Monday, February 22, 2010

The Six Standards of School Quality

(Previously published on Valerie Strauss' blog "The Answer Sheet" in the Washington Post)

Years ago, I learned that if you want to communicate with people, it’s best to avoid jargon.

It was my fourth year as principal, and I’d decided to add a portfolio requirement for graduation. After two years of study, meetings, and hearings, we were ready to move forward and decided to share the plan with the entire community. Feeling creative, we decided to put the entire proposal in a booklet and mail it to every district resident.

Then, mistakenly, we decided I would write the booklet.

I was still under the influence of academia, having just left my tenured university post three years earlier. Consequently, our booklet was yet another exercise in academic writing. The community was bewildered, unsure of what we were proposing to do to their school, and damn sure that that college professor principal was not doing things in the best interests of their children.

I look back on that experience often. It was not a lack of education or intelligence that caused the unrest. Rather, it was the contempt we had shown for our community by using insider language that was confusing. I have tried to avoid ‘eduspeak’ ever since.

Thus I was taken aback by a response to a recent piece Pedro Noguera and I wrote on this blog about the reauthorization of ESEA (commonly known as No Child Left Behind).

This person wrote that when he “got to the last sentence/paragraph, I came upon a term that has become sickeningly ubiquitous and vacant: ‘high quality schools.’ Could all the pundits in the education system do without this phrase?”

Our critic may be on to something. After all, ‘high-quality school’ is one of those phrases that everyone can agree with only because they don’t know what it means. While I won’t give up using the phrase, I do think I should explain what I mean when I use that term--based upon my own experience as a principal of nearly two decades.

*A quality school is a place that graduates its students. Every school should clearly post its five-year graduation rates (some kids take an extra year), broken down by socioeconomic class, race and educational handicapping conditions. Meet the state graduation averages and you are an OK school. Beat them and you are a school of quality.

*A quality school engages and challenges every student. It’s no good just to pass students on and hand them diplomas. The best schools ensure that every student meets the same common expectations. While different students may meet these expectations in different ways, all students should have the same opportunity to learn. With our ability to track students using computers, it would be no problem to see which curriculum kids of different backgrounds are taking in a school. The quality schools would show no difference.

*A quality school should be able to demonstrate how much and how well students are learning. I have no problem with using an occasional standardized test to sample this; it’s akin to my doctor taking my blood pressure, pulse, and temperature every time I go in for a check up. But these are only indicators of health, not the whole story.

More importantly, schools should be willing to randomly sample student work and submit it, blindly, to panels of teachers who can score and compare the work to an established standard (as we grade the Advanced Placement Exams). High quality schools would have student work that is in the top tier every time.

*A quality school would also engage students in learning experiences beyond the school walls. At the high school level, this would mean 100% of the students would be involved in internships, college classes or similar experiences. The reason for this is simple; it prepares students for life after school.

*A quality school would have clear evidence of the success of its graduates. For students who go to college, transcript studies could show student grades and progress toward graduation; for students who go to the military, the armed forces could share detailed records on advancement, training and deportment; for students who enter the workforce directly, a simple system could be established that allows employers to track which schools their employees come from and respond to questionnaires about educability, work habits, etc.

Beyond work and college, random samples of students could assess whether they feel prepared for what came after school – including the demands of democratic citizenship.

*A quality school would establish a positive working environment for its teachers. The evidence is clear; well-prepared and well-supported teachers lead to student success. Interviewing teachers about the provision of professional development opportunities, administrative support, time to collaborate and curricular and teaching materials would yield the information we need about a quality school.

Six standards of quality: Graduation rates, challenging curricula, evidence of learning, experiential learning experiences, success after graduation, and teaching environments. They are standards that illuminate schools of high quality. And they are standards every school can meet.

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