Are School Letter Grades a Form of Institutional Racism?

All y’all that know me have probably figured out that I find it hard to hide my disdain for North Carolina’s hard-right legislature.

Since rising to power over the past five to seven years, they’ve spent the majority of their time together pushing through hateful legislation targeting marginalized populations.  The best part:  Pretty darn close to all of their decisions — think banning same sex marriagecreating incredibly gerrymandered voting districts, or forcing transgender citizens to use bathrooms that mirror their biological gender — have been overturned by the court system.  So while simultaneously waving their pocket Constitutions around, they pass law after law that are ruled unconstitutional.


That same legislature has also made it their goal to gut public education.

Perhaps most notably, they’ve created a system of “opportunity scholarships” that allow parents to take public tax dollars to the charter schools and/or private schools of their choice.  The result are pretty darn amazing:  93 percent of voucher recipients are using public tax dollars to put their students in Christian, Islamic and other faith-based schools.

Worse yet, the bulk of that funding is going to schools that aren’t held accountable for performance at all.  As a parent of a second grader, I support the innovation potential and alternatives that school choice represent — but as a taxpayer I also expect a return on that investment, something that’s hard to prove when millions of dollars are channeled into schools with no real oversight or accountability and where teachers don’t have to be licensed or certified.

What drives me the craziest is that while simultaneously funneling monies into schools that are not held accountable for student performance, the SAME legislature passed a sweeping bill in 2013 — patriotically named the Excellent Public Schools Act — that is specifically designed to HOLD public schools accountable for student performance.

The law was odious all the way around, stripping tenure rights from teachers, putting all teachers on one year contracts, revamping the teacher pay scale to nudge veterans out of the classroom, and instituting rigorous retention policies for students in third grade.  Thankfully — like most of the legislation passed by our ham-handed politicians — much of the law has been reversed by our state court system in subsequent years.

One piece of that legislation remains in place, however:  An A-F grading system for public schools based on scores earned by students on standardized tests given at the end of every school year.

Here’s how it works:  Every public school — and remember, that DOESN’T include private schools taking public dollars — is given a single letter grade that is supposed to make it easy for parents to determine how their child’s school is performing.  Go to a school that is rated an A?  It’s time for a celebration!  Have a child in a school that is rated an F?  It’s time to abandon ship.  Apply for an opportunity scholarship and run to one of those private schools popping up all around you.  Never mind the fact that similar school accountability systems in other states have been abject failures, open to constant revision and manipulation by influential politicians and communities.  Let’s do this!

But it gets worse:  Here in North Carolina, 80 percent of a school’s letter grade is based strictly on performance and only 20 percent is based on actual student growth — and that’s an improvement over the original proposal that didn’t include student growth as a consideration for school ratings at all.

What’s the consequence of emphasizing performance over growth in school ratings?

Schools and systems serving high percentages of students living in poverty are at a real disadvantage.  Need proof?  Then check out this WRAL review of the 2015-2016 School Performance Grades:

“The data show school grades continue to correlate closely with the poverty levels of schools. Among all schools last year that received a D or F, 93 percent had enrollments with at least 50 percent of students from low-income families. Conversely, among schools that received at least a B, 75.7 percent had enrollments with less than 50 percent of students from low-income families, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.”

Simple translation:  Your child is WAY more likely to go to a school labeled as a failure if you live in a poor community than if you live in a middle to upper middle class community — even IF the kids in your child’s classes are moving forward faster than peers in wealthier schools.  After all, growth doesn’t matter much to North Carolina’s legislators.  Final performance does.

Think about the logical consequences of that simple truth.

Year after year, poor communities — which both nationally and here in North Carolina are often disproportionately populated by people of color — are told that their public schools are failing children.  That discourages investment in the community — what business is going to relocate to a region where every school is rated a D or an F — and depresses home values.  Finding high-paying jobs and building long-term wealth both become more difficult, making it even harder to advance as an individual OR as a community.

Then, here in North Carolina, parents from those same poor communities are offered “opportunity scholarships” to take their students to private schools that are NOT REQUIRED to report at all on their performance.  Worse yet, those private schools often spend less than half of what is spent on a student in a public school.  Teachers are underpaid and uncertified, programs like school lunches and athletics aren’t offered, and extra services for students with special needs are not always available.

That feels a heck of a lot like institutional racism to me.  Am I wrong?


Related Radical Reads:

Want to Fix Education?  Start Addressing Poverty.

Living a Silent War

What Parents Don’t Understand about High Poverty Schools

The Crappy Refrigerator Approach to Fixing Schools

  • SandyMerz

    Snapshot of Arizona

    We can leave our legislature for another day. But my school district is under court-ordered deseg rules based on a 40 year old law suit. My own magnet school will almost certainly lose its magnet status this year because we have over 70% of one ethnic group (78% Latino) and will fail to get at least a B on Arizona’s school grading system. But we an open distict and the vast majority of our magnet students are Latinos choosing our school of their neighborhood school. And since we started our Common Core based standardized test system they’ve yet to revise the state grading system and so there’s a hold on new grades being determined. So, a federal judge, copying and pasting a special master (from Maryland)’s recommendation will go against hundreds of minority’s students’ wishes about where they want to be educated while at the same using a bogus grading system as his criteria for striping our status. 

  • CarlDraeger

    No denying the challenges, but…

    North Carolina, Arizona, Wisconsin….the list of states where public education is being blamed, punished, and extinguished for societal problems it did not create. Rediculous funding, increased expectation are all followed by “accountability” and evaluations not entirely representative of what schools do. These are the facts. I have several burning questions in my mind.

    1. What  purposeful things can educators do to change the current scenario?
    2. How do we include ourselves in the educational conversations at the local, state, and national level?
    3. How do we coordinate our efforts?

    Unfortunately, I only have inklings of next steps. Bill, thanks for being eloquent as always. I am grateful for the clarity with which you expressed the North Carolina legislative obstacles. Clearly, years of restorative justice are being undone. Institutional racism in the name of bottom line is still racism, regardless if it is unintentional.

  • DavidCohen

    You’re absolutely right

    Yes, Bill, as long as the system keeps shaming schools with the neediest students, anti-tax small-government conservatives will have an excuse to punish them for their performance by withholding funding or sending it out of the system as you described. Thankfully in California, the state has never done the A-F school grading, and is moving in the opposite direction, making school accountability a non-ranking system. I wrote about it recently in EdWeek Teacher.

  • RahulSharma

    Racism is institutionalized

    Racism is institutionalized because people who live in areas with substandard educational systems, high crime neighborhoods, absence of viable businesses such as grocery stores, residents are constantly threatened with bodily harm, and on and on.  With the knowledge that many people have lived there without substantially improving their lot, it is no surprise that the status quo persists. flipkart

  • diwali

    You’re absolutely right

    North Carolina, Arizona, Wisconsin….the list of states where public education is being blamed, punished, and extinguished for societal problems it did not create. Rediculous funding, increased expectation are all followed by “accountability” and evaluations not entirely representative of what schools do. These are the facts. I have several burning questions in my mind. happy diwali