A Great Question: How Can We Tell If a School Is Excellent?

It is a great question, one that deserves a lot of thought and research: What is an excellent school? How can we tell if a school is excellent?

According to the State Report Card, a school is “excellent,” if it receives the state’s top rating. In the 2005-2006 school year, the Kettering School District, where I live, was deemed “excellent,” because it met the criteria for 24 out of 25 indicators. But in 2006-2007, Kettering’s rating slipped a notch, from “excellent” to “effective.” So now, Kettering is scrambling to achieve those needed indicators so that once again it will be rated “excellent.”

The State Report Card now evaluates schools based on 30 indicators — 28 of the indicators tell the outcome of student academic tests given in grades 3 to 11. Amazingly, there seems a consensus that strongly supports Ohio’s school evaluation method. Amazingly, people of experience and insight, who really know better, usually validate Ohio’s system that says, if you want to know if a school is excellent — just look at its test scores.

A recent comment about school evaluation, I found telling, was from a self-satisfied school board candidate. This candidate indicated that since his school system was rated “excellent,” there was not much left for his district to do, except to monitor and maintain its present excellent program. He seemed to completely buy into the idea that, because the state said so, his district is, in fact, “excellent.”

What is an excellent school? Certainly, the standards of school excellence that are affirmed by taxpayers of a democratic society should be quite different from the standards for school excellence advocated by leaders of a totalitarian state. But, according to Ohio standards, a school could be operated with a ruthless oppression worthy of a school in North Korea — it could homogenize children into non-thinking test taking automatons; it could brainwash children into acceptance of arbitrary authoritarianism and it could systematically crush any independent thought by teachers or students — and, if the school’s test scores met the state’s criteria, the school would be deemed “excellent.”

Our society seems to suffer from a lack of imagination as to what really constitutes “excellence,” in schools for a democratic society. This dearth of imagination about schools is striking because we seem to have plenty of ideas as to what makes an automobile excellent, or a sandwich, or a gym shoe excellent — our imaginations are constantly stimulated by persistent and clever marketers. As a society, incredibly, there seems little discussion as to what makes for excellence in schools, and, incredibly, in this vacuum of thought, there seems a consensus that school excellence can be ascertained via test scores.

Common sense is offended by the notion that an excellent school would be one that operates a mediocre, boring program, with most of its students and teachers simply going through the motions — disengaged from meaningful learning and, by all evidence, intellectually dead. But one problem with relying on test scores to evaluate a school is that mediocre schools, in fact, commonly are proclaimed “excellent.” The fact is, a school can have high scores in spite of its program, rather than because of its program.

There is almost a perfect correlation between the economic status of a community and the test scores of its children. A school in a prosperous community will have high scores — regardless of the school program. Schools, of course, love to take credit for their students’ success. And successful schools are not shy to explain how their program, procedures, faculty and hard work facilitated their students’ success. But how can such a school program be considered “excellent,” if its success is completely a function of its clientele? The fact is, the same program, procedures, faculty and hard work, that “excellent” schools brag about, would simply not work if applied to a clientele suffering from generational family and school failures, one embedded in poverty.

What is needed is a whole new way of evaluating schools. There needs to be a lot of thought centered on this question: What is the definition of school excellence that could inspire schools toward authentic improvement? What are the benchmarks of school excellence that thoughtful taxpayers could use to help gauge the quality of their schools?

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11 Responses to A Great Question: How Can We Tell If a School Is Excellent?

  1. What a quagmire.

    I also find it interesting that you use the word “clientele” to describe students.

    There is a creeping suspicion in my mind that one reason politicians in Columbus don’t get rid of school district’s dependancy on property tax is because it perpetuates the false idea that their home school districts are doing a fantastic job. I have no way of knowing whether this is true, but I can think of no other reason for them to be dragging their feet on this issue. Perhaps they could enlighten us here?

    Why can’t we track individual students? A student enters school, through the fortune of having a particular set of parents, at, say, 50 on a standard test and moves through a school district, improving to a 97; another student enters a different school at a 12, improving to a 72… Which school has done the better job of education?

    Track each student, remove the politics of pitting one school district against another. Is a student learning? Yes? Great. No? Okay, let’s work on this student. Stop focusing on districts or schools and focus on Each Student.

  2. Mary says:

    Mike, thanks for bringing up the fact that the public needs to discuss more about what makes an “excellent” school. About two years ago, the Dayton Daily News printed a commentary by Diane Ravitch about how these ratings are used to mislead and manipulate public perceptions. This year’s League of Women Voters’ Guide seemed to used the ratings in some candidates’ questions to imply all is well in some of our school districts with these ratings. The ratings are minimum standards, and do nothing to assess value added for the student – an area Theresa brings up. The Ohio Department of Education is aware of value added techniques. As I recall, “value added” was developed by a statistician in Tennessee who actuallly had worked in the Department of Agriculture. Many higher abilitiy students make little gain from year to year in the heterogeneous (mixed abilities) classrooms that seem to mainly focus on bringing struggling students up to minimums so the district can be called “excellent” or “effective” . We should do better for these students. Other countries do.

  3. matt says:

    Mike’s approach to the question, what makes a school excellent is based on the here and now. If he were to look into the past, perhaps he would know the answer to his rather simple question.

