Rep. Lyons’ School Grading Plan Earns an “F”

images[7]As promised, Rep. Lisa Posthumus-Lyons (R-86) introduced her new bill to grade the performance of Michigan’s public schools using an A through F scale. The DeVos family-funded group, Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP), assisted the lawmaker in crafting the legislation.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of the 19 page amendment to the Revised School Code, let’s first review who and what GLEP really is. A couple of years ago, Chad Phillips of the Michigan Populist Blog, did some research on the organization. He reported that GLEP was launched in 2001 with funds from Dick and Betsy DeVos. Over the years, the extended family has given over $1 million cumulatively to the effort. Other funders include Daniel Gordon of Gordon Foods, Hendrick Meijer of Meijer Inc., and Jim and John Walton of Walmart. In 2006, Rick Snyder wrote them a check for $2,000. They currently hold the 17th place in the state for 2013 fundraising, as recently reported by Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

GLEP’s primary goal at the outset was to have the cap lifted on the number of charter schools allowed by law in Michigan — an effort that was thwarted under the Granholm administration, but met with success under Gov. Snyder. Phillips reported that they proceeded to focus their considerable efforts on the goal “to recruit, train and fund candidates for elected office in Michigan.”  This is not an unusual enterprise for the DeVos family. Last year, Democracy Tree reported on another one of the family’s organizations aimed at “educating” Michigan lawmakers — the Students Statesmanship Institute (SST). In this “school”, they indoctrinate potential and current leaders into promoting the notion that our founding fathers intended ours to be a Christian nation. The DeVos family, of strong Calvinist roots, believe this doctrine should be fully integrated into our public education system.

Both GLEP and SST have undergone recent public relations makeovers, with much of their most strident agenda points being removed from public view and substituted with the kind of vague feel-good language the far-right has elevated to an art form. They took down the online honor roll of their alumni — a list that had encompassed hundreds of well-known lawmakers and judges in the state, including:  Spencer Abraham, Jason Allen, Jase Bolger, Brian Calley, Dave Camp, Maura Corrigan, Mike Cox, Brian Devlin, John Engler, Terri Lynn Land, Steven Markman, William Schuette, Clifford Taylor, Cal Thomas, Brian Zahra, just to name a few.

Nuff said. Let’s move on to that legislation now.

Surprisingly, Lyons’ proposed grading system in no way resembles the ALEC model legislation, but that doesn’t make it any less harmful. HB-5112 calls for the development of an A through F scale to be deployed by 2016. The specifics are troubling:

  • Teach to the Test: The grading metrics assign points for each 1 percent of students who “score at or above proficient on state assessments” — earning points for each area of study tested. 
  • Lake Wobegon Syndrome: Teachers and school administrators remember the failed logic of “Adequate Yearly Progress” under No Child Left Behind. AYP, along with the teach-to-the-test incentives, were what made NCLB such a disastrous public education policy for the nation. Well, the next section of Lyons’ scoring system measures and rewards “annual learning gains” and awards points for each percentage of improvement as measured by standardized tests. This legislation is the ugly bastard child of NCLB.
  • Guaranteed Failure: The proposed scale is so rigid it requires that “at least 5% of all public schools are assigned a grade of F.” No matter what the margins, or mitigating circumstances — so many schools will always flunk.
  • Blind to Poverty: The only factors the law considers in allowing for exceptions are when a school has more than 95 percent of its students with an Individualized Education Plan, or where the majority of students are either “homeless”, have been diagnosed with “serious psychological disorders” including “suicidal behaviors”, are over the traditional age of students for their grade level, or are in a “strict discipline academy.”
  • Elitism: High performing schools are given an opt-out option on reporting to the state, while mid-range and lower schools must bear the burden of this law which provides no appropriation for its implementation, making it an unfunded mandate, and in violation of Michigan’s constitution.

No provision was made for what experts say is the number-one impediment to learning — childhood poverty. This legislation is just more of the same old teach-to-the-test, blame the teacher kind of nonsense, all while punishing the poor. It’s bad public policy spawned from a far-right think tank.

Lyons, and her co-writers on this bill, ignore everything we’ve learned about assessing student progress over the past two decades. The Great Lakes Center for Education Research (not affiliated with GLEP) describes the folly of relying too heavily on “Data Driven Improvement and Accountability” (DDIA):

When it is used thoughtfully, DDIA provides educators with valuable feedback on their students’ progress by pinpointing where the most useful interventions can be made. Thoughtful uses of DDIA also give parents and the public accurate and meaningful information about student learning and school performance.

However, in the United States, measures of learning are usually limited in number and scope, and the consequences for schools and teachers of apparently poor performance are often punitive. The result is double jeopardy:

  • First, accountability impedes improvement. Under pressure to avoid poor scores and unpleasant consequences, many educators concentrate their efforts on narrow tasks such as test preparation and coaching targeted at those students whose improved results will contribute most to their school’s test-based indicators.
  • Second, accountability is undermined because more and more teachers “game the system” to get their scores up quickly.

The flawed use of DDIA in much of U.S. education has significant ramifications. “When accountability is prioritized over improvement, DDIA neither helps educators make better pedagogical judgments nor enhances educators’ knowledge of, and relationships with, their students. Instead of being informed by the evidence, educators become driven to distraction by narrowly defined data that compel them to analyze dashboards, grids and spreadsheets in order to bring about short-term improvements in results.

Schools are driven to place too much emphasis on test scores that capture what can be easily measured. In doing so, they neglect other important skills and qualities that are difficult to quantify. Numerical data should also be combined with the collective professional judgment of teachers if effective decisions are going to be made that truly promote students’ learning and development.

Lyons stood alone in introducing her latest abomination. It was referred back to the House Committee on Education, of which she is the chair.

Amy Kerr Hardin


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