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Goodbye Lake Woebegone: School comparisons depress, demoralize teachers, students, parents


Lake Woebegone: the town "where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."

 Goodbye Lake Woebegone. 

Parents across the Commonwealth in the coming weeks and months will be saying goodbye to the dearly held belief that THEIR school and their school systems are the living embodiment of one element of Garrison Keillor’s fictional hometown, Lake Woebegone: where… all the children are above average. Parents will be faced with the same fact that school administrators and teachers know: their children aren’t.

That bad news became public this past Friday when the Kentucky Department of Education released school by school scores on the Unbridled Learning Accountability Model. (There being no acronym yet – oh, there will be – we’ll just call it ULAM here.) Teachers and administrators may want to take it on the lam when the comparisons school to school of the newly created model sink in. The forces of disinformation have already begun their work to persuade Kentuckians that public education is a failure and it is time for charter schools to become part of the education system in the state.

ULAM is a Frankenstein creation that takes the legs of the Kentucky Education Reform Act and grafts them onto the body of No Child Left Behind, the compromise federal law sponsored by Sen. Ted Kennedy and championed by President George W. Bush; adds parts of nationally normed tests, like the ACT, puts the face of low performing students on it and adds inches to its height as students get older. For high school students and to a lesser extent middle school students, achievement includes college and career readiness. Then ULAM borrows names for its creatures from KERA: distinguished, proficient, and throws in the more traditional “needs improvement” rather than the KERA name of “novice.”

Comparing ULAM to any prior schemes is “apples to oranges” according to one local educator. Commissioner of Education Terry Holliday in a power point presentation compared ULAM to a high school student’s final grade, made up of different elements from the school year.

In the Purchase, individual school rankings were up and down the scale. With each school being compared to the rest of the state, it was every building getting a separate ranking in addition to the district ranking. To make matters more interesting, only reading and mathematics were rated this year. The sciences and social studies ranking remain on the drawing board.

Hickman County High School was a distinguished school. The Middle School was proficient and the elementary was ranked “needs improvement.” Averaging the three levels left Hickman County as a “proficient” system.  Graves County, with multiple elementary schools, had four schools in the top 30% in the state. Fulton County Schools ranked in the bottom 10% of the state.  

An experienced teacher recently compared the different educational models, standards and acronymic educational schemes to raising puppies. “I raised the KERA puppy.” She said, “Then I raised the No Child Left Behind puppy. Now they want me to raise a new puppy. I don’t know that I have it in me.”

Other teachers and administrators may agree with her. As boomers reach and pass retirement age, a cadre of experience will be heading for the exits.

It is depressing and distressing that the bureaucratic answer to Kentucky’s educational issues – and there are many issues – is to design another evaluation model. We choose not to believe that the Education Tower of Babel in Frankfort deliberately set out to demoralize rank and file teachers across the state, but whatever the motivation, the result will be the same. 

ULAM has been compared to raising the basketball goal from six feet up to eight feet. Where once everyone had a chance to make a basket, now only the tall and the spry will be successful. The rest will not be scorers, successful no longer.

The new reality in Kentucky schools as of fall 2012 is that schools that thought they were doing are good job educating their population will fall short when compared to other schools with similar (never exactly the same) populations. Differences in funding, staffing structure, curriculum selection, administrative leadership, the presence or absence of the arts, educational levels of parents and the community mean little. Only the “gap” between those who achieve and those who do not will be a factor.

Researchers into what makes a school successful agree that teacher satisfaction is a major component. According to a study by Marianne Perie and David Baker for the National Center for Education Statistics (ED), Washington, DC way back in 1997:

 “Findings indicate that working conditions related to satisfaction are administrative support and leadership, student behavior, and school atmosphere. Compensation is only modestly related to teacher satisfaction.”
Answers from towers, ivory or brick and mortar, seldom answer questions for those who live and work on the ground floor.

The excuse that we’re in a global economy is wearing thin. International corporations aren’t sending their jobs overseas because schools are not educating our children. They are sending jobs to China, India and third world countries because labor is dirt cheap.  The millions of workers who stream from subsistence farms into cities in China are not more highly educated than students in Fulton, Louisville or Hyden.  They are just willing to settle for anything they can get.

Schools need improvement. Teachers including administrators need to be lifelong learners. Bad teachers need to go out the door, not up the ladder. Teacher preparation at the colleges and university must be reformed in a serious sequential way. Administrators and school boards must be academic leaders, not just cheerleaders.

Focusing on a new way to compare schools, depress scores and pressure teachers won’t do the job that needs to be done.

Lake Woebegone exists only in our hearts. All of our children are special. They just aren’t all above average.  At least not on the Unbridled Learning Accountability Model.

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