Friday, July 20, 2012

A conservative think-tank finally gets it!

The Mackinac Center, a self-professed non-partisan conservative think tank based out of Midland, Michigan, released an atypical report today that ranked all Michigan high schools based on four years of recent state test scores (ACT included), while controlling for socio-economic factors. 

Assessing a high school's effectiveness is not straightforward. Comparing a school's standardized test scores to those of other schools is one approach to measuring effectiveness, but a major objection to this method is that students' test scores tend to be related to students' "socioeconomic" status — family household income, for example, or parents' educational background. These factors, however, are outside a school's control.
 
The Michigan Public High School Context and Performance Report Card is an attempt to provide a better "apples-to-apples" comparison of public high schools by adjusting their students' average standardized test scores to account for disparities in the socioeconomic status of their student populations. 

This is a landmark report in Michigan and it comes at a time when Governor Rick Snyder plans to overhaul the entire public school funding system. This report also coincides with approval of Michigan's waiver request from the inherent stupidity of 100% proficiency for all students set by the failed No Child Left Behind program brought to us by the Bush Administration.

Combined, these events lend increasing credibility to several basic facts that make "one-size-fits-all" education policies and funding mechanisms the real failures in public education:

1. All kids are different and despite having only age in common with their classmates, come to school with varying levels of background knowledge, academic skills, parental support, and the resources needed to keep up with their more affluent peers.

2. To be fair, our public education system, which is deeply rooted in our American traditions and law, requires that funding be based on student needs so that, for example, a 5th grader who for economic, demographic, or experiential reasons is behind other 5th graders in her class will receive the added supports and resources necessary to have an equitable chance of achieving the same level of college and caree readiness despite the obstacles she faces.

3. Besides inequitable funding for public school kids, state and federal policies along with local traditions continue to perpetuate an archaic education model based on the industrial, scientific-management era. These rigid structures only serve to hold students back who need more time, more options for relevant learning, and greater flexibility to develop the level of knowledge and skills needed for their futures. States need to remove these shackles and give local districts the freedom and flexibility to break from tradition and meet the needs of every student.

Some will bury this report simply because of who conducted the study and published the report. They'd prefer to let bitter politics and policy disputes get in the way of real education reform. I've had plenty of disagreements with the Mackinac Center over its past criticisms of public education and the tendency to blame all that is wrong with schools on teacher unions. But, regardless of their motive for this report, it still serves to shine a bright light on the correlation between poverty and academic achievement, and the potential all kids have and how far schools can go if we only recognize the obstacles they have to overcome and properly resource them to do so.

Is this finally a step forward in the right direction?

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