Orwell’s school ratings

A coalition of 18 different organizations (including several with whom I am affiliated) have worked together to devise a simple website that grades all of Colorado’s public K-12 schools.  They have undertaken this effort for a simple reason: The words we use to describe things matter.

And it is an unfortunate truth that, when talking about our schools, many professional educators, administrators, and bureaucrats speak sideways, slantways, and askew.  They do not — they will not — speak straight.

It sometimes takes a simple idea to make us realize we have grown immune to basic logic and common sense.  Hence this new website, where one can look up any public school in the state and find that most familiar of educational languages: Letter grades.

Using the Colorado Department of Education’s own data, the site gives each school a single letter grade, as well as additional letter grades for academic proficiency, academic growth, primary subjects, and a scattering of other data on student demographics.  If you are unfamiliar with a school and want a quick snapshot, it’s a pretty good place to start.  If — like the friends who visited me this past weekend — you want to compare schools in Boulder with those in Denver, or Golden, it is indispensable.

But why did it take 18 different organizations to join together and present basic information on Colorado’s public schools in a clear and compelling manner?  Well, because the educational institutions that collect and present the data — and who should be given ample credit for bringing the raw statistics into sunlight — just can’t talk straight.

The need to use language well is hardly a new phenomenon. While most Orwellian references point to a single novel where words are morphed into their opposites, for me, this issue echoes Orwell’s 1946 essay on Politics and the English Language.  In this piece, when reviewing some particularly offensive linguistic black holes, Orwell writes of two primary criticisms:

The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.

The concrete melts into the abstract, and meaningless phrases supplant words.  Sound familiar? Flash forward, oh, sixty-five years, to the Colorado Department of Education’s categories on their School Performance Framework, which similarly rates all schools across the State:

Performance Plan: The school meets or exceeds statewide attainment on the performance indicators and is required to adopt and implement a Performance Plan.

Improvement Plan: The school is required to adopt and implement an Improvement Plan.

Priority Improvement Plan: The school is required to adopt and implement a Priority Improvement Plan. 

Turnaround Plan: The school is required to adopt and implement a Turnaround Plan.

Ah, yes! Imagine the sheer pride of meeting or exceeding statewide attainment on the performance indicators!  And how awful the crushing need to adopt and implement a Turnaround Plan – especially the need to adopt something both Capitalized and seemingly unpleasant; a stray, mangy kitten that shows up outside the back door on a cold night seeking only to be turned around to a new direction — and just maybe some warm milk.

Bureaucratic language: Stale, imprecise, unhelpful

What, in all honesty, do we learn from this sort of abstract, colorless categorization?  Not much.  All schools, it seems, must have a plan.  There are different levels of the need for improvement (regular and priority – a bit like the postal service, perhaps).  And the closest one can admit to being hopelessly lost on the road to literacy and numeracy is a gentle admonition to plan a turnaround.  Stale, imprecise, and unhelpful.

It’s worth noting this is not just true at the state level.  Denver Public Schools (DPS), which also should receive credit for putting together its own robust performance framework, similarly allows language to fail when it is needed the most.  The DPS categories for schools are: Distinguished; Meets Expectations; Accredited on Watch; Accredited on Priority Watch; and Accredited on Probation.  This first category is clear enough, but as we go on, description and precision fade. As an admission to the hopelessness of the language, at east DPS thoughtfully color-codes the categories — for the color “red” clearly conveys better information than accredited on probation – an attempt to linguistically paint over the problem.

And that’s just the language – the other decision to elevate the vague over the precise are the cut points.  For CDE, schools at the 99th percentile and those at the 44th percentile receive the same exact designation.  That’s right – it is as if both the Green Bay Packers (13-0, or 1.000) and the San Diego Chargers (6-7, or .462) would be categorized as “Performing.”  One can almost imagine the protest slogan if CDE ever hikes over to occupy the State Capitol: We are the 44th to 99th percent.  It is not much different in DPS, where Carson Elementary (78% of performance points) and Whittier Elementary (51% of points) both “Meet Expectations.”  The USDA grades beef with more care than most Districts grade schools. By the time one is absorbing plans, splitting accreditation hairs, and assimilating the varying levels of observation (regular and priority watch), one might think this was another Sokol hoax.

And the odd part here is that both CDE and Denver have done the hard work in collecting the data and making it available.  I’d wager that CDE may lead the nation in terms of the quantity and accessibility of school-level data.  DPS led the way with a School Performance framework that is thoughtful in its criteria.  But when it comes to language, to saying what the numbers mean, to sifting through this data and using simple words to describe to parents the differences between schools, educational institutions fail.  Badly.  And, as Orwell notes, the reasons are mostly political.  It is one thing to tell a parent (or 500 parents) that their children’s schools is required to adopt and implement a turnaround plan. It is another thing altogether to tell them that, based on academic growth and proficiency their child attends a school ranked as an “F” — among the 10% of the lowest performing schools in the state.

New site digs deeper than letter grades

The quibble against the basic idea behind ColoradoSchoolGrades.com is that a single grade does not do justice to an entire school. Fair enough – but the website both goes beyond the single grade and is a clear entry point for further investigation.  I was both amused and disturbed to find that the school my wife and I passed over for our son was ranked higher than the school we choose for him.  But we are choosing for our child — as unique as are all other children.  I believe we made the right choice, and I would not make my entire decision on the best school for my child on any one website.  Nor should others.  The letter grade should be seen as an invitation to dig deeper and find the best fit for one’s child. But to do so requires plain and simple speech.

For the website is more than just a report card for school performance.  It translates. It begins to decipher what the layers upon layers of data mean, and how to engage in the process of both asking questions on school quality, and participating in school improvement. Every page has a button to take action – and offers specific suggestions depending if you have 30 seconds to spare, or a few hours.  Hopefully they will soon build in links to individual schools and additional resources. The goal, it would seem, is not just to inform, but to engage.

I find this an important effort to building a simple and welcoming entrance for parents and others to better understand school performance.  It is not complete, but it is an awfully good start.  And it is made critically necessary by a long tradition of officials’ abject refusal to use descriptive and precise language about the quality of our public schools.  Orwell’s conclusion is hard to beat:

I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. Political language […] is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase  […] into the dustbin, where it belongs.

Priority improvement, accredited on probationary watch status, turnaround plans — all deserve a blaring bronx cheer.  Hopefully one day they will dissolve in their vagueness into dust.  But if you can’t wait that long, start by taking a look at the website.  You may agree, you may disagree, but one thing is clear: It says something.

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