This is the first article in a series of articles that seeks to offer a new vision for what school report cards might look like so we can more accurately and fairly tell a good school from one that is struggling.
How We Currently Measure Schools
As I detailed in a previous blog post, the dominant way school quality is currently measured is via the school report cards. These report cards used across the US frequently grade schools on an A-F sort of scale and are intended to provide insight to the public on how effective schools are. They are also designed to serve as accountability measures for teachers and administrators to determine who is or is not doing a good job. While it is entirely understandable that parents, homebuyers, communities, and other interested parties want to be able to somehow identify good schools besides word of mouth, these indicators are not effective in telling us what we want to know. Instead, the report cards generally reveal, in a convoluted way, which schools have students who are good at taking standardized tests that measure low levels of processing and basic skills.
In Ohio, where I currently reside, there is a growing debate over not only what is on a school report card, but if they are even understandable or fair. This debate is growing across the US leaving us to wonder how we can better measure good schools. For example, in Massachusetts the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment is seeking to re-envision school quality measures within the state, which is quite a deliverance from their current school report cards. It is worth noting that there is another segment of the population that questions whether we should try to quantify schools at all, but for the sake of this article, we will beg that question and consider how we might best measure our schools in a meaningful, fair, and digestible way.
The New School Report Card
In the ten plus years I have been in teacher education my students regularly hear me dish on what is right and what is wrong with schools leaving them invariably to ask, “What do you look for in a school for your kids?” My answer, based off of research and experience, is always, “Money and quality student experiences.” Money tells me who has resources, who can hire the most qualified and experienced teachers, who can afford field trips, and so much more. Correspondingly, quality student experience is central to a meaningful education. Students who are engaged, active, asking questions, making meaning, grappling with challenges, creating authentic representations of learning, imagining possibilities, collaborating, and synthesizing their learning are what great schools aspire to. Juxtapose that kind of student experience with one that features kids working quietly in rows on test preparation worksheets (a.k.a. sheets of work. Who doesn’t love a good sheet of work?), some falling asleep, some pretending to pay attention, others texting secretly because they are disengaged, and yet others staring at the clock praying for either the day to come to a close or for sweet mercy to end the misery. Those images make it clear that experience is critical to a world-class education and the mark of a great school.
As such, it would seem highly relevant to include measures of money and experience on school report cards but there are other things to consider. How much are kids learning? How good are the teachers? How good is the principal? What kind of character education takes place? How are kids social-emotional needs being met? How effectively are kids being prepared to participate as citizens in a pluralistic, democratic society? What is the school environment and culture like? Do kids like their teachers and feel connected to them? Do all students feel included and safe? How involved are parents in the school community? All of these questions, the kinds that parents across the globe have asked, are asking, or will ask, present elements that should appear on a school report cards. So instead of complaining about what is wrong with school quality measures, which if I’m being honest, I do frequently, I want to offer some solutions. In the next few blog postings, I will share the elements we need to be included on our school report cards, which will more effectively and accurately measure school quality.
As the predominance of school funding comes from local property taxes (combined with state funding and to a much lesser extent, federal funding), I want to see how much money the school gets per-pupil. I also want to see the amount of money the school received from parent donations/fundraisers and other forms of revenue generated from partnerships with local businesses or organizations. This gives us a clear picture of who has money and who doesn’t while allowing us to honestly compare schools that have with those that do not. Sharing this data would create a more equal playing field in comparing schools with like financial situations. The worst kept secret in education is that schools with money do well on performance measures and those who are without money most often do not. There is a reason for that and it’s not because poor kids are intellectually inferior.
I want to see the kinds of classes kids have access to. If a child is interested in art, music, coding, jewelry making, or some other such enterprise, will they be able to learn about them. In the upper levels, what kinds of advanced level, advanced placement, or college-credit earning courses are available? What schools have creative, cross-curricular course offerings where science and literature are taught together or social studies and composition writing are coupled? Conversely, what schools have a lack of offerings? What schools have tracking systems? What kinds of opportunities are there for gifted students, students with special needs, or second language learners?
Given that student engagement is critical to their academic success, we need to see which schools have the most engaged students. There are many ways to get at this information but I will offer up two suggestions. The first is a student engagement survey instrument that links engagement to learning outcomes. Such a tool exists already in higher education and can be easily adapted to a K-12 environment. The National Survey of Student Engagement has an engagement tool used in universities that is also adaptable. Along with those surveys, we can simply ask kids to talk about their experiences. One can imagine a sort of Yelp page for school report cards where kids can share their experiences or we might even ask them more targeted questions in structured interviews and report common themes. Regardless of the method used, there are many ways to measure engagement but our current report cards treat student engagement as irrelevant. That must end.
These ideas offer a start in reimagining school report cards/school quality measures, but there is much more to what makes a good school. In the coming blog posts, I will layout out a vision for a meaningful school report card.