If It's Broken, Fix It

I'm willing to bet that no one reading this column would ever knowingly eat in a restaurant that had received anything less than an A rating from the local health department. I am also willing to bet that no one would see the logic in rating a city's restaurants collectively rather than on their individual merit. And lastly, I'm sure that my readers would not approve of a rating system that was not universally understood by all potential patrons.

Even though most of us in America demand a transparent, accessible and understandable rating system for our restaurants, day in and day out parents all over America are forced to send their children to schools that are not being rated in a clear or accessible way. We say that we want parents engaged in their child's education, but most states have gone out their way to ensure parents don't really know how well their child's school is doing.

For example, in Missouri, there is no rating system for individual schools. Our public education system focuses only on entire district ratings. I hear over and over again from lawmakers and school district personnel that there are no problems in their school districts because they have received the state's highest rating, accredited with distinction. Each time one of them says that to me I wonder what message that sends a mom in the top rated Springfield school district, who has to send her child to Westport Elementary where only 25.5 percent of students are reading on grade level. I try to imagine if she takes solace in the fact that her school is failing, but the district is doing ok.

Rating whole districts instead of individual schools also fails to provide an incentive for individual building staff and students to excel. Imagine being a student, teacher or administrator at Gateway High School in St. Louis. Gateway High has a proficiency rate in math that is 2.5 times better than that of the provisionally accredited (the second to worst of the four ratings) Saint Louis Public Schools but is still being tagged with a failed rating from the State Board of Education. It would certainly be better for he Gateway students, parents and Saint Louis Public Schools as a whole to be able to say Gateway is a success.

It doesn't have to be this way. Several states have begun implementing simple A-F school report cards that make it easy for parents, community members and elected officials to see how schools are performing. States that have taken this step have seen what schools have been begging for -- increased parent engagement.

Two weeks ago the Oklahoma Department of Education released the new A-F school report cards grades for the 1,744 public schools. In less than a week more than 675,000 people signed on to check out the grades. According to The Oklahoman, that is more people than there are students in Oklahoma schools. The clear, understandable and accessible information has not only alerted parents to how their child's school is performing, but has caused administrators, elected officials, and others to act quickly to address issues that leading to low scores.

If schools really want parents involved, they are going to have to put all the cards on the table. Parents can't help fix something if they don't know it's broken.