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Patrick Gannon: School letter grades are tough love

Patrick Gannon

Patrick Gannon

Patrick Gannon

RALEIGH – “Tough love” is now part of government’s role.

That’s what happened in many areas across North Carolina last week when every public and charter school in the state was given an A-to-F grade for the 2013-14 school year by the State Board of Education.

More schools received F’s (146) than A’s (132). Many schools – 1,003 – got C’s, while 582 received B’s and 561 took home D’s. Essentially, grades for elementary and middle schools are based 80 percent on student achievement on standardized tests and 20 percent on student growth year over year. High school grades take other factors into account, including graduation rates.

In several years covering state politics, I’ve rarely seen as much emotion poured out as I witnessed in the Board of Education meeting and subsequent press conferences on the day the grades were handed out. Republicans and Democrats acknowledged that many teachers, administrators and parents would be hurt by the scores.

In 2013, the Republican-led General Assembly created the system. The 2013-14 school year is the first to measure schools this way, as is done in 16 other states. I initially came away thinking what a bad idea it is to dumb down the performance of entire schools with a single letter grade, when so many other measures are available.

But for the next few days, I thought and read more about it. As someone with a child about to enter kindergarten, I came away with a different perspective.

Perhaps the letter grades will lead to better schools.

First, even if the way the grades are tallied is flawed, as many in the education world are saying — they are a wake-up call that more must be done to ensure adequate education of all of the state’s children. No one disputes that.

Second, the grades reflect a sad reality that educators already knew — that schools with more kids from poor families are more likely to get poor grades. The achievement gap is alive and well. Perhaps the blunt force of a failing grade will get more parents involved in their kids’ education.

And maybe it will spur legislation, more funding or bold initiatives to ensure that the best teachers are willing to teach in the struggling districts and that students have the tools they need to learn. Legislative Republicans already are indicating that they want to emulate what successful schools in low-income areas are doing in other schools that aren’t faring so well.

Third, the letter grades, in their cruel simplicity, reinvigorated the already contentious debate over education in North Carolina. June Atkinson, the state superintendent of public instruction, ticked off a list of proposals she believes will improve outcomes. She mentioned more professional development opportunities and higher pay for teachers, greater access to early childhood education, more opportunities for summer learning and more dollars for nurses, psychologists and sociologists in schools to address physical and emotional needs of students.

“I am optimistic that the General Assembly will use these data to rededicate themselves to helping the people who really need more resources to make a difference for our children,” Atkinson said.

Now, the question is whether those who created the “tough love” system will follow through on what they learn from it.

I welcome your thoughts on the letter-grade system. Email them to pgannon@ncinsider.com.

Patrick Gannon writes for Capitol Press Association.

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