What EVER Could Go Wrong With A Five-Star Rating?

Oh, you thought I was talking about the new five-star rating system brought to you by our state superintendent of education (OSSE) to rate all DC’s public schools?

Ah, well, turns out someone else thought of it first:

According to the NY Times, a Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital in Oregon limited patients “in an effort to lift its quality-of-care ratings. Fewer patients meant fewer chances of bad outcomes and better scores for a ranking system that grades all veterans hospitals on a scale of one to five stars.”

Now, now, I know: schools are not hospitals!

But there are some eerie parallels to DC’s school situation:

Restrictions to access that bring monetary and rating rewards: The hospital in question was able to gain a star in its rating by turning patients away and thereby ensuring it had easier-to-care-for patients—which in turn earned its director more than $8000 in bonus pay. Recall that the highest rated and most experienced teachers in DCPS generally teach in schools with the most socioeconomically secure (and highest scoring) students—not necessarily the students most in need of experienced teachers. Of course, we don’t have such teacher data for our charter schools, so who knows how that works? But we do know which of our public schools have the largest proportions of students who are either highly mobile or at risk. (Hint: it’s not charter schools.) And we also know that these schools have (not unexpected) low test scores. (Amazing how school choice works, isn’t it?)

Poorly shared official data: Seems that the VA doesn’t actually have reliable data it passes on to the public, despite relying on that data to “reform” its system of health care. Well, just last month, reporting out its public engagement on school report cards, OSSE noted that despite the desire of the public for data on teacher turnover (see p. 10 of OSSE’s report here), it cannot supply that—all the while annual teacher turnover data is available via the charter board website (well, as long as you sit there and tease it out for all the charter LEAs each year) as well as via analyst Mary Levy’s annual backing out of DCPS employment data (ditto—but many thanks, Mary, for doing what DC government has done and clearly doesn’t want to share with the public, despite our paying for it).

Improved ratings as a stand-in for improved outcomes: “The hospital’s director, Doug Paxton, acknowledged that being more selective had improved ratings, but denied that the hospital was turning patients away to improve scores. Tightening admissions, he said, benefited patients, not metrics, because [the] hospital lacks the resources for acute patients, so many need to be sent to larger hospitals in the community.” Sure, says practically every DC city leader: our schools have improved because of “competition” and “choice”—well, the schools that still exist, of course! The schools that don’t exist—the ones closed with entire neighborhoods or feeder patterns decimated, leaving parents, students, and staff with no choice—we just don’t talk about. Outcomes, baby, outcomes!

Negative staffing issues: This hospital had hiring hurdles; faced delays in care because of its small staff; and had high staff turnover. This is all old stuff for us here in DC education circles—see here and here for starters.

Manipulation of events and data: The hospital staff and administration appeared to have a large gulf between their versions of reality–and the effect on customers. Hmm, where have I heard this before in DC school discussions: Perhaps here and here?

Offloading risk: Apparently, the VA hospital protected itself by moving more difficult to treat patients to other facilities. This was a win-win, because the hospital did not have to pay for the patients to be transferred nor assume any costs associated with their (presumably resource-intensive) care. DC’s ombudsman for education has detailed for years running practices in DC’s public schools akin to this, whether hurdles to enrollment or unfair and exclusionary disciplinary practices.

Altering behavior to ensure better ratings: Penalties are assessed in the hospital rating system if patients have certain conditions upon admission or die during or shortly after hospitalization. As a result, doctors and nurses appeared to choose between honesty and hiding problems. Somewhere, between the congratulatory graduation rate press release from the mayor and heartbreaking testimony before the council about Ballou a few weeks ago, there is a truth: people in our public schools have altered their behavior to ensure better ratings.

Legislators where the buck may (or may not) stop: Employees at the hospital shocked at patient treatment flocked to their congressional representative, who requested an investigation—and who knows how that ended. After 15 hours of testimony about graduation rates and DC requirements last month in the wake of the Ballou scandal, the city council determined that an answer is not easily found–possibly because the council, for all its good intentions, is not directly responsible for what happens in our public schools. Yet, in the absence of a real body with real oversight over all our schools (that would be an elected school board to whom both charter board and chancellor report), our city council is the best we’ve got.

And now for a funny coda:

Last month, OSSE presented its report on public engagement around our school report cards (which would include the five star rating).

On page 5, OSSE said that “as of November 29, 2017, the public engagement activities resulted in more than 430 touch points with community members. A total of 172 community members took the online survey, and 258 participated in an in-person feedback session.” [boldface mine]

But 172 + 258 works out to exactly 430—not more. Now, maybe something more is indicated in those “touch points”–but that’s not exactly, erm, quantitative.

Interestingly, at the same session last month before the ESSA task force, a private organization, PAVE, presented its results of public engagement on the school report cards. PAVE managed to get all 82 of its parent leaders (from every ward except wards 2 and 3), and another 51 (apparently randomly canvassed) people, to provide feedback on the school report cards.

Thus, 82 + 51 + 430 = 563 people (and however many other “touch points”) giving feedback on school report cards to enable school choice.

Now, 563 people is not exactly a large portion of the adults in the lives of all DC’s public school students. This may not be a deal breaker, given that a majority of parents in DC’s public schools do not participate in the lottery each year.

But look how quickly this math gets downright weird:

Of the 82 PAVE parent leaders, only 11 are not associated with charter or private schools—which makes me wonder on what basis this group was invited to present public engagement around the report cards, which are used for all schools, not just charters.

Moreover, when 563 (presumably singular, unrepeated) voices represent the best in feedback for schools that have well over 100,000 adults invested through their children or grandchildren, what we’re getting here isn’t really feedback, is it? Rather, it becomes an exercise to enable school choice without actually any choice on the part of the people expected to exercise it–or at least live with (and pay for!) its consequences.

Seems DC matched and raised the VA!

As it is, the 5-star VA hospital rating system depends on 110 performance indicators.

Stay tuned to see if OSSE’s five star rating system or report cards will ever have that many performance factors.

One thought on “What EVER Could Go Wrong With A Five-Star Rating?

  1. Is PAVE the group that’s gotten this thing that I am constantly hearing about “quality schools for every child” going, the one that does not distinguish between DCPS (traditional) public schools and the semi-private charters, but just lumps them all into one amorphous blob, except that PAVE, as said on its website, exists to give the voice of charter school parents first place in the creation of such a system?


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