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The measure of an effective school

It was announced this week that Minnesota was one of ten states that have received a waiver from No Child Left Behind. Oh, happy day.

Schools here will still be accountable but on a broader, somewhat more sensible set of measurements. At least according to our Commissioner of Education in a memo sent on Thursday:

At the core of the new system is the use of multiple measurements for accountability. Unlike AYP, which is mostly centered around proficiency, Minnesota’s proposed Multiple Measurements Rating (MMR) uses four measurements, weighted equally, to measure school performance:

  • Proficiency- Schools earn points in the MMR by meeting AYP proficiency goals in individual student subgroups. The percentage of subgroups that make AYP determines the percentage of points a school receives. Please note that for the purposes of the MMR, subgroups cannot make AYP through Safe Harbor or Growth.
  • Growth- Using the same methodology as the Minnesota Growth Model, students are measured by their performance on the MCAs relative to their performance in the most recent year they took the test. Schools get a growth score based on the average growth of all students in the school.
  • Achievement gap reduction- Schools are measured based on how the growth of their students from the seven lower-performing subgroups (Black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, English Learners, students in poverty, and special education students) compares to the statewide average growth of higher-performing subgroups. Schools earn MMR points based on their ability to reduce the achievement gap.
  • Graduation rate- Schools earn points through the same methodology as proficiency: by the percentage of their subgroups that reach their AYP target for graduation rates. Starting next year, we will use the new, federally-mandated, cohort-adjusted graduation rate calculation methodology.

 I am still fond of the "stars" system I proposed in 2003. Points earned for:

Star One: School climate. Funny how a person can sense the safety, friendliness, and sense of caring within minutes of walking into a school. Little things like cleanliness, displays of student work, open doors to classrooms, laughter, respectful talk, presence of volunteers, and genuine smiles from both adults and kids are the barometers of school climate. If a school doesn’t earn this star, a parent doesn’t need to bother looking at the other criteria. Get your kids out quickly.
Star Two: Individual teacher quality. This is why total school rating systems aren’t very helpful. Five-star teachers are found in one-star schools and one-star teachers are found in five-star schools. Listen to what other parents have said about the teachers your children will have. Insist that your kids get the teachers that get good reviews.
Star Three: Libraries and technology. The quality of the library is the clearest sign of how much a school values reading, teaching for independent thinking, and life-long learning. A trained librarian and a welcoming, well-used collection of current books, magazines and computers with Internet access tells a parent that the teachers and principal value more than the memorization of facts from a text book, that a diversity of ideas and opinions is important, and that reading is not just necessary, but pleasurable and important.
Star Four: Elective and extracurricular offerings. What happens in class is important. But so is what happens during the other 18 hours of the day. I want elementary schools for my kids that offer after-school clubs and activities that develop social skills and interests. I want secondary schools that are rich with art, sports, tech ed., music and community service choices that develop individual talents, leadership, and pride in accomplishment.
Star Five: Commitment to staff development. The amount of exciting scientifically-based research on effective teaching practices and schools is overwhelming. Brain-based research, reflective practice, systematic examination of student work, strategies for working with disadvantaged students are some of the latest findings that can have a positive impact on how to best teach children. But none of it does a lick of good if it stays in the universities or journals. Good schools give financial priority to teaching teachers how to improve their practice. Would you send your child to a doctor who doesn’t know the latest practice in his field? 

Too wishy-washy for today's pseudo-research driven politicos, I am sure. But as Mike Petrill (via Larry Cuban's blog) writes:

...Every high-end school boasts about its commitment to the “whole child,” to kids’ intellectual, emotional, social, and physical development. These schools would never consider their graduates to be well-educated without an appreciation for the arts, participation in sports, a commitment to community service, and the development of strong character….  Are these non-academic attributes just “extras” — luxuries that schools serving poor or working class kids just can’t afford? Or are they as essential as academics, for everyone?

I have never understood the norm-referenced "proficiency" requirements. Requiring that all students read at an 5th grade "reading level" is like mandating that all students reach a 5th grade weight of, say, 100 pounds. The sad thing about such arbitrary measurements is that only those kids close to "proficiency" get much attention. If I want to get as many kids in my class to 100 pounds this year as possible, I'm not going to pay much attention to those kids already at 110 pounds since they are already over weight "proficiency" or those weighing less than 80 pounds since they aren't going to make it anyway.

