What Makes a Great School?

What does a healthy, high-functioning learning environment actually look like – and how can parents determine if their child is lucky enough to be attending one?

For modern American families, those questions are more relevant than ever, as increasing numbers of students are opting out of their neighborhood schools and into the chaotic, nascent marketplace of school choice.  What they’re finding is that the recipe for school success is an elusive set of ingredients that is extremely difficult to convey simply and clearly– something Bill Jackson knows all too well.

Back in 1998, when the concept of school choice was still in its infancy, Jackson founded Great Schools as a way to harness the potential of the Internet to help parents become more effectively involved in their children’s education. Today, Great Schools is the country’s leading source of information on school performance, with listings of 200,000 public and private schools serving students from preschool through high school, a cache of more than 800,000 parent ratings and reviews, and a website that receives more than 37 million unique visitors a year.

The success of Great Schools stems in large part from Jackson’s prescient anticipation of the rise of school choice. Yet its growth owes as much to something Jackson couldn’t have anticipated – the 2001 passage of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law – and the ways that legislation would transform how people thought about what characterizes a great school.

Almost overnight, conversations about schooling shifted radically – from a belief that the core components of a school couldn’t be measured, to a commitment to measure schools solely by their students’ scores on state reading and math tests.

And predictably, the Great Schools ratings system followed suit; each school’s 10-point score has been determined by a single measure – “its performance on state standardized tests.” This made for a rating system that was easy to apply to schools and communicate to parents. And yet as time went on and Jackson and his colleagues delved deeper into the mystery of what defines a great school, they realized that test scores were valuable – and overvalued.

What else should a ratings system incorporate? And what are the core ingredients parents could look for – and demand – as a way to drive improvement across all schools?

To help answer those questions, Jackson hired Samantha Brown Olivieri, a former educator and self-styled “data diva”, and charged her with leading the process of devising a more balanced ratings system for schools. This October, that system will debut in two cities – Newark, New Jersey, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And eventually, it will be applied nationwide.

As Olivieri explains it, the new system reflects an observation that is both simple and significant: what makes or breaks a school is not its performance on a single state test, but the quality of its overall culture. “We want parents to find not just a great school, but also the best possible fit for their child – and that’s tricky. It’s a lot harder to measure qualitative data in a way that’s consistent and useful.”

Nonetheless, Olivieri and her colleague devised a five-part portrait of school culture:

  1. robust teacher support;
  2. active family engagement;
  3. supportive environmental conditions;
  4. strong social and emotional student growth; and
  5. a school-wide climate of high expectations.

For some of the categories, Olivieri knew that schools already collect quantitative data that can provide a useful snapshot: student attendance, for example, or student re-enrollment and faculty absenteeism rates. For others, an entity like Great Schools is left to rely on qualitative measures that different schools and districts must choose to collect and share, like attitudinal surveys of students, teachers and parents, or more specific information about their programmatic features and what makes them distinctive.

“We’re trying different things out right now through this pilot,” Olivieri explained, “and we’re searching for what will be both credible and actionable. Part of the challenge is that most parents do not have a depth of experience on which to rely. When people rate a restaurant on Yelp, they do so after attending hundreds of restaurants. But that’s not generally how it works with schools; for most of us, the range of reference is quite limited.”

It is, in short, a brave new world, but it’s one that Jackson and Olivieri feel will help Great Schools fulfill its goal of helping parents make better, more informed decisions about where to send their children to school. “When I was teaching in New York City,” Olivieri said, “I learned the importance of engaging kids in their own education and having a really positive school climate that was focused on the development of a much broader set of skills. I also learned that all kids can reach their full potential – and that it will never happen until the ways we evaluate our schools are aligned with the full range of possibilities we want each child to experience.

“I understand that the phrase ‘data-driven’ has taken on a negative tone because of the way it’s been misused in the past,” she added. “But that doesn’t mean we should swing back in the other direction. The data does tell us something. And it’s true that education is not a field that can easily measure the most valuable outcomes. It’s a challenge – but it’s an exciting challenge, and I’m excited to see what we can learn – and how we can help.”

(This article also appeared on Forbes.com.)

Categories: Assessment, Learning, Organizational Change

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