JAKE MCGUIRE: ‘Feel-good’ labels hide schools’ problems

By Jake McGuire

In his May 27 column (“Making the grade gets tough”) Lloyd Gray is not defending fairness – he’s defending mediocrity. He argues that the new A-F grading system for schools is unfair; as a former classroom teacher in the Delta, I would have refused to hand back tests to students labeled “successful” for a 70 percent grade. We are not being “fair” when we use meaningless, feel-good labels to hide schools’ problems from parents.
Many districts that are rated “successful” are not successful in the common sense use of that word. For example, two of the state’s school districts have successful ratings despite all of their schools being rated below successful. Ten other districts are rated successful even though at least half of their schools are below successful. This is not just a Delta problem: despite the Lee County Schools having a “successful” rating, two schools are rated “academic watch” and two more are rated “low performing.” That means 36 percent of Lee County schools (a “successful” district) are rated below successful.
The old rating system hid struggling districts by chopping sub-par performance into four categories. How many parents, with no knowledge of the rating scale, could differentiate between “academic watch” or “low performing”? Under our new system, we won’t be hiding problems with nice-sounding labels: underperforming schools will all be rated D or F.
If we’re willing to give an underperforming student a D or F grade, why wouldn’t we be willing to give a D or F to an underperforming school?
We should also not feel bad for “high-performing” districts that will now be rated “B.” These districts have room to grow, too. Only one school in our entire state, the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, made Newsweek’s list of the top 1,000 high schools in America. None of our other public schools made the list. Legislators in Northeast Mississippi claim that they don’t need charter schools because their schools are excellent – except that only five districts in Mississippi have ACT scores above the national average. When even our best public schools lag behind the standards of average schools in other states, can parents in supposedly “high-performing” schools rest easy?
We have a lot of work ahead of us in improving Mississippi’s public schools. Our new A-F rating system is the first step in showing hard truths to parents, administrators, and students. We can’t afford to keep telling school districts that everyone is a winner – it’s time to face reality. Only when we face our problems with clear eyes can we give Mississippi’s students the schools that they deserve.
Jake McGuire is the Communications Coordinator at the Mississippi Center for Public Policy. He taught at Greenwood High School from 2010-2012. You can contact him at mcguire@mspolicy.org.