PJ Media

Improving Schools: A Job for Parents, Not Bureaucrats

With the arrival of a new Democratic administration, the country will no doubt experience another bout of self-reflection and debate on race-based preferences. Despite the fact we have elected an African-American president — a clear demonstration if ever there was one of the diminishing level of racism in America — the civil rights lobby sees no reason to diminish their fierce defense of a racial spoils system which has come to dominate education, contracting, and employment at all levels of government.

But there may be another avenue which the country can pursue, at least when it comes to public schools — one far less divisive and more effective in removing racial barriers. There is no magic to it really: all it takes is encouraging parents to seize control of their own local schools from petty bureaucrats and take issue with seemingly race-neutral policies which have an adverse impact on minority students.

A recent tussle in Fairfax County, an affluent suburb of Washington D.C., provides an excellent example of just how it can be done. Fairfax County schools, among some of the best in the nation, have employed a grading system at odds with virtually all other districts in the country. Most schools grade in ten-point increments with, for example, 90-100% resulting in an “A” and 60% being the lowest passing grade. But in Fairfax County a six-point grading scale is used which breaks down as follows:

A     94-100            C     74-79
B+   90-93              D+   70-73
B     84-89              D     64-69
C+   80-83              F     Below 64

Parents have long complained that the grading system puts their children at a disadvantage in college admissions, honors programs placement, and automatic merit scholarships when competing with students graded on a traditional system. Indeed, the county’s own 120-page study released this month confirmed that in various ways. For example, it confirmed that a majority of colleges surveyed do not re-calculate grades to account for its more stringent grading system. It also confirmed that Fairfax County students have lower GPAs compared to students elsewhere with the same SAT scores (suggesting that they would have received the benefit of higher grades in other school districts). Moreover, evidence from robust research demonstrates that the students most adversely affected by the extra rigorous system were minority students.

But the Fairfax County School Board officials for years have refused to budge. The superintendent seemingly ignored the findings of his own report and recommended no change in the grading scale. A majority of the Fairfax County School Board also would have none of it and remained committed to the existing system.

But the parents did not go away quietly. Instead, they organized under a parent group dubbed “FAIRGRADE.” They advocated for change, gathered more than 9,000 signatures, and insisted the matter be examined.

At a stormy meeting in early January, Todd Gaziano, a parent who happens to be a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and director of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation, presented compelling evidence that the existing system not only adversely impacted all students, but especially minority students who already perform worse than whites. In remarks before the board he explained:

As a Commissioner on the United States Commission on Civil Rights and as a legal scholar studying civil rights issues for many years, it is sadly apparent to me that the current Fairfax County policy not only hurts all Fairfax County students, it tends to harm black and Hispanic students the most.  This impact is likely not intentional, but it raises serious legal and policy issues nevertheless.

Let me be clear, however, that I would seriously question any change if it diminished academic rigor or weakened high standards in Fairfax County schools. Thankfully, a fair, ten-point grading scale is undeniably consistent with rigorous standards. The Betts & Grogger study [a peer-reviewed study cited in the County’s own review of the academic research] links high grading standards with student achievement, but the FCPS report identified several school systems with ten-point grading scales with higher mean SAT scores than FCPS, and many of the nation’s top high schools use a ten-point scale.  I also agree with Jeff Grogger (in a recent telephone interview) that increased weights for advanced classes and similar efforts by FCPS can maintain our high academic standards.

He chastised county officials for ignoring the research in their own 120-page report documenting the adverse impact of the more stringent grading system on minority students and stated:

Adopting the ten-point scale used by the federal government and the vast majority of other school districts would have a larger positive impact on the grades of black and Hispanic students at the lower end of the grade range. That, in turn, would have a real, positive impact on narrowing several measures of the racial achievement gap.  It should narrow the differences in graduation rates, by increasing the high school graduation rates of black and Hispanic students. It would narrow the apparent grade gap between these racial groups, and that should motivate lower-achieving students to work even harder and stay in school (consistent with the “relative performance hypothesis” in the academic literature).  It would also lead to improved college placements for black and Hispanic students relative to their current options.  And that, in turn, would lead to higher levels of professional attainment for blacks and Hispanics in Fairfax County than the current policy allows.

Although I am aware of no evidence that the current policy was adopted with the intent to discriminate against minority students, its racially discriminatory effect still raises serious legal and moral issues regarding its continuation, especially when the school district cannot show by substantial evidence that it is narrowly tailored to achieve some important end. Even assuming the current policy is legal (which is quite possible), the moral argument for adopting an alternative grading policy that significantly narrows the racially discriminatory effect is powerful. Doing nothing, especially when the discriminatory effect is known, might invite protracted and embarrassing litigation that would be costly for the County, no matter what the outcome. Yet, there would be no need to resolve the complex legal issues if the School Board adopted the ten-point scale.

Many board members remained reluctant to change. One parent explained that the reasons for their reluctance ranged from inertia/fear of change, to dismissal of the grading system as a “rich kids” issue, to the board’s simple failure to consider that their own policy was adversely impacting minority students. Gaziano told me in a phone interview he was amazed at the degree to which “one school board member and school officials tried to dismiss the research on graduation rates with their own unproven, anecdotal reasons for why they think minority students drop out.”

Finally, the board relented. In what was described as a contentious work session meeting on January 12, the recalcitrant board finally agreed to adopt a new weighting system for honors and AP classes and to put the traditional grading system to a vote on January 22.

So what’s the lesson to be learned? First, local control is only a catch phrase unless parents control the local bureaucrats. The latter are often no more informed or responsible to public opinion than those in Washington. The benefit of local school districts, however, is that they can be lobbied, pressured, and confronted in parents’ own communities. Second, there is often no trade-off between academic excellence and equal opportunity. Rigorous standards, fairly applied to all children, result in improved results for all students. And finally, before looking for ways to add race-based programs or policies which may violate current law and run afoul of Americans’ fundamental sense of fairness, it would be beneficial for schools (and other institutions) to do what the Fairfax County school system was forced to do by parents: clean up their own house by rooting out policies which may impact minorities disproportionately.

The Fairfax School Board still must vote on the change in grading system, but this is one story that may have a happy ending. And it is a timely reminder that, to paraphrase the Bard, the fault lies not in Washington but in ourselves. The responsibility for improving our children’s education and ending racial discrimination is much too important to be left solely to government bureaucrats.