Photo by marsmet tallahassee on Flickr.

DCPS has long been in the business of issuing grades to students. Now, through a program called, the public can give grades to DCPS.

Over a year ago Mayor Vincent Gray launched the program as a way of collecting feedback on various District agencies that interact with the public. As of October 1, DCPS has joined the list of those agencies. But it’s not clear that grading the school system on its customer service is the best way of evaluating its performance.

The program allows members of the public to comment on the performance of 15 different agencies in a variety of ways. They can submit their opinions through the website, and the program also combs Twitter and other Internet sites for comments. Every month each agency receives a letter grade based on the feedback.

The grades are generated by newBrandAnalytics, a local research firm that primarily markets its services to hotels and restaurants. The partnership with DC came about in late 2011, when Gray visited the company to convince it to stay in DC and saw the kind of work it was doing. The District paid the company $170,000 to design the system and also pays an annual fee of $250,000.

Some have questioned the value and accuracy of the program. Although grades have fluctuated in the past, the average grade for all participating DC agencies has held steady at “A” for three consecutive months. That sounds suspiciously like a case of grade inflation. Critics have noted that during a period last spring when the Fire and Emergency Medical Services department was being roundly criticized for its performance, its rating on was A+.

The other problem is that some agencies draw far more reviews than others. Most of the feedback has focused on four agencies: the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), the Department of Motor Vehicles, the DC Public Library, and the Office of Aging. Last month, for example, DDOT garnered 454 reviews, while the Department of Small and Local Business Development got only 13.

Obviously, the number of reviews has a lot to do with whether a grade is an accurate reflection of an agency’s performance. The Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, which DCPS is replacing on the list, got an A+ in September, based on only one review. In June it got an F, also based on one review.

How many will review DCPS?

How many reviews will DCPS attract? Given the number of DC residents whose lives are affected by the public school system, there should be quite a few. But the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, one of the 15 agencies that has been on the list for a while, got only 52 reviews last month. And for the three prior months it averaged only about 15.

OSSE, which got a B- last month, oversees both DCPS and the charter school sector, so you’d think that it would potentially attract more reviews than DCPS alone. On the other hand, parents whose children are in the DC school system are far more likely to be aware of DCPS than of OSSE.

In theory, providing a mechanism for feedback on DCPS sounds like a good idea. But the system is designed to collect customer-service-type feedback: an employee, for example, who is either particularly rude or particularly helpful. While there’s nothing wrong with amassing that kind of data, it’s probably better suited to an agency like the DMV, where the quality of customer service is of prime importance. will do nothing to address the fundamental critiques many parents and other DC residents have of DCPS’s performance and policies. And because all reviews, regardless of their content, are aggregated into a single letter grade, any nuance in the feedback will get lost in the process. A complaint about a single teacher or administrator will presumably receive as much weight as an indictment of the entire curriculum.

In a comment included in the press release announcing the addition of DCPS to the program, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson made the distinction clear. “While our work is primarily focused on what’s happening in the classroom,” she says, “there is so much more to DCPS, and I’m grateful for a tool like Grade DC to help inform us about what we’re doing well and where we need to improve.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that a system originally designed to grade hotels and restaurants can’t accommodate debates about education policy. But be forewarned: if you have a comment about anything that’s actually going on in the classroom, you’ll need to find some way other than to make your views known.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.