Will school ratings help or hurt?

Posted: Sunday, April 29, 2001

Critics of an upcoming school rating system in Alaska are concerned low ratings will drive away teachers and demoralize communities.

In fall 2002, Alaska's schools will be labeled as distinguished, successful, deficient or in crisis, depending on standardized test scores and their change from year to year.

What's in a label? "That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet," said Shakespeare, who obviously never worked in public relations.

Kentucky used to call its lowest-performing schools "in crisis." Now they're called "assistance" schools because the term seems more objective.

"Being called 'an in-crisis school' doesn't do anything for your morale - trust me," said Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education.

Others say public ratings provide a powerful incentive to improve. Putting the information in black and white really does drive improvement, said Kathy Christie of the Education Commission of the States.

"Ratings are a very public event in Texas," said Criss Cloudt, an associate commissioner with the Texas Education Agency. "It's a lead story that's covered in every single newspaper in the state, no matter how big or how small. You can imagine the impact in a community where a school is rated low-performing."

Alaska's rating system "might be an example of creating a system that promotes the rich getting richer," said Rich Kronberg, president of NEA-Alaska, a teachers' union. "If I am a teacher who has very marketable skills, I'm going to go to a school that's distinguished. Those schools in crisis have the most need of high-caliber teachers, who are least likely to want to go to them."

School districts in Alaska's Bush, which tended to score low on the most recent state standardized tests, already have a high turnover of teachers. That makes it hard to improve those schools because new teachers don't know the state standards or understand Native culture.

The Bering Strait School District had a combined 30 percent turnover of teachers and administrators after last school year, according to Alaska Teacher Placement, a University of Alaska Fairbanks-based clearinghouse. Yukon Flats lost more than half its certificated staff. Up to 10 percent is normal for turnover, the placement service said.

Frank Hill, who for about 10 years was superintendent of a string of small schools in the Lake and Peninsula Borough, northeast of Bristol Bay, said prospective teachers often ask about schools' test scores, which are public information already, and may see low scores as a challenge.

But for existing teachers, a low rating "could scare them off because basically they'll get blamed for it and their professional reputation will be on the line, so to speak," said Hill.

What follows the ratings?

Critics of ratings also wonder what sort of help struggling schools will get, while supporters say there should be consequences for repeated years of poor scores.

"Are we going to engage in a lot of finger-pointing? Or are we going to engage in a lot of assistance?" Kronberg said.

Seventeen states rate all schools and another 10 identify only low-performing schools, according to the publication Education Week. Sixteen of those 27 states offer financial help for at least some low-performing schools, and 15 reward high-performing schools with money.

Kentucky gives bonuses to high-improvement schools and grants to the lowest-performing schools.

"They were so thrilled that they now had resources, access to materials and funding they never had before," Kentucky education spokeswoman Lisa Gross said of the low-income schools. "It really pumped up the morale of that region."

Some states also sanction low-performing schools. Fourteen of the 27 states have the authority to reorganize or take over failing schools, 16 can replace principals or teachers, nine let students enroll elsewhere, and 11 states can revoke accreditation.

Alaska schools that are designated deficient or in crisis have to come up with an improvement plan. The state Department of Education will monitor those plans and can offer help in improving student performance. The agency also can recognize distinguished schools.

The details of how to help struggling schools haven't been worked out, state education officials said. It might include such help as sending consultants to train teachers to match their lessons to state academic standards, or show teachers how to implement a new reading program.

"It doesn't feel to me like it's a sincere effort on the part of the state to improve schools," said Juneau fifth-grade teacher Linda Frame of the rating proposal.

"All they're doing is taking some arbitrary figure and ranking us and putting us in a position that can polarize schools and take away from a strong community. Education is a community effort. We do this in a context of community support," she said.

This year, an administration-appointed task force recommended more state funding for education, which school districts could use partly for summer school, tutors and additional classes.

Apart from the usual school funding, the panel also suggested creating a research center that would give technical assistance to low-performing schools. And the task force called for financial incentives for schools that are designated distinguished, and similar grants of $10,000 to $100,000 for low-rated schools.

"I think it's inappropriate and inadequate to simply label schools and then wash your hands of it," said Ketchikan Mayor Bob Weinstein, a task force member. "There needs to be some follow-up to the labeling."

Some proponents of accountability say money isn't enough.

Achieve, a group of state governors and business executives interested in education, recommends states follow ratings with a range of sanctions, including firing principals and teachers, and allowing students to transfer to other schools, said Jennifer Vranek, its director of benchmarking and state services.

Under Alaska's system, the only real accountability is on high school students to pass the exit exam, she said.

"One would ask whether the adults are being held as accountable as the students," Vranek said.

Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.

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