Education Matters: How Do You Really Know If a School Makes the Grade?

Published on: December 29, 2013

Red apple and A Plus signA few weeks ago, I lost one of my most trusted sources of parent education. After 12 years, my community-center-based aerobics class has folded.

In addition to worries about how to contain that roll of fat around my middle that just won’t go away, I have a more urgent concern. How will I keep up-to-date on the real challenges of and practical tips for raising kids today? Especially when it comes to school.

I’ve relied on other women in the class, particularly those with older kids, to alert me to behavioral and other issues I should be concerned with — both with our kids and the general population. They’ve warned me about scary social trends and problematic teachers, provided me with insight and history on thorny, ongoing school challenges, and have given me invaluable suggestions for school success.

On a recent lazy summer vacation morning, while sipping your morning coffee, your eyes might have fallen on a news item: Florida’s Education Commissioner Tony Bennett resigned, amidst allegations that he inflated the grade of a charter school supported by a major Republican donor, during his previous job as elected chief of Indiana’s schools. Indiana uses letter grades to determine which schools get taken over by the state and to determine state funding.

Here in Washington State, a campaign has been underway to use a similar grading system for our schools. Though this hotly contested particular piece of legislation didn’t make it all the way to the Governor’s desk to be signed into law, the issue of school and teacher accountability, and the role of standardized tests in measuring effectiveness, remains a key point of contention locally and nationally.

But when it comes to assessing schools, “accountability” is only one piece of the puzzle.

Knowing how good a school is, is a matter of utmost concern to parents. But knowing how to thrive in a school in any given year, with any given teacher is even more important.

Currently, there are a number of ways to evaluate how well your school, your school district and your state are educating students on a macro level. Seattle issues individual school reports and, like other Washington school districts, issues a District Scorecard. This school district-provided information is used to feed into the Washington State Report Card, compiled by the Office of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). All states provided data to the National Center for Education Statistics, where you’ll find the Nation’s Report Card, key data that is part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

But picture me, eight years ago, distraught because my daughter’s first-grade teacher resembled Captain Von Trapp in the Sound of Music, replete with the whistle he used to signal his class to get into “line order.” Was he a good teacher? Was the principal on top of the situation? Would my daughter be OK?

I had many heartfelt huddles in coffee shops, parks and even at Office Max with parents of current and past students in the class. “He’s a good teacher,” a dog-walking parent assured me. “All three of my kids had him and they all did really well.”

He was a good teacher, one who, in addition to teaching reading, writing and arithmetic, devoted weekends to taking students to the ballet, teaching them about “audience manners,” proper dress and how to take public transportation (hence the need for line order). My daughter had him for two years and by the end of it, told us she thought of him as a second father. He was a good teacher and I made it a point to tell every parent who asked me so.

“If you're looking at the grade, which was issued for data generated, probably, two years prior, you're not seeing what's happening in the school right now,” writes teacher and parent Kristin Bailey-Fogarty, in the National Board Certified teacher-written blog “Stories from School: Practice Meets Policy.” Bailey-Fogarty says she judges schools based on climate. “Do people smile? Are kids interested and busy during class? Do grownups speak respectfully to kids? Does the principal give me the time of day? Are the bathrooms clean? Do kids say, ‘sorry’ if they crash into you in the hall? Do people hold the doors open for each other? Do teachers and kids value quality when it comes to work?”

At this point, with the start of school just three weeks away, you can’t be in any orthodontist waiting room, playground or coffee shop without overhearing groups of parents talking about schools.

I would argue that these word-of-mouth, snapshots in real time should be captured in our school assessments. Let the schools develop data-driven report cards and Continuous School Improvement Plans (CSIP) if they must, but school districts and states should also support schools in developing meaningful action plans that the entire school community can be invested in. Many schools, and even the Seattle School District, take school climate surveys. But responses are often limited to already invested parents, maybe because after the survey is over, you don’t find out what’s being done to address the results.

Here’s are a few practical accountability reforms that could be put into place with a little effort and a lot of motivation.

  • Let students and parents fill out end-of-course and end-of-year evaluations of teachers and administrators.
  • Let teachers fill out similar surveys with their own assessments of what worked and what didn’t over the course of the school year.
  • Make school climate surveys meaningful by sharing results and developing action plans for how to address concerns.
  • Hold quarterly school “town hall” meetings allowing the community to come together to develop shared goals, discuss these action plans and monitor progress.

Readers: I’ll be compiling a list of “terms you need to know for the 2013-2014 school year.” I’ll explain the meaning and impact of the new Common Core standards. What else would you like to know about?

246Alison Krupnick is ParentMap's Education Editor and a former world-traveling diplomat turned minivan-driving mom and writer. She chronicled her transformation in her book Ruminations from the Minivan, Musings from a World Grown Large, then Small. Her writing has been published in Harvard Review; Brain, Child; Seattle magazine and a variety of news and trade publications and literary journals and anthologies. You can find more of her education reporting on and enjoy sweet and savory moments and recipes on her blog Slice of Mid-Life. Have an education question or suggestion? Let her know!

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