Report cards on schools engage parents in education reform

In many places, education reform has migrated from the front pages to inside space. The momentum to create far-reaching initiatives has exhausted citizens and policymakers alike. But there’s still a need for a system that provides parents and educators with clear, useful signals of school quality.

In the waning days of the 2018 legislative session, Michigan became the 16th state to adopt A-to-F school letter grades, by approving House Bill 5526. The Great Lakes State is the latest to follow a path forged by Florida’s vigorous education reform efforts under former Gov. Jeb Bush. Significant improvements on national math and reading tests followed Bush’s slate of reforms. Michigan, losing ground on the same tests, has fallen behind Florida and most other states.

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Michigan’s new accountability law differs from its 15 predecessors on one key point. Rather than receiving one overall grade, Michigan public schools will get a report card that looks more like the one a typical student brings home. Five separate letter grades cover an array of measurements. One will assess how a school met fixed achievement benchmarks, and another how they helped students grow in their learning from year to year. A third will grade how a school stacks up against others with similar student demographics.

In recent years, Michigan has used an assortment of tools to report school performance, including vague labels and color-coded scorecards. It’s no wonder that the state’s voters back a school letter grade system by a 69-22 margin, according to a poll commissioned by the Michigan charter school association.

Despite the surface popularity of HB 5526, it needed to overcome resistance from bureaucrats and organized interest groups. When important information is harder to discern, those in power benefit.

On the other hand, when clear, simple measures of school accountability are in place, they do some good. Research from Florida and New York City found that the fear of earning an F grade led to measurable improvements in school performance: Underperforming schools were motivated to make needed changes to instructional practices.

Let’s be clear: School letter grades aren’t a panacea to what ails schools. But they ought to give a ray of hope to parents — though the details of what defines those grades clearly matter. No series of measurements can fully capture all that is important about school quality, and parents would be wise to remember that. The answer is to share meaningful data alongside the clear indicators.  

Active and engaged parents make up a crucial component of a child’s educational success, so they deserve clear information about school performance. During committee hearings for HB 5526, a Detroit mom and school choice advocate, Moneak Parker, testified that parents need a “less confusing” tool to help them distinguish which schools were helping students learn.

A Mackinac Center survey found that 15 percent of 1,500 Michigan charter school parents said they had difficulty finding useful information about school quality. And many more, especially racial minorities and those from low-income households, said the state’s math and reading tests were extremely important in helping them to make their choices.

Critics of grading schools worried about the effects lower letter grades will have on the self-esteem of employees within a school. But that view puts the focus on employees, not students. It also assumes that letter grades will only serve as tools of blame, when, in fact, educators should see them as guideposts to help motivate improvements.

A transparent system that uses the vocabulary of a report card is something most people are familiar with, and it can enable a broader community conversation about how to help schools improve. Leaders in any state would be foolish to think they could turn around a record of stagnant academic performance with many apathetic moms and dads pushed to the sidelines.

States such as Michigan would be wise to heed parents, both in how they quietly use the data to choose schools and in listening to their feedback about the grading system. Unfortunately, though, the new law by itself wrests no real control from the bureaucrats and organized interest groups who dominate the show.

The passage of HB 5526 marks a small step along the right road, but at least it gives parents a greater chance to play an important part in changing the conversation about education and learning. Making real progress on reform demands it.

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, an educational and research organization based in Midland, Michigan.