Hall Pass: Your Ticket to Understanding School Board Politics, Edition #87

Welcome to Hall Pass, a newsletter written to keep you plugged into the conversations driving school board politics and governance.

In today’s edition, you’ll find:

  • On the issues: The debate over grade inflation 
  • Endorsements provide insight into ideological dynamics in nonpartisan school board elections
  • Extracurricular: education news from around the web
  • Candidate Connection survey

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On the issues: The debate over grade inflation 

In this section, we curate reporting, analysis, and commentary on the issues school board members deliberate when they set out to offer the best education possible in their district. Missed an issue? Click here to see the previous education debates we’ve covered.

Grade inflation refers to an upward trend in average grades students receive without a corresponding rise in the quality of the work or other metrics of academic performance. As an example, imagine a student submits an assignment and receives a “B” one year. Then, the following year, a different student submits the same level of work and gets an “A.” 

On average, grades increased over the last decade—but standardized test scores (like the SAT and ACT) fell.

Tim Donahue writes that teachers should commit to reducing student’s grades. Donahue says lower grades can motivate students to review and incorporate feedback. He says rigorous grading creates and communicates opportunities for improvement.

Jack Schneider and Ethan Hutt write that reducing grades could create unanticipated problems. Schneider and Hutt say lower grades can damage future opportunities and reduce student’s motivation to improve. They say policy approaches like those allowing students to redo work are necessary to address grade inflation.

If Everyone Gets an A, No One Gets an A | Tim Donahue, New York Times

“How might grade inflation’s roiling cloud now be pierced? … For now, a modest proposal: Consider the essay that comes in with a promising central idea but lacks support from a few critical moments of the text. It makes a smart but abrupt transition and closes with an interesting connection, a trifle undercooked. With another assiduous go-round, it might become something amazing. But please don’t give this draft an A-minus, the grade that puts so much potential to an early, convenient death. Instead, think of the produce of this student’s deletions and insertions, the music as he riffles through those pages he’ll annotate better next time, the reflective potential of a revision. Grading offers a singular place to teach such lessons of resilience. Instead, consider the B-plus. This means nothing if done alone. But if we’re really going to be teachers, it’s high time to tighten the belt.”

Is the new handwringing over grade inflation inflated? | Jack Schneider and Ethan Hutt, Washington Post

“As it turns out, however, merely ‘tightening the belt’ will actually create more problems than it solves. That’s because grades serve several purposes in our educational system. … These different functions — motivation, short-distance communication, long-distance communication and synchronization — evolved separately, meeting the various needs of our growing system. … [I]nstead of simply seeking to wrench grade distributions back into the shape of a bell curve, we need to think about smarter policy solutions that consider the various functions grades actually play in our system. … [A]ny realistic and enduring solution will have to do more than encourage educators to ‘get tough.’ Instead, policy leaders will have to account for the multiple, interacting roles that grades play in our system.”

Endorsements provide insight into ideological dynamics in nonpartisan school board elections

As part of our comprehensive school board election coverage in 10 states, we’ve collected data on thousands of endorsements from organizations and individuals. This work has given us a unique look into the ideological dynamics in school board elections.

In the U.S., more than 90% of school board candidates run in nonpartisan elections. Since Nov. 7, when voters around the country went to the polls, the internet has been brimful of headlines like “Liberals Win Hotly Contested School Board Races in Backlash to Conservative Control” and “Some school boards turn conservative in hotly contested and expensive election year.” 

Depending on the article, you can walk away believing conservative or liberal candidates won the day. 

The endorsement data we collected in the 10 states provides an in-depth layer of analysis about who won and who lost. Earlier this year, we published comprehensive analyses on ideological performance, open seats, incumbents defeated, and more, in three of the 10 states that held school board elections before Nov. 7— Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Wisconsin

Today, we’re taking a deep dive into Minnesota’s and Virginia’s elections. We’ll continue publishing analyses on five additional states throughout December. You can follow along here

In Minnesota, candidates who received no endorsements won the most seats overall—but liberals won the most races that also featured a conservative opponent

We used endorsements to group candidates into the following categories—liberal, conservative, mixed, or no endorsements (those candidates for whom we did not identify any endorsements).