The growth model (item two in the new MN categories makes a good deal more sense. Now every child needs to add, say, 5% body weight each year. The challenge - and possibility - is that all children will move ahead and everyone's growth becomes important again. Kids that are far behind and way ahead will now contribute to the overall success rate of the school by making progress. 

Minnesota's new plan still relies far too much on test scores, but it is step in the right direction. Hopefully parents will continue to judge schools on more factors than the politicians do. Education is too important to be another pawn in partisan gamesmanship. 

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Reader Comments (6)

I also like the growth model. I have to ask though....will the students run out of growth time by a certain time...i.e. their designated graduation year? In NY, if they come in with the class of 2015, they must graduate in June of 2015, or as far as The nY State Ed department is concerned, they have not graduated. Never mind that they were growing steadily..just not as fast as their classmates. We have had numerous students come back the following year to take that English or Science or Math class they did not have time for, or failed the first time around. Did they count? No. What about the kids who get an IEP diploma. Do they count? No. I think having kids that are determined enough to come back and finish the graduation requirements is a huge WIN. But NY ignores their efforts and counts them against our school. Not fair. I've always been in favor of the growth model. After all, none of us are widgets to be churned out on an assembly line. But most systems don't seem to have a plan for when the time runs out, leaving us all standing there like Lucy and Ethel in the candy factory, scrambling to grab all the candy falling wildly off the conveyor belt.

February 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJacquie Henry

Love your analogy to weight requirements. We need to respect the natural variation of kids (abilities, backgrounds, interests, etc.) found within any age range. Your last paragraph is the best, and one I needed to be reminded of. Thankfully our parents gauge school success in an entirely different manner than do politicians. Politicians and political hot topics come and go in fairly short and regular intervals. I wonder what the shelf life is on this current brand of school and educator accountability.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCurt Rees

Hi Jacquie,

What you describe is politics, not education. At some point in time, everyone needs to see that the importance of being educated takes precedence over a cheap ideological win. Not in MY lifetime perhaps, but perhaps some day.


Hi Curt,

i suspect when business truly internalizes how important genuinely educate people are to the bottom line, change will happen

Thanks for the kind words,


February 13, 2012 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Doug, I am so excited that you brought up the individual teacher quality and that do include the parents' opinions in this. While parents' opinions should be considered critically, there are nonetheless very important. And yes, what's the use of going to a "highly" rated school if you get "low" rated instruction?
I would add – and this affects the climate point probably as well as the individual teacher point – that the ratio of time one student spends in the same classroom and with the same teacher, aka "looping" grades. Some argue that looping is detrimental if the teacher is not a good fit. I would argue that a week in a classroom where this is the case is too long to stay, forget the whole year. I also think that teachers have more invested in a looping situation, and are better teachers as a result.
Thank you for writing about this.

February 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOlga

Hi Olga,

Thanks for the comment. We've done 2 year looping in our district in the past. Not sure the results. I've often wondered what would happen if they took every employee in the district and gave each 5 or 6 kids at age 5 and made them responsible for their education until age 18. You could do a lot with only a few kids! (Maybe you could do voluntary trades!)


February 14, 2012 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

I think that having a teacher for longer than one year will be great! Throw in K-12 in a small classroom, and I am game! Or even 4-5 year chunks will do, and a bigger classroom. Up to 15 kids, but no more.
A little about me: I went through school in Russia, so I am biased. I had the same teachers 1-4 and 6-8 (there was a change in numbering and we effectively skipped number 5, but the curriculum was the same), and 10-11. We also took all the subjects (except oreign languages) together as a group of up to 30 kids (half for foreign languages, and PE and Industrial Arts were split by gender).
Now make it 6 days of school (not something I would advocate now), and add 2-4 weeks of harvest work on a collective farm in September and October (harvesting beets, lots of fun on a good day, great community and character building; a discontinued practice now), sweeping floors and mopping floors when it's your turn (two students working at a time, unless your buddy escapes; also discontinued), and you have got yourself a totally different experience.

February 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOlga

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