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Judging schools by an unfair standard

This perspective was published in the Winston-Salem Journal on October 17, 2015. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

Undeserved, negative labels can have a stigmatizing effect. I do not believe that many people would want to be falsely classified with a marker that could diminish their reputations or taint how they are viewed by others. Even when schools are falsely branded as not succeeding, whole communities suffer, which is why Arika Herron’s Sept. 20 story, “More schools deemed ‘low performing,’” is so disturbing.

In it, Herron recounted a compromise in the most recent state budget that allows for the state to change the “definition of a ‘low-performing school’ in a way that greatly expands the number of schools with the designation.” Simply put, it allows the state to label more schools “low-performing” retroactively — 202 more to be exact. And this label is stigmatizing many schools that are actually showing growth.

If a school or a school system has rightfully earned its reputation, then so be it. As citizens, we have a right to conduct research into where we want to live and where we send our children to school. But the story should serve as evidence that there are many people in power who wish to convince our citizens that public schools are underperforming and that school “reform” is necessary.

Schools are mostly judged by standardized tests taken by non-standardized students administered in robotic fashion and graded by non-school personnel. That alone should cause concern in how North Carolina defines school performance. Student growth should be measured by what happens in 180 school days, not by what occurs on one day. However, the results create a label for many schools that they can never purge.

These labels are insulting and degrading, especially when those being categorized have little or no control in how they are perceived in the eyes of others. Of the schools now labeled as “low-performing,” over 450 have large populations of low-income students, but many have shown growth in student achievement. However, when the definition of “low performing” keeps changing, the public sees what those in power want them to see: schools are not doing the job and “reform” is needed.

Placing more emphasis on singular tests to judge school performance is a dangerous precedent. On October 5, Walter McDowell, BEST NC board member, made an argument that we should be most concerned that North Carolina ranked last in the nation in college and career readiness as measured by the ACT exam (“N.C. Budget: A missed opportunity to transform education”). However, that is a cherry-picked number and it labels our state negatively.

North Carolina is one of only 13 states that requires all students (EC, LEP, etc.) to take that exam, which has no impact on their transcripts, provides no feedback in its scores on how to improve student achievement, and is administered on a school day on which other activities and classes take place. Most states only have paying students take the ACT on a Saturday; those students have an investment in the results, hence higher scores.

McDowell does bring to light that we as a state need to invest more in teachers and public schools. I just hope when he claims “BEST NC urged lawmakers” to do what is best for the education system that it included speaking against Sen. Jerry Tillman’s HB539 bill to divert more public money to unproven charter schools, Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam’s S456 bill to fund more Opportunity Grants, and Rep. Rob Bryan’s quest to bring an Achievement School District (which has worked disastrously in Tennessee) to North Carolina. Each one of those “reforms” is fueled by the notion that our public schools are failing us, an undeserved label.

If legislators and state leaders really wanted to focus on labeling, then they need look no farther than West Jones Street in Raleigh. North Carolina was just ranked 50 (out of 51, including D.C.) for “Best States for Teachers” by consumer website WalletHub based on teacher salary, per pupil expenditure and teacher-to-student ratios. All of those factors are easily controlled by the General Assembly.

It seems that if legislators wanted to “reform” schools, then they would provide adequately for public education in the form of resources and sustainable teacher salaries. They would realize that the correlation between “low-performing” schools and high-poverty areas is a strong one. They would hold themselves accountable for removing the very obstacles that impede schools from performing optimally.

Until then, they are the ones who are “low-performing.”

Stuart Egan

Stuart Egan is an English teacher at West Forsyth High School in Winston Salem, North Carolina.