Of the 132 seats up for election in Minnesota:

  • Candidates who received no endorsements won 68 seats (52%).
  • Candidates with a liberal ideological lean won 52 seats (39%);
  • Candidates with a conservative lean won 10 seats (8%); and,
  • Candidates with a mixed ideological lean won 2 seats (1.5%);

Sixty-two (or 47%) of the 132 seats up for election had candidates of different ideological leanings running against each other. We referred to these as inter-ideological elections.

In those:

  • Liberal candidates performed the best: of the 52 who ran, 40 won, giving them a 77% win rate.
  • Thirty-nine conservative candidates also ran in these races, eight of whom won, resulting in a 21% win rate.
  • Thirty-eight candidates received no endorsements, but ran against candidates who did. Of those, 12 won, resulting in a 32% win rate.
  • Two candidates with a mixed ideological lean ran and both won.

The top-liberal endorser this year, Education Minnesota, had an 81% win rate. The top conservative endorser, Minnesota Parents Alliance (MPA), had a 22% win rate. 

Other highlights from our full report on Minnesota’s Nov. 7 elections include:

  • More than half of all seats—51%—were open. This is above average compared to our historical data over the last five years.
  • Eighty-two percent of incumbents in contested races won.  That’s also above average compared to Ballotpedia’s historical figures. 

Click here to read the full report.

In Virginia, candidates who received no endorsements won the most seats overall—followed by conservative candidates

Of the 404 seats up for election:

  • Candidates who received no endorsements won 245 seats, or 61%
  • Conservative candidates won 94 seats (24%)
  • Liberal candidates won 63 (15%).
  • We were unable to categorize the remaining two candidates.

The high percentage of unendorsed candidates is due to Virginia’s large number of uncontested elections (57% of all races). 

What happened in the contested races that had candidates with different ideologies? In those situations:

  • 75 liberal candidates ran, 46 of whom won (61%)
  • 117 conservative candidates ran, 56 of whom won (48%)
  • 88 candidates with no endorsements ran, 25 of whom won (28%)

The top liberal endorser in Virginia was the Democratic Party of Virginia, which endorsed 77 candidates overall and 62 in contested races. Of those 62 candidates, 41 won (or about 66%). The top conservative endorser in Virginia was the Republican Party of Virginia, which endorsed 123 candidates overall and 99 in contested races. Of those 99 candidates, 46 won (or about 47%). 

Other highlights from our full report on Virginia’s Nov. 7 elections include:

  • Incumbents did not run for re-election in 40% of races—and when they did run in contested elections, 48% lost.
  • Fifty-eight percent of incumbents ran unopposed.

Click here to read the full report.

Extracurricular: education news from around the web

This section contains links to recent education-related articles from around the internet. If you know of a story we should be reading, reply to this email to share it with us! 

Take our Candidate Connection survey to reach voters in your district

Today, we’re featuring responses from Kansas candidates who ran in the Nov. 7 general election for Wichita Public Schools, District 3. Ngoc Vuong defeated Ken Carpenter 56.9% to 43.1%. 

Wichita Public Schools is the largest district in Kansas, with a student enrollment of around 50,000 students. Three seats were up for election in 2023. 

Kansas was one of 10 states where we covered all school board elections this year. 

Here’s an excerpt from Vuong’s answer to the question, “What is the primary job of a school board member in your view?” 

“Our school board members should be visiting our school buildings and facilities and attending/volunteering at school and community events a few times a month. Their responses to stakeholders’ concerns, questions, and recommendations should be individualized and timely. They should ask questions and seek feedback from students, school employees, families, and community members. They should build relationships with a broad, diverse array of stakeholders and actively seek to unlearn the misconceptions/preconceived notions they may have about USD 259 and public education. They should encourage improved attendance and public comment at school board meetings. They should inspire families and community members to attend school events and to serve on parent-teacher associations (PTAs) and booster clubs. They should help our families and communities provide mentorship to our students and show appreciation to our school employees. They should help our families and community members register to vote, to vote in all elections, and to visit and volunteer in our schools. I have been doing all of this.”

Click here to read the rest of Vuong’s responses. 

Here’s an excerpt from Carpenter’s answer to the question, “What is the primary job of a school board member in your view?” 

“The primary job of a school board member is to act in the best interests of the people in the district and especially the students when taking any action or making any decisions as a representative of the school board. They also need to Approve budgets, hire and evaluate the superintendent, adopt and maintain current policies, and adopt policies that inform district actions.”

Click here to read the rest of Carpenter’s responses.