Parents aren’t getting straight answers about school performance

Wayne Hoffman Articles

In the government-run education system, no one ever wants to use the word “failure.” So the public school system’s statisticians and spinmeisters dance around reality with euphemisms like “underperforming,” “schools most at risk,” and “where the biggest needs are.”

Those are the phrases Idaho school officials used Thursday in a news release to describe schools that had failed to meet accountability thresholds, which were set by Idaho’s education officials as part of a federal requirement. The accountability thresholds include math and English scores and “student engagement.”

In publicizing the results from Idaho’s new paradoxically named “accountability system,” Idaho education officials said they don’t want to be heavy-handed with schools struggling to meet performance expectations. Instead, state officials promised a collective $6.3 million in “improvement grants” for schools that aren’t making the grade (my words, not theirs, obviously).

Idaho State Board of Education President Linda Clark was quoted in the media release. She said, the state’s purpose isbuilding partnerships and gaining local support and trust so that we can use these federal funds to really make a difference for the students and for these schools.” I almost can hear her saying she doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. After a pat on the back and a warm hug, the state of Idaho also promised to hand the money over and check back in a few years to see if it helped anyone.

Such mollycoddling is bothersome enough, but state school officials continue to pour sugar on top of a maple syrup pie by singling out schools as “top performers” if they managed to reach the 90th percentile (when measured against other Idaho schools) in any of the indicators used to measure school performance. That means a school can get a proverbial gold star even if one or more of academic results are less than stellar, as was the case this week.

This isn’t what Idaho’s students and parents need. Let’s be blunt. Failing schools should face the threat of closure, not elaborate ruses intended to hide the truth. Such a threat would force school boards to act, to hire well, reward great teachers and administrators, and take swift steps to rout out bad behavior. Furthermore, schools that miss performance expectations shouldn’t be granted the promise of more revenue. It’s been said more times than one can count, but lots of money does not produce great schools.

The parents of students who attend failing schools should have the option of getting their money back. Those students should then be able to take that money and use it to attend the school of their choice, public or private. In essence, that’s what many other states are doing, with innovative approaches that include school vouchers and education savings accounts. Rather than defend the education status quo and force students to attend a failing school (and thus force taxpayers to subsidize mediocrity), numerous states are empowering parents to do what’s best for students, not the education system.

I’m skeptical that a phony accountability system will ever make government-run schools better, and Idaho’s approach, as well as similar tactics in other states, is existence proof of that. Nonetheless, this is an absolute certainty: To give failing schools the intellectual equivalent of a safe space is never going to solve anything and will never make public schools better. Instead of blanketing troubled schools in platitudes the way a cat covers its crap in a litter box, parents need and deserve honesty. That means straight answers and facts regarding how well—or how poorly—Idaho’s schools are doing, so that we are all armed with the knowledge we need to get the best results possible for our kids.