    The state decided to quantify the performance of schools because many are performing poorly. The whole rating system came about as a result of the numerous complaints from parents. Now there is a system in place to make schools comparable and accountable.

    It appears many teachers are opposed to living up to goals, standards and expectations. People in the business world are constantly given goals and expectations to live up to. That’s the way of the world. Why teachers and school administrators are troubled by this is mystifying.

    The Dayton Public School teacher does have a hard road to travel. The district does have a high concentration of ignorant poor people who refuse to partake in the American dream. It is very difficult to teach a child with out the benefit of parental support.

  4. Teri Lussier says:

    Mary- can you explain what you mean by “value added” techniques?

    >Now there is a system in place to make schools comparable and accountable.

    I don’t think so. There is a system in place to measure the amount of parental involvement in a child’s education, and the economic status of the community. Schools have nothing to do with either. This test does not measure school effectiveness or capabilities, but rather the community in which the school is located.

    Is the school effective or the parenting? Is the school effective or the ability of the households within the school district effective at finding well paying jobs?

    I think that goals and standards are fine, as long as they measure something worth measuring. If you want to measure schools, measure schools. Stop measuring the parents who send their children to the schools.

  5. T. Ruddick says:

    Lost somewhere in this discussion is that the Ohio report card standards change every year. The state BOE doesn’t even know what a passing score on the OAT will be until after the test is administered. DPS, about seven years ago, decided to do Terra Nova testing because it’s more valid and reliable than the state tests, and they needed to have consistent data from year to year to track student performance.

    Matt falsely assumes that many teachers are opposed to setting goals for student achievement. In fact, inconsistent and flawed testing interferes with learning. Consider those famous Texas achievement tests of which Bush so proudly boasted–the writing test required that the student write an essay of five paragraphs of three sentences each. Sure enough, students got to be masterful at writing 15-sentence, five-paragraph essays; follow-up testing showed that they were sadly incapable of writing anything longer, shorter, or more flexible.

    What teachers DO object to–and reasonably so–is that their performance should be evaluated solely on the test results of students over whom they have little control. I’ve had friends in public education who had their classes intentionally loaded with underachievers and discipline problems by unenlightened administrators. Unless you have a way of adjusting for the differences in students when starting a class (like the pre-test/post-test or “value-added” methods described above–IF done with valid, reliable tests!) then you’re being arbitrary about teacher evaluation–and you risk dismissing or devaluing the wrong ones.

  6. Mary says:

    Teri, I have been aware as a parent, but in no way an expert, on “value added” educational testing techniques. I just did a google search to see if I could steer you to some more expert sources by using the phrase “value added education testing”. Numerous sources show up including a Carnegie Corporation source. Apparently, the concept has been around since the 70s. Many parents in the gifted community are aware of the value added approach because we see it as a potential way to show whether or not our children are gaining anything from year to year in the common heterogeneously (multi-ability) grouped classrooms. Many educational research studies show they are not gaining much at all from year to year. This situation leads to underachievement, boredom and other problems. I believe the Ohio Department of Education has been looking into applying value-added approaches. Of course the tests used should also be high quality and valid. These techniques would not just tell us about the educational gains of the highest ability students. You would think the teaching community would embrace it, as well since it would indicate improvements and not just aggregate pass and fail scores – particularly, if as mentioned previously, a teacher is given a group of students who are coming into his/her class with poor preparation. I would agree the devil is in the details.

  7. Jeffrey says:

    >Many parents in the gifted community are aware of the value added approach because we see it as a potential way to show whether or not our children are gaining anything from year to year in the common heterogeneously (multi-ability) grouped classrooms.

  8. Jeffrey says:

    “Many parents in the gifted community are aware of the value added approach because we see it as a potential way to show whether or not our children are gaining anything from year to year in the common heterogeneously (multi-ability) grouped classrooms.”

    Don’t they have special programs or schools for gifted kids here in Ohio? I recall they had when I was in school down in Kentucky back in the 1970s.

  9. Teri Lussier says:

    Mary- Thanks. I’ve known this as an IEP, or individualized learning. “Value-added” is the new term.

    they do have gifted programs, but what if your kid needs more than that? And not all teachers/admin support gifted programs, nor do all parents, and not all gifted programs are equal. AND the bigger problem is that when it comes time to cut programs because school funding is tied to property tax, guess which program now becomes the weakest link?

    I’m not convinced the people who are in a position to change things really, truly want things changed… OH! This is such a frustrating subject to me, I’m going to have to end my participation in this.

    If you all get this figured out, someone drop me a line… :-)

  10. Mary says:

    Jeffrey ( and Teri, if you are still with us), identification of gifted and notification of parents are required in Ohio, but services are not. You can find out a lot by going to http://www.oagc.com. I think the approximately 12 page parents’ handbook is under resources and will explain a lot. Teri, the Individual Education Plan is not required for gifted, only for students with a disability who are sometimes also gifted. The laws regarding students with disabilities have a lot more teeth in them. The IEP and value added testing are different concepts and issues, but somewhat related.

  11. Pingback: Strickland Should Use Charter Schools To Help Fulfill His Promise: “Reform and Renew the System of Education Itself” : DaytonOS

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