What makes a successful school?  Ask a bureaucrat and you will undoubtedly get  jargon related to test scores.  But is that the same answer you would get if you ask a teacher, a parent or a student?  Definitely not.  So why is there such a disconnect between what government says is success and what teachers, parents and students consider success?   Where is education headed? Maybe a better question is where should it be headed?

I recently surveyed several administrators, teachers, staff, students and parents on their views on the characteristics of a successful school.  The responses, although different, had some key similarities.  The common themes in the responses were safety, leadership, community involvement, collaboration, communication, compassion, student achievement and individual student growth, raising the question:  If we can agree upon so many of the characteristics of successful schools then why the increase in the amount of schools being deemed unsuccessful?   If we know the formula for success, why are we not applying it?  Perhaps the criteria currently being used to determine success do not match our belief system.  Right now it seems test scores are the main public measure that determines which schools are succeeding and which are failing but is that an accurate measure?  Does scoring a certain percent proficient on a state test make schools successful or are there other factors in play, factors that cannot be so easily measured?  Do test scores really measure leadership, community involvement, collaboration, communication, compassion, problem solving, achievement and individual student growth?  Does the general public even know what is on these tests? It can be debated whether tests are important. Can characteristics of a successful school be represented solely by a number on one test?  If we know what the main stakeholders believe make for successful schools, why the discrepancy between their beliefs and how we currently determine which schools are “failing?” Shouldn’t those who provide the most funds for education have a major role in determining if their school is successful?

The current determination of school success seems skewed.  Today, state and federal government have the largest role in determining school success through state tests.  The local community has a much smaller role, the exact inverse of how schools are funded.  Each year we see in the news which schools are meeting Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and which schools are on the improvement list.  Using the current criteria, in a few years all schools will undoubtedly be deemed “failing,” making education the only sector in the country that will be expected to be perfect.  There is no list that is published which shows how much students have grown, how schools and students collaborate to solve problems, how the community is involved with the school or how satisfied the community is with their school so will this label of “failure” be the truth or will it continue to lead schools to focus on preparing for a test more than they focus on serving the community and teaching students how to solve real world problems? Is this how we want our education system to run?

As school leaders, we need to find a way to communicate this discrepancy to our local community and state representatives.  We need to advertise the great things that are happening in our schools since those things are not readily covered by the media and cannot be converted into a quick number.  We need to offer alternatives to the way schools are currently being measured.  Maybe along with test scores, a community survey should be part of making AYP.  I think it would be interesting (and maybe even a dash of common sense) to let the community opinion be part of determining whether or not their school is failing or succeeding.  This would move the focus of the school from preparing for one test to serving the needs of the community.  Imagine, having the criteria for AYP be based 70% on community satisfaction and 30% on state achievement tests.  Would our schools look the same as they do today?  I doubt it.


8 Responses to “Success?”

  1. Meghan Horbal Says:

    I think a major part of the problem when measuring “success” is ease of measurement. Our priorities end up being the things that are easiest and cheapest to measure, rather than what information would be most meaningful. This should not be an excuse and only the community (read: the voters) will convince the powers that be that the current measures of “success” are of little use. An educated public will quickly realize that our tests are not magical and just because data is based on complicated algorithms doesn’t mean it is high-quality or worthy of being the final verdict of whether or not a school is successful.

  2. ding ding ding. You hit the nail on the head with this one! In my own classroom, I’ve found the only combat to the required tests is to just teach and facilitate my students’ learning. If the students have learned, the test results will come. Teaching to the test is an archaic approach to standardized testing. Until policies change, we have to face the beast that is thrust upon us. That is the first problem I see with education.

    That said…does the system need to change to better (more accurately) reflect learning and educational success as you suggest? Of course. Any teacher, administrator, or parent would likely say so. Does a test tell us everything we need to know? Anyone with a single grain of common sense would say, “of course not.”

    I agree whole-heartedly with you and with Meaghan. However, this is something all educators (again, those with common sense) know. Until enough teachers, administrators, and (most importantly) parents force government to change policy, it won’t.

    Moral? We need to continue educating students as well as we can. ALSO, and perhaps just as important, we need to be educating the public (i.e., the votes and the parents) about what needs to happen and how they can affect change.

    (I enjoy your posts. Keep them coming. and thanks)

  3. Great job at getting folks thinking. I have a chance to work with community members of a school next week. The question that I will pose to them is “what is student achievement?” School should be measured on student achievement… parents and community and students need to decide on what that is…. then educators decide what students need to do and experience to produce the achievement… then we are ready as teachers and administrators to decide what we need to do.

