Great School, Right? Not So Fast

who goes thereBy Bill Henk – Apart from truly grateful parents and students, very few people would appreciate a great school  more than me.  It’s been my dream for every child to profit from one of these treasures since I became an educator almost four decades ago.

As a teacher I wanted to work at a great K-12 school.  As a graduate student in literacy, I researched what made schools great in reading and writing,  and as a faculty member and academic administrator, I’ve tried to contribute to the creation of great schools in whatever way that I could.

In my current role as the dean of an education college at a major university, I’m often asked — or told — about great schools in our region and beyond.  The “local” questions or advice come as no surprise to me, because Milwaukee stands out as an educational landscape for K-12 schooling unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  It’s as mysterious and complicated as they come.  In our city,  most people struggle to determine which schools are great ones, although there are some who claim to know those answers, rightly or wrongly.

As for me, I won’t pretend to know with absolute certainty.  Oh, I definitely have my ideas, but I respect the fact that schools rank as extremely complex organizations.  Judging their relative greatness amounts to risky business in my book.

Still, as a blogger, I’ve written more than once about the factors that I think contribute to great schools.  The single most important factor in determining a great school is its culture, a multifaceted construct that includes elements like exceptional leadership and teaching, collaboration, parental involvement, professional development, governance, extended school days and years, and student voice and responsibility among others.

Most of the well-intended (but perhaps mistaken) individuals who try to alert me to great schools start with standardized tests scores as their litmus test.  I’ll spare readers my typical diatribe on why standardized test scores alone represent a very narrow view of exceptional schooling.  But for the sake of argument today, I’m actually going to use them to make my point.

sentrySay What?

When I’m told that a school qualifies as great, I almost always follow-up by asking a peculiar question.  It’s the same one a guard or sentry asks when a suspicious noise or movement is detected — “Who goes there?” 

And almost always the person looks at me in as much utter disbelief as you might have now, not being able to imagine what on earth would possess me to ask such a thing.  They apparently figure I’m  going to comment or inquire instead about the principal or the teaching staff or the curriculum or the assessment system or the grade levels or the type of school or the technology or something overtly educational in nature.

Don’t get me wrong.  All of those aspects of schooling rate as important.

But it is the nature of the student population itself that will typically determine more than anything else how schools fare on standardized tests.  In other words, and this is hardly profound, the schools whose overall test scores look the best often do so simply because they enjoy the best students.  What I really should say, though, is that the enrollment of these schools reflects higher percentages of advantaged students.

And make no mistake, the academic superiority of students derives most of all from the advantages that the family’s socioeconomic status affords.  Affluent college-educated parents can provide greater access to books, technology, tutoring, special learning opportunities, and summer enrichment.  They also tend to hold their children to higher expectations and offer plenty of encouragement, reinforcement, and even outright rewards.  A school loaded up with privileged kids figures to fall at the upper end of the standardized test food chain.

So What?

So it could very well be the case that highly regarded schools with excellent test scores are actually underperforming if their superior group of students aren’t making progress that is proportional to their advantages.  By contrast, schools where students test scores don’t compare favorably on balance, may be helping their students progress more effectively.

Show me a school with a high concentration of at-risk learners whose academic performance increases significantly over time, and I’ll show you what is almost certainly a great school.    Keep in mind here that I’m not limiting academic performance to standardized test scores, but they’d clearly be part of my thinking.

student growthIn the end it’s about high quality teaching and the amount and quality of student learning.  To my mind, the great schools move kids the farthest.  Gain is the game.

Consequently, my advice in judging a school on the basis of test scores would be to look at how far it advances its student population.  Don’t just look at where the scores are; look at where they were.

Now What?

So you know, there are various methods for gauging progress with the most popular ones now falling into a class of models characterized as value-added.  These promising tools are fascinating, and at least in theory they level the playing field for students and teachers using statistical adjustments.   Their computations require more explanation than most of us are able to grasp or act upon, and certainly more than can occur here.

Neither are the models perfect.  There is a growing suspicion, for instance, that different value-added models might not tell us the same thing.  And since they’re typically predicated on a narrow slice of achievement evidence, they don’t tell the whole story either.

All of this leads me to the following recommendation.  The next time you or anyone else decides to exalt or condemn a school, you’d both be well advised to think twice.

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