Lipstick on a Pig

Winners and LosersImage Credit: “Racin’ Snails 2” by Ron Warholic via Flickr

The Iowa Department of Education is preparing to roll out the first in a series of Attendance Center Rankings (ACR) this week.  Like Race to the Top and NCLB before it, the ACR system represents yet another attempt at education reform by politicians who rarely (if ever) set foot in the classroom.  And like its federal predecessors, it’s fundamentally flawed on a number of levels.

  • Start with the name.  There are approximately 1300 attendance centers (school buildings) in the state.  A ranking, by definition, means that there will be a top school and a bottom school.  A #1 and a #1,300.  A winner and a loser.  Drafts of the ACR system indicate that the department will use scatterplots to report out the data.  It’s a clever tactic to try to mask the rankings, but make no mistake, the “best” and the “worst” schools are still in there.  If we’re talking college basketball or the world’s best beaches or even private schools, rank all you want, but it doesn’t belong in public education.  Instead, provide us with a rating system so that we can at least have a criterion-referenced scale with which we can evaluate our performance.
  • Competition vs. Collaboration.  The ACR system was never intended to promote collaboration.  It’s a competition system.  If I’m performing at the top, what incentive is there to assist the schools below me?  Why risk giving them an advantage that could lead to my downfall?  Would we expect Google to share their secrets with Microsoft so that Bing can take over as the top-ranked search engine?  There’s already a huge competition between districts for increased enrollment numbers, especially in rural parts of Iowa where dwindling student populations can mean the death of small communities.  Now take into account that the ACR legislation demands a ranking for each school building, and even large systems are faced with the prospect of heated internal rivalry.  Imagine the challenges faced in a growing district when you have to open a new building or change boundaries.  Will families from a top-ranked school be okay going to one that’s untested, or worse, ranked lower?  What about staff or new teachers?  Will they volunteer for a placement at the lowest-ranked school, even if that’s where we need the talent most?
  • What are we measuring?  The ACR legislation specifies seven required education metrics for the ranking system: student proficiency, academic growth, attendance rates, parent involvement, employee turnover, community activities and involvement, and a closing gaps score.  The proficiency, growth, and gaps measures are the ones scheduled to drop this week.  These aren’t necessarily new, as they’re consistent with prior ed reform and accountability movements, and attendance rates make some sense as a way to measure student engagement in school.  I’m sure parent involvement rankings will be fantastic for high poverty, high minority buildings serving families that speak more than a dozen different languages.  These are always the easiest teaching assignments, too, so I’m sure employee turnover will be low.  Community activity rankings will also be interesting, especially considering the ACR work group couldn’t find a research-based model for collecting the data.
  • Oh, I’m sorry students.  Did you have an opinion on the matter?  Here’s a novel idea.  If you want to know how a school is performing, ask students for their opinion.  Start with a simple question: “Do you like school?”  If you want to know the quality of something like their civics program, ask them if they feel compelled to vote during their senior year.  Politicians, if you’re brave, I’d like to invite you to ask them a question about the Iowa Assessments or other high stakes tests.  I’m sure that they’ll tell you it’s a great idea to rank their school based on a bubble sheet test because they take those things incredibly seriously.

4404795276_ecd08a545c_qAttendance center rankings are poor policy, period.  The Iowa Department of Education tried to make the most of it, even admitting that “there is no evidence that proves ACR systems, as a standalone education reform initiative, are effective.”  I suspect that some of the officials involved still have serious reservations about releasing the data and know that it will be taken out of context by the media.  The best we can hope for is that they did a phenomenal job of putting lipstick on a pig.

Image Credit: “Lipstick on a Pig Icon” by murdocke23 via Flickr


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