall assessment based on both qualitative and quantitative data? People and numbers count, not just numbers and numbers.
Is it because this method is too expensive? Or is it because first-person evaluations might reveal a different reality than the one politicians sell to the public, one that allows their rich, opportunistic friends to establish a foothold in public education and exploit it? Might such evaluations show that many educational disparities are caused by income disparities, a problem made worse by a widening gulf between rich and poor?
That kind of theory used to strike me as paranoid. Then I watched billionaires open their wallets and make huge donations with strings attached. (I’m talking to you, Bill Gates). These affluent so-called education “reformers” want to see public education run like a business while sending their own kids to ritzy academies exempt from such ridiculous mandates. It could ruin our schools.
Public education still works. Don’t let the latest contrived reports tell you otherwise. Do what our lawmakers can’t or won’t — come to my persistently poor-performing school and see for yourself.
Chris Schillig is an English teacher in Alliance, O. An earlier version of this op-ed ran in the Alliance Review. Distributed via OtherWords.org.