The job of a leader is to tell the hard truths, to paint a picture of reality, to help people understand what is at stake if we don’t change course. Facts are stubborn and often inconvenient and when they challenge the status quo there is hell to pay by the truth tellers.
Such is the situation that we are in right now in education. Our courageous, truth-telling state education commissioner, Mike Morath, was instructed by the Legislature to come up with a rating system that assigns letter grades to public school campuses and districts. When the report cards came back with a fair number of Cs, Ds, and Fs, school board members, superintendents, teacher unions, and education trade associations began to denounce the system. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan famously committed the unforgiveable political sin of accidentally telling the truth when he said that suburban moms don’t like state tests because they discover “their child isn't as brilliant as they thought they were.” He promptly apologized.
Two education officials — one from a conservative Republican administration, another from a liberal Democratic one — and a host of empirical data are trying to warn us that if we don’t improve our public education system, we are going to be the nation of the past, not the country of the future.
Based on state test scores, attendance and drop-out rates, Advanced Placement and ACT success and several other factors, the recently unveiled A-F system attempts to help the public make meaning of the data by assigning letter grades the same way that students receive report card grades. I think that by and large, the system has hit the mark.
The reality is, in most measures of education performance in the United States, Texas ranks in the bottom half and sometimes in the bottom 10 percent. And the United States, as evidenced by the international test known as the PISA exam, has continued to fall out of the top 30 nations (behind Slovakia and Vietnam, but right ahead of Croatia and Kazakhstan). We are a low-performing state in a low-performing nation. It would then stand to reason that Texas’ A-F accountability system would mirror those inconvenient truths and unpleasant facts.
Enter the student achievement deniers; rather than accept that there’s a problem and work towards improving our schools, they instead beat up on the tests, say that the system is rigged and seek a political solution — scrapping the A-F system — to what is an escalating education crisis.
If we continue to deny the problem, we will never be able to marshal the energy and resources needed to create a solution. Without an A-F system like this, we won’t know if more money in the system is actually making a difference. If we don’t create more transparency, then we can’t identify the schools and systems that are getting top results so that we can study, learn from and copy their practices.
Don’t kill the messenger. Don’t doctor up the X-rays to make the patient feel better. Let’s not put our collective heads in the sand. Instead, let’s work together to give our kids the schools and the education they deserve — one that matches the exceptionalism and promise of Texas.