Think Tank Grades Washington State Schools

Published October 1, 2009

A think tank based in Washington State has started a new Report Cards project, rating and ranking schools in order to provide parents easily accessible information and give the public objective information about schools.

This summer the Evergreen Freedom Foundation released a report card on Washington’s public elementary schools—and found them to be failing. The group, headquartered in Olympia, followed up in September with report cards on the state’s middle schools and high schools; the results were still pending at press time.

“The Report Card shows that our current ‘public school system’ is not living up to the mission of public education—to ensure every child has access to a good education,” said Diana Cieslak, director of the school report card project. “Thousands of children are being denied this.”

‘Straight Facts’

The report card, Cieslak explained, takes data directly from the state superintendent’s office, then standardizes it into readable tables for each public school statewide, using statistical algorithms developed by the Fraser Institute in Vancouver, British Columbia. Each table includes five years of data, annual overall ratings, school demographics, statistically significant trends, and a statewide ranking system that allows parents to see how their school compares with every other school in the state.

“It’s straight facts, free from commentary, standardized for maximum readability,” Cieslak said.

‘Myth Buster’

Peter Cowley, executive director of school performance studies at the Fraser Institute, called the report card project “a myth buster.”

“It shows schools serving students with family and personal challenges can ensure that their kids succeed,” Cowley said. “Most importantly, it shows any school can improve its results, regardless of the current level of achievement its students enjoy.”

Both Cieslak and Cowley said the tables show something needs to change in education.

“The red tape of bureaucracy has a chokehold on quality education,” Cieslak said. “In order for public education to improve, parents and communities need to take ownership and apply the right political pressure to deregulate the system. The Report Card gives parents the simple and straight facts they need to understand how their school is doing and to start asking the right questions about how it can improve.”

Cowley agrees.

“Private schools and charter schools—particularly those that have shown themselves to be successful in replication—are much less likely to be affected by these structural impediments to sustainable improvement,” Cowley noted. “Therefore, in the interests of better education for all students, a more competitive education sector is highly desirable.”

Continuing Efforts

While the report card is a new project in Washington State, the Fraser Institute has been issuing them across Canada since 1998. Cowley said the four largest Canadian provinces, encompassing 75 percent of the country’s population, all have received report cards.

“We hope that, working with like-minded foundations and institutes in other states, we will be able to further the reach of these very effective tools in the improvement effort,” Cowley said.

EFF intends to keep up the pressure in Washington.

“Over the next year we will direct as many parents, policymakers, educators, administrators, and concerned taxpayers to the reports as possible and challenge them to get the facts and be part of the solution,” Cieslak said. “We will also highlight the schools that fly under the radar and succeed in spite of the ‘public school system,’ and will raise meaningful questions about how to make ingenuity and success the rule, not the exception.”

Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) teaches constitutional law and American politics at Wichita State University in Kansas.

For more information …

“Report Card on Washington State’s Elementary Schools 2009,” by Diana Cieslak, Peter Cowley, and Stephen Easton, Evergreen Freedom Foundation, May 2009: