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Let’s Agree (to Disagree) on State Report Cards: Secretary DeVos & California Parents

Kate Kennedy & Morgan Polikoff
Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is not very popular. Since joining the Trump administration a little over a year ago, she has been heckled. Her perceived lack of knowledge about education policy has made for easy fodder jokes on Saturday Night Live. In a recent 60 Minutes episode, DeVos discussed school choice, arming teachers, and that she had "not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming,” drawing widespread disdain from TV hosts and across the internet.

Despite all this, while DeVos and parents do not generally seem to be on the same page, there are some policy areas in which they share agreement.

As it turns out, they both have a message that state-level policymakers, especially in California, but also in other states, might want to pay attention to. It’s this commonality, and subtle differences, that we address below.

Earlier in March, DeVos spoke to the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) (you can watch the full speech online here). Citing a “tough love” approach, DeVos discussed the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, and the state plans that have been created under that law.

DeVos argued, “ESSA was born of a recognition that federal overreach had failed,” and thus she was hoping to see more flexibility and local control in states’ plans. She praised a few, like Louisiana, but lambasted one unnamed state (i.e., California) for creating “a color-coded dashboard” that is “nearly indecipherable.” DeVos didn’t name California in her speech, but then again, she didn’t have to (see here).

What she didn’t mention, but what we’d like to here, is that California parents actually agree with DeVos on the issue of state report cards. 

When we asked California voters in a recent poll, parents told us that they’d prefer a single-rating system, such as Louisiana’s, instead of the color-coded dashboard that they have access to now. We wrote about this in more detail in a recent blog post. Overall, we found that:

  1. Voters are about split on an overall grade, and the answer depends on wording. When presented with the fact that the majority of states have a single rating system, however, voters showed more support for a single rating system.
  2. In contrast, parents want an overall grade of school performance, no matter how you ask the question. Whether presented with national reference points or not, parents supported an overall grade of performance (on average 55% in favor, 40% opposed), just like Secretary DeVos advocated for.
  3. Experience with the Dashboard overwhelmingly predicts greater support for an overall grade. Interestingly, we found that those who had actually visited the California Dashboard were substantially more enthusiastic about an overall grade than those who had not. By a 69% to 29% margin, voters who’d been to the Dashboard wanted to also have an A-F rating.

So, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and California parents (but not voters in general) indeed agree on something—that a single rating system for state accountability (i.e. A-F) is preferable to the Dashboard.

But that’s not the whole story. 

There is disagreement, too. Contrary to what Secretary DeVos contends, the current California system isn’t indecipherable by California voters’ standards.

When we asked voters who had visited the California Dashboard online, they were overwhelmingly positive about it. We found little evidence that parents find the current system indecipherable, even after we showed them images of the Dashboard. In fact, both voters and parents liked it.

So, what gives? If voters like the California Dashboard as it is, but parents prefer a single rating system, who’s right?

We think they both are. There are merits to a single rating system—which California parents (who vote) understand, and DeVos pushes—but a color-coded Dashboard such as California’s is not indecipherable. It seems to us like there is common ground here, and the state should respect voters’ (and Secretary DeVos’s) wishes and offer at least some way for schools to receive an overall rating in addition to the Dashboard.