On Letter Grades for Schools…

This week, I was in the Indiana Statehouse to exercise my civic duty. I provided testimony before the Indiana Senate Education Committee on a bill that voids the A-F ratings of school performance and creates room for new and more meaningful designations – a topic that affects every school and district in the state. I was honored to represent the voice of our district and other educators around the state.

Accountability is important. So is helping parents make informed decisions about the best educational options for their children. Doing it clearly, fairly and transparently is critical. What we have currently is a complex formula. The report card is more a label than something that can lead to action. It rolls achievement and growth measures into one letter which makes schools that are making a positive difference look like they are failing schools. Another principal providing testimony at the hearing shared that a visitor to her school, impressed with the learning environment and shocked to learn that the school had an F rating had quipped – “Then ‘F’ must stand for ‘Fabulous’.”

Recently, my school was accredited as an International Baccalaureate World School after three years of rigorous work. Parent involvement is high. We have tremendous socio-economic, ethnic and geographic diversity. As our demographic diversity grew, so did our scores! We hold ourselves accountable, not because of any legislation, but simply because children deserve nothing less.

When parents arrive unannounced for a tour, they often say they can’t believe we have 720 students because the hallways are quiet. They are impressed with how students are engaged with learning in every classroom they visit. They often speak of the warm and welcoming tone they sense in our school. They say they can tell the grown-ups care about the kids, and compliment us on the student work they see showcased throughout our school… and our test scores.

Our students take the state tests in the spring semester. In the end of October, when we were expecting one letter grade from the state, we were quite surprised to receive 3 instead, calculated using different criteria. The state rated us C-C-C for the last three years. In our book, that says nothing has changed. You have not grown. Things are static at your school. A single letter repeated three times put our efforts over the past three years into one tidy little box which implied all those things and hid what we do for children. I couldn’t explain in simple English how the ratings were calculated. The morale of my team was shot. I told them, “Look, no one came and gave us a pat on the back when our scores increased by 10% in just one year, so let’s just get on with our jobs.” Easier said than done. Why is this a problem? Let’s look at it through a different lens.

Let’s say a parent gets their child’s report card from our school and all it has is one letter grade – a C. They are puzzled, and say, “What does this C mean?”  We tell them it’s how their child’s progress is rated at our school. “How did you get to this letter grade?” they ask. We say, “Well, it’s a really complex formula.” If this were true, I would hope those parents would yank their kids out of our school right away and go somewhere else where the teachers could tell them how their children were doing in different academic subjects, the creative arts and social development. If a potential employer saw a college graduate’s transcript with only one letter to indicate his/her qualifications, they would probably look somewhere else to hire a someone whose competence is clearly apparent. It doesn’t make sense anywhere else. Why do we do this to public schools?

If a car dealer took April’s sales figures and gave the sales report to his employees in November, his business wouldn’t run for long. Yet spring data for schools reappears in the end of October as a report card after we are well into the new school year. If I went to a doctor who spoke in complex medical jargon and couldn’t explain what it meant, I would quickly look for a different doctor. Parents experience our school and are unable to connect the dots to see the C grade that we received. There are National Blue Ribbon Schools that have received poor letter grades despite maintaining their high standards. The A-F grades are not timely and not easy to understand either.

Public schools are an incredible resource in America, and yes, they face many challenges. The solution is not to undermine them or do away with them. One hears a lot of verbal bashing of educators – the people who hold the future of the country in their hands. Having made my second home in schools, I have seen incredibly talented educators work very hard to inspire students, partner with parents and provide tremendous instructional programs and supports. Just as we work hard to inspire every child who walks through our doors regardless of the visible and invisible baggage they bring in, we need our elected leaders to support and inspire us to do our best whether we teach children of wealthy parents or the poorest of the poor. That begins with taking data about each school’s performance, analyzing it, and giving it back to us in a way that allows us to do something meaningful with it. There’s nothing in the current letter grade that allows my staff to set goals or determine instructional changes. 

One letter on a school’s report card cannot give parents information that will allow them to compare the performance of multiple schools any more than one letter on a child’s report card can give them information about how their child is doing in multiple subjects. Information about a school’s performance must be provided in a way that is fair and can be explained. Many beautiful gems are trapped behind single letters assigned to schools that don’t say much, but imply a lot. It’s time to do away with the A-F letter grades and share school improvement stories in a way that makes sense. Our kids deserve nothing less.

The bill was passed unanimously and I look forward to seeing how this story unfolds in the months ahead.

(This post is based on testimony I provided at the hearing.)

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Lessons Learned From the Melting Pot

Last week, after over two decades of living, working and paying taxes in the United States on Student Visas, with Work Permits and then Green Cards (Permanent Resident cards which are actually pink), my husband and I became citizens. It was an interesting experience and one that made some simple things stand out in importance. If you’re wondering what ‘thoughts about learning and growing’ emerged from this event, do read on!

We sent our application for citizenship in January and in subsequent months went through biometric scanning (digital fingerprinting), a test of our knowledge of US history, civics and geography, a simple reading and writing test, and an interview. The Homeland Security officer interviewing me said that I was her ‘first principal’! Apparently she had interviewed other educators applying for citizenship but none in my professional role. She was pleasant and friendly as were the others who took us through all the steps of the process. In April we would have our swearing-in ceremony – and I pictured a formal bureaucratic ceremony that would unfold in a courthouse in Indianapolis.

One morning in April, during our morning ‘Bulldog Broadcast’ (our closed-circuit TV message) I told my students that I was going to become a citizen of the US. I said I was looking forward to sharing information about all the things I had to do to earn this privilege and as I spoke that day, the upcoming event seemed more real. And then, last Thursday, while my husband and I sat at the courthouse with 69 others who would be changing their status from ‘Permanent Resident Alien’ to ‘Citizen’, the monthly convocation unfolded at my school. Our wonderful art teacher announced to the 800 plus kids and grown-ups gathered in our gymnasium and cafeteria that in a few minutes, as they said the Pledge of Allegiance, with which we begin our school ceremonies, in another corner of Indianapolis, their principal would be taking an oath of citizenship and then saying the same Pledge.

I made it back to school late that morning and entered through a side door, carrying my books, bags and a little US flag. The first child I saw called out, “Welcome to America!” She was followed by several others throughout the day, and still more during dismissal wishing me the same in a chorus, sporting big smiles, as they filed out of school heading for their buses and cars. They seemed to have given it the kind of status reserved for special days like birthdays! I think I was grinning non-stop that day. It was delightful and I was receiving an incredible welcome! And today, several days later, the greetings are still coming my way. “Welcome to America, Ms. Balagopal!” “Welcome to your new home!” “We hope you like it here!” As I put it, even if I waited 23 years to be welcomed to the US, it was worth it! And all the good wishes from the grown-ups too – friends and family – have turned a simple change of status into a time when one realizes how much others care.

The event has played in my mind a lot of times since last week. What I had assumed would be a solemn, formal event had been anything but that. Yes, we did put our purses, belts and folders through a metal detector at the courthouse, and of course, my ear-rings set off some bells as I walked through the scanner! But the security staff were pleasant and cheerful as they directed us to the courtroom assigned for the function. We stood in a long hallway for a while as another security person walked from one person to another greeting us cheerfully, checking our paperwork and inviting guests to enter the courtroom without having to wait in the line. She was kidding around with people and answering all our questions. In a cheery voice, she even let us know that we would be able to step out for a few minutes before the ceremony started to ‘feed’ the parking meters!

The courtroom was large, and beautifully elegant, and everything started on time. After the formalities that took place as the judge entered, the rest of the ceremony was touching, sometimes a little emotional and often delightful. As they called out the names of the 71 new citizens-to-be, each of us stood up and named our country of origin. I was amazed that in a corner of the mid-west that is not usually known for its diversity, the courtroom now housed people from an incredible array of countries. My husband quickly wrote down most of the names of the countries on the back of an envelope holding our citizenship packet. You can see them in the Wordle image at the top of this post – the larger names represent multiple people from the same country. We did miss a few countries we couldn’t hear clearly enough, but, this was a memorable and touching part of a ceremony that accorded tremendous respect to the backgrounds of the people in the room.

