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When the difficult is entirely possible

• Mike Thomas

Is an A-F school grading system unfair to low-income schools, which invariably earn a disproportionate number of lower grades?

That talking point is prevalent among opponents of this accountability system. And we recently heard it again when the majority of North Carolina schools earning a D or F contained predominantly low-income students while the majority of schools that earned an A or B contained more affluent students.

This was the headline in The News & Observer: “NC public school letter grades reflect wealth of students’ families.”

Critics complain schools are stigmatized for factors out of their control. They say we should, in effect, cut schools some slack by getting rid of a grading system rigged against them.

Unfortunately, the students in those schools won’t get cut any slack when they leave school. They either will have the knowledge to further their education and participate in the economy, or they will not.

When a company requires a particular skill set for a job opening, it does not care about the circumstances of a potential employee’s life, just what he or she knows and can do.

What students learn in school determines that. It determines their futures. And if they are to succeed, what low-income kids need to learn is no different than what the kids in the more affluent schools need to learn.


We cannot create different expectations for students who will have to meet the same expectations when they are adults.

If a failing school grade seems harsh or unfair, consider the life outcome of children ushered through an education system that hides that failure and preordains them to menial jobs and dependency.

The unemployment rate is 5.7 percent, but for college graduates unemployment is less than half that. The Information Age is demanding educated, skilled workers, and there is an increasing shortage of them.

That is why the pay gap between high school graduates and college graduates is at a 50-year high. This phenomenon only will accelerate with the pace of technology.

It is not school grading systems that are inequitable. It is educational opportunity that is inequitable. All the grades do is point out a sad reality and create urgency to address it.

Urgency drives results. We see this in the countless low-income schools that are succeeding in states all across the country – schools using new approaches such as digital technology to assess students’ abilities and growth, and to provide them personalized education plans.

It is amazing what happens when strong leaders and dedicated teachers create a new culture of success in once failing schools.

We cannot hide from the difficult journey ahead, particularly when we know that in this case, the difficult is entirely possible.

About the author

Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet

Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at