It’s time to think differently when evaluating our schools

Posted 9/20/19

Public education is at best a misunderstood institution and at worst an under-funded, over-worked and far-too-complicated system.

We need to change how we think about it, particularly when it …

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It’s time to think differently when evaluating our schools

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Public education is at best a misunderstood institution and at worst an under-funded, over-worked and far-too-complicated system.

We need to change how we think about it, particularly when it comes to evaluating individual schools.

The recent announcement of the state’s public school performance grades shines a spotlight once again on how individual schools performed on state-mandated tests and some other areas of academic achievement and growth. Given grades from A-F, Chatham’s schools performed well, with one A, nine Bs, six Cs and one D. That’s a stellar report for a county where about 50 percent of the students receive free and reduced lunch, meaning almost the majority of students live in some form of poverty or economic disadvantage.

But as Jaime Detzi, chairman of the Chatham Education Foundation, said at our recent One Chatham forum on poverty’s impact on public education, the grades reflect the students’ economic position more often than not.

“You’re not necessarily reflecting academic growth,” she said of the grades. “You’re stigmatizing that school. You’re not giving the community the value of the school.”

She’s right.

The way North Carolina evaluates schools places a score priority on economic status by valuing proficiency at a much higher level than growth, and it needs to change right now.

Students with more economic disadvantages generally perform weaker on state tests. That doesn’t mean that all children in poverty do, or that we should stop trying to help them because it’s inevitable they will struggle. Teachers across the county, state and country are pouring their blood, sweat and tears into their classrooms hoping to help their kids get smarter and stronger, both personally and academically.

But we need to shift the conversation around how we evaluate public schools. Just because Chatham Middle got a “D” this year doesn’t mean it’s not a school worth attending. Just because the Chatham School of Science & Engineering got an “A” doesn’t mean it’s the best school by far in the county.

That’s something Derrick Jordan, Chatham County Schools’ superintendent, recognizes. We asked him about Virginia Cross Elementary — the school scored a “C” this year, exceeded growth projections and jumped six points in its score — and he praised the school, but in doing so he made it clear that he dislikes singling out any individual school. He sees value in all of them, and he’s in them and around them every day.

To accurately evaluate a school is to take in all the factors that play a role in a school’s success and, unfortunately for those who work in schools, most of a school’s impact on a child won’t be felt until later in life. They may have scored low on a test in third grade, but they might become a future president of a community college or run a successful auto mechanics shop or serve as a janitor at the one of Chatham’s senior centers. All of those jobs are valuable, and each of those individuals use what they learned in school every day, whether it’s math, science or intangibles like a good work ethic, common sense thinking and dedication to their job.

Maybe a teacher or principal made an off-hand comment or wrote something on a graded paper that inspired that student to pursue their dreams or work a menial job to support their family.

That’s the effect of education, and because so many children can’t afford to go to private schools or make the grade to get into charter schools, they have public education. Not to demean those options — Chatham has its fair share of excellent private and charter institutions.

But public education, and Chatham’s public schools, deserve our support, not our ridicule. The work they do deserves our attention, not our ignorance. Their administration, teachers and students deserve our care, not our disgust. And it starts by giving the work done in our schools by students and teachers alike the proper due, not relegating its evaluation to a single letter grade.


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