School ratings: District moves toward transparency

Dwight Jones made his priorities clear when he became the Clark County School District’s superintendent a little more than a year ago: honesty, transparency and accountability. He said those fundamental principles of good public policy would pave the way for higher expectations and, eventually, higher achievement.

Mr. Jones took another step toward fulfilling his promises Thursday when he unveiled a school ranking system that recognizes the district’s best campuses while revealing which elementary and middle schools aren’t getting the job done. (High school ratings will be released in a few weeks.)

The one- to five-star rating system is a major philosophical turnaround for a school district that, until Mr. Jones’ arrival, always tried to spin obvious shortcomings into causes for celebration while never making the kinds of overall achievement gains promised year after year.

For the 37 elementary schools that achieved five-star status, the reward is limited autonomy. Principals will have the flexibility to change their budgets, curriculums and operations in ways that they think will make their schools even better. And they will be asked to provide ideas and guidance to low-achieving schools.

Needless to say, not everyone is happy about the ratings, even though low rankings result in no penalties or consequences beyond public concern and recognition that results must improve.

"Get rid of this competitive mentality," Sandy Miller Elementary School teacher Theo Small said at Thursday’s announcement, winning a standing ovation from about 30 other teachers who attended to express opposition to the ranking system.

Nonsense. Competitive pressure is precisely what public education needs. That pressure should come internally, through parental involvement and system oversight, as well as externally, through private and charter schools.

The ratings system is overwhelmingly objective, with 88 percent of each school’s score based on academics. Those scores reflect not just whether students have achieved grade-level proficiency, but whether they are making gains as measured by Mr. Jones’ growth model. And the ratings appear to reflect the kind of honesty Mr. Jones has promised: Although just nine of the district’s schools received a one-star rating — a curious total for a struggling district — most elementary and middle schools rated two or three stars. And among county middle schools, which have long been voids for achievement, no campuses rated five stars.

For parents, especially, the ratings are a reminder that they might be able to do better for their children. Not content to wait for improvement at a two-star campus? Then vote with your feet by packing up and moving into the attendance zone of a five-star school.

This is a big step forward for valley schools. One quibble: The district should fully embrace openness by releasing each school’s detailed scorecard from which the ratings are derived. School district Chief Communications Officer Amanda Fulkerson said the decision on whether to release the scores has been left to individual schools, which can appeal their ratings. Genuine transparency and accountability shouldn’t be subject to the whims of individual principals.

Parents and taxpayers mustn’t be left in the dark. Post the scorecards on the Internet at once.

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