What Makes a Great School Truly Great?
By: Jill Zimmerman | March 1, 2012
Just before Mardi Gras, the Recovery School District (RSD) released its new annual school Equity Report. The Equity Report is one of the RSD’s commitments to New Orleans outlined last August, and the goal of the new report is to measure and make transparent the “things that make a great school truly great.”
The question of what makes a great school truly great is an important one. In a system of citywide open enrollment and school choice, parents in New Orleans must sort through a barrage of information—and misinformation—to determine which school is best for their child. Through our Spotlight on Choice research project, we are seeking to better understand the school choice system in New Orleans and how parents and students navigate and interact with that system. According to our October 2011 parent opinion poll, 86% of public school parents in New Orleans feel that information on school options is readily available. But what kind of information are parents using to identify quality public schools? What kind of information should parents use to choose their child’s school? What kind of information tells us if a great school is truly great?
There is more to a great school than high tests scores. In creating the Equity Report, the RSD acknowledged that a school’s “greatness” is demonstrated by more than just success on standardized tests, which are the primary measures used to grade schools under the state’s current accountability system. The 2012 Equity Report includes a school’s admissions rate for students with special needs, academic progress of students with special needs, student attendance rate, and the rate of students staying in school rather than being expelled, suspended, or dropping out. The report provides a more robust picture of the RSD and its schools, allowing parents and families to make better-informed decisions.
What are other ways to evaluate and measure school quality?
- The University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research has developed the “5Essentials” system to measure school quality in Chicago Public Schools. The system uses student and teacher surveys to measure schools on five core attributes: effective leaders, collaborative teachers, involved families, supportive environment, and ambitious instruction. The system was recently adopted by Excellent Schools Detroit, which is combining the 5Essentials survey with test performance and school review site visits to measure school quality in Detroit.
- The New York City Department of Education conducts annual Quality Reviews, which are two- or three-day school visits by experienced educators designed to “look behind a school’s performance statistics to ensure that the school is engaged in effective methods of accelerating student learning.” During the review, an external evaluator visits classrooms, talks with school leaders, and uses a rubric to evaluate how well the school is organized to educate its students.
- Mark Phillips, professor emeritus of secondary education at San Francisco State University, recently wrote in the Washington Post that in addition to measuring college attendance, we should conduct follow-up studies to measure college completion rates and job performance. While such studies are difficult to carry out, they would truly measure whether schools are preparing students for future success.
These are just a few of the many ways school districts and communities are thinking critically about how to measure what makes a great school truly great. Reliable and informative measures of school quality can drive school improvement and ensure that parents and families have access to valuable information about which schools are best for their children. Public schools in New Orleans continue to improve their standardized test performance, to increase their graduation rates, and to send more kids to college, but how will we know if our schools are truly great?