Motorists cruising down Highway 69 in Beaumont near the Delaware exit might notice a large yellow banner on the side of Austin Middle School’s gymnasium proudly proclaiming that Beaumont Independent School District is among the “Nation’s Top 10 School District(s).”
That is lofty praise for a school district that has little evidence to support the claim. In fact, to the contrary, the Web site SchoolDigger.com ranked BISD 460th out of 953 districts in the state using the most recently reported test scores.
Some education scholars say the tendency to accentuate positive news is evidence a Wall Street mentality has permeated the educational system, too.
The inclusion of BISD as a Top 10 school district was questioned as early as last August by The Examiner when it was discovered that the magazine responsible for the ranking, Business Review USA, does not actually publish hard copies and is strictly an online publication. It came out with its rankings last August, and has not published a Top 10 school districts of 2012 yet.
The Examiner discovered that the online “magazine” claimed to have its top 10 rankings endorsed by the National Educational Association; however, that was not that case and the NEA did not grant Business Review USA rights to use its logo or authorize an endorsement. The publication never did remove the endorsement, and it can still be found in its August 2011 online edition.
When asked whether BISD did its due-diligence when checking out Business Review USA, Ron Reynolds, the newly appointed communications specialist for BISD, provided a link to the district’s Web site regarding what went into the publication’s inclusion of BISD as a top 10 school district:
Carrol A. Thomas, superintendent of schools for the Beaumont Independent School District, today announced that the region’s largest school district with nearly 20,000 students and largest employer with approximately 3,000 employees has been named among the nation’s top 10 school districts by the Business Review USA. The annual list is compiled in conjunction with the National Education Association and other educational interests, according to Sam Hustler, producer of the article which features BISD first in its list of the nation’s top schools.
“We have selected the nation’s top 10 school districts by analyzing not only academic prowess, but getting under the skin of what it takes to run a successful district in the current economic climate,” Hustler explains. BISD and nine other districts from across the country are featured in the August 2011 digital edition of the magazine. Only one other district from Texas was listed by Business Review USA. Other districts listed hail from New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Washington, Colorado and Pennsylvania.”
Hustler may have been quoted on the BISD Web site as to what went into the selection process, but that information is excluded in the magazine article as to what the criteria were for selecting the districts and the methodology for picking the 10 best school districts in the country. Calls left for the editor of Business Review USA, Sharise Cruz, were not returned.
For any organization, rankings and ratings can be worth boasting about – especially when they’re positive – and school districts are no different. But Ray Freeman, deputy executive director for Equity Center, an advocacy group for Texas’ underserved school districts, points out that it’s what makes up the rankings and ratings and who’s providing them that adds any validity to a district’s ranking.
“To a large degree, it depends on the group that is ranking them, and what the (group doing the ranking’s) main consideration is,” said Freeman, who declined to comment on BISD’s ranking because he had never heard of Business Review USA. “Whether or not they’re looking at improvement on test scores, economical measures such as how effective you spend your money is, or whether they’re looking at overall test scores for the entire student population or how it relates to college entrance exam scores, usually there will be a set of criteria that they’ll use and identify.”
Freeman said his group, which has been around since 1982, generally looks at test scores, financial data and college entrance exam scores as well as other state-identified data to determine what districts are doing well or not so well. The Equity Center hasn’t focused on BISD because it is not considered a poor district.
“Those would help provide the best measurement in the state, anyway, and you’ll still get some argument as to whether that’s the best way to measure,” said Freeman.
Ed Fuller, who studied Texas education for 20 years, spending most of his time at the University of Texas in Austin before moving to Penn State’s School of Education last year as an associate professor, said BISD’s message that it’s a top 10 district in the country as determined by a publication most have never heard of is the latest in a recent trend in education.
“Unfortunately, this trend – pushed mightily by charter schools – is the PR game,” said Fuller, whose outspoken style about the harsh realities of the Texas education system doesn’t sit well with most educators.
“Every time you get a ranking that’s good, or a rating that’s good, you go on a PR frenzy with it because it enhances, particularly with charter schools; but increasingly with public school districts, it’s a way to garner money from the business community. And with budget cuts, that’s becoming important. I don’t like it, but that’s the way the game’s being played. You have to put money into PR because that’s the only way to get money.”
Fuller is afraid that the Wall Street mentality of covering up the negatives and accentuating the positive has clearly seeped into everyday culture and now is making its way into the educational system, too.
“Everything is based on if your PR is good, no one wants to look at real strengths and weaknesses,” Fuller said. “It’s all PR, PR. Let’s spin the data and make us look good, we’ll bring in more money and it’s aggravating because it actually works against the improvement of schools and school districts.”
Fuller knows a little bit about BISD from his days as a graduate assistant at UT back in the early ’90s when he and others researched the district’s formula for using Ping-Pong balls to determine where kids would go to school. He was concerned when looking at the Business Review USA article as to why it made no mention of its methodology, which to him made it difficult to validate the legitimacy of the ranking.
“Any reputable ranking will tell you how they ranked it, and here (looking at the Business Review USA) there isn’t one, so how can we make any kind of judgment on whether their ranking is valid or not?” asked Fuller.
Ultimately, Fuller said he understands why school districts are pushing the good news, regardless of where it comes from, especially on the side of a school like Austin Middle School, which was ravaged by bad news at the end of last school year, including a bus fight captured on a cell phone and then posted on Facebook; a young girlalleging sexual assault by two male classmates while the teacher slept; and a teacher’s assistant showing students nude photos of her boyfriend on her phone. According to SchoolDigger.com, Austin Middle School’s 2011 ranking was 1,720th out of 1,889, a Texas state percentile of 8.9. That’s a notable improvement in the school’s ranking since 2004, when Austin test scores ranked worse than 96.6 percent of middle schools in the state.
“That’s the bottom line now; that’s what everybody’s doing,” Fuller said of promoting good news and concealing the bad news. “And that’s why I cringe when I hear people say, ‘We need to make education more like business.’ This is what you get when you make education like business; you put out PR pieces and make everybody feel like, ‘Hey, your local school district’s great’ instead of going, ‘Here are our strengths and weaknesses and what we need to work on.’ People don’t do that anymore because you’ll get fired as a superintendent.”