Proposed Mn school rating system could discourage excellent educators

The following column appeared in a number of suburban and rural Mn newspapers in May, 2018

Minnesota Senate wisely rejects school rating system

Here’s good news about a bad idea: A coalition of Minnesota Senate Republicans and DFLers rejected the effort to give each Minnesota public school and district a single number (1-100) or one- to five-star rating to summarize their results.

While the rating system is still in the Minnesota House bill, the Senate’s action is encouraging.

A growing rural, suburban and urban coalition of families, along with district and charter public school educators, believe this rating system would be misleading, counterproductive and harmful to school improvement efforts. The star and points system is well-intended but unwise.

Because the rating system is still in the Minnesota House bill, it’s important for people concerned about this to encourage Minnesota House members to accept the Senate’s position.

Several weeks ago, I wrote about this issue. At that time, both Minnesota House and Senate education bills included a rating system based on test scores and attendance for elementary and middle schools, and the same factors plus graduation rates for high schools.

Parents are looking for accurate information about many things, most of which are not included in the proposed rating system. For example, parents want to know:

— What is the average class size?

— Are students feeling safe?

— Is the percentage of students reporting being bullied very low? Is the trend downward?

— What percentage of students in a high school are earning free college credits? What is the trend? What percentage of students from different groups are participating?

— What extra-curricular activities are offered? What percentage of various groups are participating? Research shows that being in music, debate, drama, speech or student government is a better predictor of success in life than high test scores or high grades.

— What opportunities are available for children to identify and help develop their unique talents and skills?

Unfortunately, the proposed star or number rating system includes none of these issues.

Research on a similar, though not identical, rating system in Oklahoma found important problems. For example, “free and reduced lunch students and minority students in (schools rated as) D and F … outperformed peers in A and B schools.” Dave Heistad, evaluation director of Bloomington Public Schools and one of the state’s leading evaluation experts, says this misleading result could very well happen in the proposed Minnesota system. So schools doing the best with students from low-income families and students of color could be rated at the bottom.

Is this misrepresentation what we want?

Minnesota has a growing problem attracting and retaining teachers. Educators have testified that the narrow rating system would discourage, rather than encourage, talented people from going into education. Is this our goal?

Many people of color oppose the proposed ratings. For example, former Minnesota Commissioner of Human Rights Bill Wilson says the rating system would “mislead, rather than help families understand the range of important things happening in schools.”

Wilson agrees with Kazoua Kong-Thao, formerly a St. Paul Public School board member and now an official of the Hmong American Partnership. She believes “simplistic numerical or star ratings will discourage talented people of color from entering or staying in teaching.”

John Poupart, director of the American Indian Policy Center and an activist for decades, believes that most American Indians find it more useful to evaluate schools in broader, more holistic ways, rather than assigning a single number or star to a school.

The Minnesota PTA wrote to legislators that the proposed rating system “does not give a clear nor accurate assessment of a school. It also does not welcome or encourage parent engagement.”

Minnesota parents, educators and community groups worked with MDE to create a new system of information for families that will be online this fall. Let’s give that system a chance. Let’s also keep working to gather and share information on issues such as those listed above.

Joe Nathan was a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator who directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org or @JoeNathan9249.