  4. Your comments are right on target. Why is it that these observations are so difficult for policy makers and state level administration to see?

  5. Karen Huber Says:

    A test is just one snapshot of time. If you really want to measure how successful a student is, you need to look at classroom performance over the year as well. As you know, I have often been frustrated by test scores that keep a child from receiving Title services, when classroom performance clearly indicates he/she needs extra help. We need to focus on the child, not the test scores. I agree with Meghan that tests have measurable results that are easy to categorize, but those intrinsic things, like enjoying school and learning, a sense of wonder, and a willingness to help others are much more important to making a school successful. Unfortunately, there is no “good” way to measure that. Your post raises a lot of important questions. I think the BIG thing is to educate parents, as most educators would agree with what you are saying.

  6. S.E. Mischke Says:

    You raise some excellent questions about how to properly assess student achievement. In my dream world, schools would authentically assess student mastery of content standards with plenty of project-based learning opportunities. Rubrics would be utilized. Student portfolios would be developed to showcase their understandings, and students would have ownership of the material included in those portfolios. Included within the portfolios can be formal assessment scores as well, because, let’s face it, standardized tests aren’t leaving us anytime soon. If we effectively teach the content standards that are aligned with the assessments, those tests should take care of themselves. Yes, tests are a snapshot in time, but let’s also keep in mind that a child’s grade on a report card is as much a reflection of the instruction and supports that child has received in the classroom as it is a reflection of his/her understanding of the content. To understand student achievement, we have to look at multiple measures to get the “big picture.” And we need to educate parents, teachers, administrators, and students themselves about what it means to be a high-achieving student in our schools.

  7. “…why is there such a disconnect between what government says is success and what teachers, parents and students consider success?”

    This is the crux of the issue. The government (any government) that is based on freedom and liberty of its citizens, would allow its citizens to educate themselves, just as it allows them to feed themselves. Governments are at their base, constructed in order to protect rights and liberties from enemies local and abroad. That’s it in a nutshell.

    The only time governments are determined to “educate” its people, is when it deems a little control is necessary in order to continue the existence of the government. If the government fears the populace has a little too much freedom and intellectual/political awareness, the people might try to CHANGE that government.

    Talking of tests and measurements and success and tools for success are window dressing. For the most part, the further away a school or institution of learning gets from government interference, the better the schools are, and the happier the students who CHOOSE to go there are.

    “Educators” conveniently forget the innateness of the will to LEARN in humans. When their jobs are at stake, then there’s no one that can teach that hasn’t been officially ‘schooled’ in how to teach. Parents are idiots, administrators are incapable of understanding the teaching process and should stick to administering, and politicians are meddlers.

    Compare the State Schooling industry to any other industry. Take away the fact that State Schools are not part of a Free Market, and you have very poorly managed businesses.

    Yes, the crux of the matter is the fact that government IS involved in the education of a free people. Given a choice, most involved parents would choose another avenue for their child. And those who refuse to be responsible and make a choice, are the ones who should be compelled to attend a State School. We could call them Welfare Schools.

    • While I agree that government intervention can undermine local control. I think many of your points are faulty.
      First, the government is the people. Regular people can elect regular people to run government. So if you are not happy with education policies you are free to vote for people that will formulate policies according to your view. This is becoming harder to do since private business’ big dollars has silenced the people. Big business is now able to give unlimited money to to elected officials. This silences the opinion of regular people which makes it harder for the people, like yourself, to change government policies. So if you want government to change, get business out of it.
      Second, if you think basic reading, writing and math skills are important for the common good of America, then you would be in favor of making sure the person doing the teaching is qualified. I agree that homeschooling can be very effective if the parent doing the teaching is following through on their responsibilities. I would want the same for a child attending any school private or public. Idiots can be found at home, at school and in any private company.
      Third, thank goodness for public schools of higher learning. If it wasn’t for them, myself and probably many of my friends would have never been able to attend college. You see, we need a public option to keep the costs down. I could not have afforded to go college if I had to attend a private institution. The costs of privately run schools is astronomical and they would only get worse if public schools disappeared. One can only look to health care and utilities industries to see that.
      So if you want to look at who is controlling the people and making it harder to get the kind of education policies that you want, look to the private sector. Money drives policy. That money is coming from business influencing elected officials, making your opinion moot.
      We need to make sure all schools, private, public, cyber and home are living up to their responsibilities because, unless you are living in a bubble, the absence of these responsibilities affects us all.

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