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How Should School Quality Be Measured?

Posted by Jennifer Berkshire on Jun 28, 2016

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Almost everyone agrees now that just focusing on math and English is way too narrow and has taken us into a sort of tragi-comic cul-de-sac in a lot of ways. There are some really interesting experiments underway about how you create broader measures of school quality that align more with what parents want, what students want, what teachers want, but also produce the achievement gains that everyone is so focused on. 

One of these experiments is happening right here in Massachusetts. A scholar named Jack Schneider, who's an education professor at Holy Cross, has been working with urban districts to come up with an alternate measure of school quality. He's focused on schools where he lives, in Somerville.

Somerville is very diverse, with an astonishing range of languages are spoken and you have kids from all these backgrounds. But because schools are graded and the results often just show you how the schools fare with, say, SAT scores, often these kids end up at the very bottom of the pile, and so parents are told, "Oh don't go to school here, you want to go some place more affluent." That just exacerbates all the inequalities we've been talking about.

Schneider and a team of researchers set out to see if they could come up with a measure of school quality that would more accurately value what Somerville has to offer, but also take into account all these things that parents, teachers, school leaders and students really care about. Their measurement is so much broader, and I felt my world opening up a little bit as I read about it because you could see, if we started with this broader definition, and then if we needed to step in and fix the school, we'd be trying to fix it in a broader way.

There was a recent AP story about immigrant students who arrived in the US as unaccompanied minors not being allowed to enroll in school in several cities, including Lynn. They were being funneled through adult education and transitional assistance programs instead of the elementary, middle schools and high schools. This example shows that Lynn has ended up with a re-engineered understanding of what their schools are for.

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Lynn, Massachusetts, is another city where immigrants come. There are around 28 languages spoken in the public schools. Part of the vision for public education there has always been to help immigrants transition. If you go to a Lynn school and you're there when a student arrives, it's an amazing scene, but you also see firsthand the challenges. What do you do with a student who's just arrived, doesn't speak English, and PARCC testing is right around the corner?

Their emphasis on making measurable progress in math and English is now such that they view these kids, these newcomers, as a liability. It’s akin to a hospital closing its doors to the neediest patients for fear of the impact on the data if somebody should die in their care.

This example shows you how far off-track you can get if you're focused so intently on the smallest measurable units, and you lose sight of this bigger question about what school is for. With a broader measure of school quality, there should be a way to value the contribution that schools in Lynn make in welcoming these new immigrant students, and help them meet particular benchmarks, so that the schools can embrace their success.

The overwhelming emphasis on having to produce short-term goals rewards behaviors that are ultimately counterproductive. I went to a student forum in Lawrence last week. A senior was talking about how on the one hand, achievement is measurably higher in Lawrence, and the schools have improved in so many ways. On the other hand, the student complained that there's so much emphasis on short-term gains. She likened it to a quickie weight-loss plan.

That is so insightful, and that’s partly why it's so important to be able to hold up examples where people are doing things differently, where they're measuring things differently.

Check out our on-demand webinar with Jennifer

 

 

 

Topics: standardized testing, What is school for?, state-level standards

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