educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

Open letter to South Jersey Magazine about “The Public High School Report Card”

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Dear South Jersey Magazine,
On the cover of volume 12: issue 6, you trumpet that one of your stories is a “2015 Public High School Report Card.” With this letter, I ask that you reconsider how you represent public schools in your annual “Report Card” feature.

Your “Class is in Session: The Public High School Report Card” consists of a one-paragraph introduction and four data tables: Average SAT Score, Graduation Rate, A.P. Classes, and Student-to-Faculty Ratio (there’s also an accompanying article about PARCC testing). You declare in all caps, after your introduction, presumably to an audience of parents: “Here, then, are your study materials.”

When I initially read this line, I was furious. I distilled that rage into a draft of this letter, using words like “repellent,” “repulsive,” loathsome,” and “disgraceful.” But I don’t want to use those words. You are an advertising-supported magazine. You have simply pulled data from much bigger — and much more “official” — culprits in the ongoing public school misrepresentation campaign (in this case, the NJ Department of Education School Performance Reports). You are certainly not the worst perpetrator, and my anger is not really directed at you. (Although my fury crested when I saw across from your charts an advertisement for Doane Academy, a private school. Advertising-supported or not, you showed a troubling opportunism in the placement of this ad.)

The charts, the way they are presented, do frustrate me. Again, I know you’re pulling from NJ Dept of Ed data, but, in 2015, no one can responsibly use SAT data without accompanying socioeconomic and other demographic information, including the number of children in a given school who take the SAT. Of course, you would know there is vast research identifying the racial and socioeconomic bias of the SAT and other standardized tests, so I needn’t delve into it here; simply search [SAT bias] in Google (if you’re feeling ambitious, use Google Scholar). If your feature also listed family income via a restaurant menu-like icon of dollar signs along with those SAT scores, you’d see a clear trend: Rich schools score better.

Your graduation rate chart might reveal a similar trend, and your A.P. chart would be more useful if balanced against school population numbers.

I ask that you think about how little your “Report Card” says about schools. Four data charts do not describe a school. They do not capture the life and spirit of that school and of the children, teachers, administrators, and families who make up that school’s community.

More importantly, these charts, except perhaps for student-faculty ratio, tell almost nothing about an individual student’s experience at a school. Your charts fuel the culture of misinformation in which people stubbornly and illogically equate a school’s overall SAT score as a statement about the school’s quality, the effort and commitment of its faculty, or the intellect of its students.

I know the people in and have walked the halls of some of the places at the bottom of your charts. Those schools are filled with caring faculty, creative administrators, and children — more on the children in a moment — who are doing more than just fine. Schools should not be branded like luxury items (a strategy the former president of George Washington University advocated, analogizing schools with vodka or watches), but your feature encourages just that kind of thinking.

What is your goal, South Jersey Magazine? It can’t be to tell the story of South Jersey public schools. If so, you would recognize the disparities inherent in your data and, if you insist on using such charts, also provide qualitative information. You would seek out and profile, geez, just a few of the thousands of children who are succeeding and thriving in the schools at the bottom of your stark data charts.

You’re not to blame, South Jersey Magazine. But know that people inform important decisions, decisions about where they will live and learn, based on features like yours. Those decisions, in accumulation, have helped create and sustain the inequalities in education that persist throughout America.

Features like yours promise to “grade” schools. But, let’s be clear, instead they attack communities and, ultimately, the children of those communities. You are not the cause of divided schools. But do you want to participate in harming schools and communities? Do you want to participate in providing a flawed, narrow lens through which people squint and say, “I don’t want my kid there with those people”?

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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4 Responses to “Open letter to South Jersey Magazine about “The Public High School Report Card””

  1. Scott, Thank you for your well-reasoned, moderately toned letter, even if you give a glimpse of the iron fist in the velvet glove in listing some of the adjectives you were tempted to use but refrained (that’s a kind of having your cake but eating it too, I suppose).

    One thing your discussion made me realize is that the puzzlement I have felt over the years at the widespread condemnation of the public schools is based on a biographical anomaly: when I was in high school, I read, in Horizon magazine, that my school system, Montgomery County, MD, was one of the top three public school systems in the country (along with Westchester County, NY and Marin County, CA). My area of Montgomery County was not wealthy, BUT every September our home room teacher would supervise the filling out of forms concerning our parents’ employment: part of federal government workers’ perks was funneling federal funds into the school systems (public) attended by the workers’ children. As the “bedroom of the Capital” Montgomery County was awash in those government funds, so my assessment of what public schools are has been skewed. (I can’t speak for Marin and Westchester Counties.)

    I do understand that _South Jersey Magazine_ is quaking in its boots at the prospect of a critical review from When Falls the Coliseum, but do think there is another venue in addition to this one in which you could confront those myopic bean counters?

  2. Thank you for this article Scott! I believe we have lost a great deal by giving standardized testing and articles like the “School Report Card” so much prominence. I am a teacher. I love my job. I say , “Congratulations,” to the schools with high scores. These schools in general have a compliant and affluent population. They have a good reputation. However, never once have I looked at the test scores of this kind of school and thought, “How could I be more like them?” That is because success is represented by a score on a narrow test of a limited band of achievement, and I can’t see how looking at that score can help me in my day-to-day teaching. Even worse, I don’t think the teachers at such schools have learned much from their good scores. If anything, the scores may be preventing them from becoming better.

  3. I agree that the performance of students on tests is not entirely indicative of how well the school is performing but dismissing it completely is even worse. SAT scores and the percentage of students taking the test can show whether the school is challenging students to take the test and looks towards college as the path towards a successful future or whether they are more interested in just getting them out the door. Schools underperforming in the state assessment tests may indicate that the curriculum needs revamping or certain teachers are just not reaching the students. I think we all agree that four data points is not the way to assess a school but analyzing data can be very helpful in identifying deficiencies in the school and staff.

  4. I have not seen the article or list you refer to, but I wonder, if you lived in Moorestown or Haddonfield, would your readers have seen this latest blog topic?

    Whatever data points you choose as a measurement, they will all point to the same outcomes – schools are not equal.

    And BTW, who reads south jersey magazine anyway?!

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