The judge presiding over the ceremony was delightful. He regaled us with his sense of humor and anecdotes. As he spoke of valuing diversity in this land of immigrants, his invitational and welcoming tone was very apparent. He quipped that every time Andrew Luck made a touchdown in the future, we should remember that we became citizens on the day that the Indianapolis Colts had drafted him! The swearing-in ceremony was moving. There was a feeling of leaving one thing for another – both things one loves – not unlike the notion in the Indian context, of a bride leaving her family to begin a new life. At that moment I remembered what my brother-in-law had said to my parents at my wedding. He had asked them to look at it as not about ‘losing their daughter’ but ‘gaining a son’. While I feel privileged to now be a citizen in a place I’ve called my home for half of my life, I know my love for the land where I was born will still be a part of me. As my assistant principal later said, “We’ve adopted you, Subha!”

Representatives of the two senators and a local congressman gave brief speeches to welcome us to our new roles and encouraged us to actively participate and exercise our duties and responsibilities. The Daughters of the American Revolution gave us small flags, and we left the courtroom with copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States as well as our new citizenship certificate, passport forms, and other documents we needed. Right outside were people waiting to give us the opportunity to complete voter registration paperwork. It was all very thoughtfully organized and a lot was accomplished in a short amount of time.

As I shared this experience with friends and family, one friend wrote back and said: “At my swearing-in, the judge said… ‘Even if the lady next door isn’t as welcoming as the Statue of Liberty, this process is built on welcoming each of you to your new home country. As this becomes your new country, remember your old home country with love, and remember to make this new home a better place. My grandfather came here as a construction worker, and here I am a federal judge. This is what this country is about.’ I was pretty psyched. I hope your swearing-in was special too.”

I read her words and knew that this blog post would ensue! I was impressed with the emphasis given to the simple notion of being welcoming and invitational during this process. Hearing about my friend’s experience from a different corner of the US led me to believe that perhaps this was not just about the mid-western, Indiana hospitality I love. It seemed like a welcoming tone was being set deliberately. I would not have been disappointed or surprised had I attended a formal, bare-bones ceremony, but the sweet, sometimes funny event I had experienced made me feel like this was about more than a ‘change of status’. As I think back, this tone was present even when I was being fingerprinted and interviewed! The respect given to where each of us came from was especially touching and gives me hope that the diversity of the people in this land we call a ‘melting pot’ will always be celebrated.

In our schools, and indeed, in any organization, each one of us has the power to make the simplest moments special and engaging. We have the power to be invitational and welcoming. Yes, we can be formal and serious and make things seem weighty and important, or cloud interactions with grumpy and brusque undertones and even sarcasm or irritation. But, where’s the joy in that? Who wants to work in a formal, serious, grumpy, weighty place? It would be so much more fun to step into the sunshine and warmth of a happy and caring organization, where people build relationships with colleagues and customers (our families and community). And the formula is not complex – the ingredients are simple: lots of smiles and good cheer, thoughtfulness in the smallest of actions focused on making things easy and less complicated for others, a willingness to make simple things more special, and a good dose of care, humor and joy. Whether it’s a teacher in a classroom seeking to engage students, office staff addressing the questions and needs of visitors, or school leaders serving a diverse group of stakeholders, each one of us has the power to make the little moments count. We often spend a lot of time and energy on the BIG things we need to accomplish that take hours of our attention, forgetting sometimes that it is in the small moments that we truly forge the relationships that strengthen and sustain our organizations.

I’ve always believed in the importance of the tone we set. If people sitting in governmental agencies, charged with poring over pages of documents to approve requests for citizenship can make the process unfold in such a thoughtful and special way, I do believe it shouldn’t be tough for us to do the same consistently in our schools (or any other organization). Our kids deserve nothing less!