Schools gives grades to students: A, B, C, D, F. Everyone knows what those letters mean.
The state gives grades to schools. Pop quiz: What are they?
Hint: They aren’t A, B, C, D, F. That system would be too transparent and intelligible for some education professionals’ taste. But it may be coming.
A draft education bill aims to create a letter-grade system for Georgia’s schools. Lawmakers are still working out the details, but they are basing the bill in large part on the highly successful model that Florida built over the past decade.
Florida’s achievements are impressive. In 1998, a year before the state launched a letter-grading system, its fourth- and eighth-graders ranked at the bottom nationally in reading and math; within nine years they were beating the national average. High-school graduation rates stopped falling and, in nine years, rose 15 percent.
“There is no reason Georgia can’t do the same thing” in improving, says Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams. He is helping to craft the bill and says it will complement well the governor’s proposal for merit pay for teachers.
Florida’s achievements are closely tied to the letter-grading system, because it helps parents understand how schools are performing.
The letter grades lead to incentives and consequences for schools. Schools get extra cash if they get an A or, critically, improve by a letter grade.
Importantly, the money goes directly to the school, bypassing the central office. The school’s principal, teachers and parents decide how to spend it. The money could go to extra educational programs like field trips or to bonuses for teachers.
Florida has spent more than $1.25 billion on school rewards since 1999. Yet it still spends less per pupil than we do.
Similarly, when Florida schools get F’s and don’t improve, students and their parents get choices. They can move — and take their state funding with them — to another public school. Originally, they could also move to private schools, but the state’s Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that using public money for private schools was unconstitutional. Test-score improvements fell dramatically the next year.
The good news is that Georgia’s lawmakers can consider that ruling, and the potential for a similar outcome here, in writing the bill. It’s another way in which we can benefit from our neighbor’s experience.
Consequences and competition clearly are important. Still, Williams says, “I’m not focusing on the consequences because I think schools will do better based on the incentives on the positive side.”
It might even be possible to add the incentives and consequences in a subsequent bill. “Labeling a school an A or an F,” says Ben Scafidi, director of the Center for an Educated Georgia, “is a pretty big incentive in itself.”
The improvement aspect is crucial, and we have to track the progress of specific students, not just entire schools. We don’t get the full picture by comparing fourth-graders at a school each year. We also need to know how those fourth-graders perform as they get older.
Happily, the state is newly able to do such longitudinal studies of specific students, Scafidi says. We can track students’ scores even if they move from one school or district to another. That would allow the state to adjust a school’s grade based on student transfers, a big issue in, for instance, military towns like Columbus.
All in all, it’s an idea that deserves a solid A.