Friday, January 4, 2008

What Does it Mean for a School to be "Effective"?

What makes an effective school? The answers given to this question reveal much about the priorities of the responder.

There's an interesting article over at today entitled "How do effective schools drive student performance?" It discusses a recently released report on Tennessee government-run schools by a group called the Education Consumers Foundation. The ECS was founded in 2005 by Dr. John E. Stone, professor of education at East Tennessee State University. Its stated aim is to be the Consumer Reports of education policy and practice.

The ECS did a study of 6 TN schools whose students made the greatest annual gains on achievement as determined by the state's "value-added accountability system." I'm unfamiliar with the details of the TN system, but from the ECS press release, it appears to be heavily weighted on standardized reading and math tests. ECS wanted to know what made these schools so "effective" and discovered:

"while these schools were geographically and socio-economically diverse, they shared a set of common practices – practices that created an environment where students could excel, and which could be adopted by any school interested in excellence."

As someone who is very interested in education, I was curious to see the report's conclusions. Here they are, with my comments in bold:

1. The top-performing schools use progress tests that assess the same skills that are tested on the state’s Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) examinations. In other words, teaching to the test.
2. The top-performing schools require students to meet higher-than-minimum mastery criteria on student progress tests. Okay, but the focus should be on actually mastering the subject material, not just being able to pick the correct answer on some multiple-choice test.
3. The top-performing schools employ practice-intensive learning activities that target the types of skills required by the examination. Drill-and-kill test prep again.
4. In the top-performing schools, the principal receives frequent reports of individual student progress with respect to attainment of Tennessee’s curriculum standards. Keeping on top of student progress is certainly important, but again the focus is on passing the test rather than real learning.
5. In the top-performing schools, teachers receive frequent reports on the progress of each of their students. Ditto #4.
6. In the top-performing schools, teaching practices are adjusted when a student makes insufficient progress towards a curricular objective. Students simply are not permitted to quietly fail. Absolutely.
7. In top-performing schools, student progress data is used to assess each teacher’s classroom effectiveness. Teaching performance is tracked continuously by the principal or by colleagues who are assigned to monitor teacher and student progress. Okay, but student progress should be measured in multiple ways, not just via standardized testing.
8. In top-performing schools, the principal and other teachers routinely work with struggling colleagues to improve their teaching skills. Okay to a certain extent, but if a lousy teacher does not improve within a reasonable time frame, then administrators should be able to fire him/her. This would require a significant revamping of the tenure system.
9. In top-performing schools, principals obtain supplemental budgetary support for the training and materials required to improve teacher performance. I don't think that simply throwing more money into the current system is going to improve schools. There needs to be a top-to-bottom overhaul to eliminate waste and get more bang for the taxpayer's buck.
10. Top-performing schools regularly inform parents about their child’s performance and seek to work with parents whenever children are progressing insufficiently. Parental involvement is key. Schools need to work with parents, not undermine them as happens so often in today's government-run schools.
11. Top-performing schools survey parents at least annually to assess satisfaction with the school’s services. Surveys aren't enough since they can be easily ignored by educrats. Parents need greater input in how their children's schools are actually run.
12. Top-performing schools have school-wide programs that reward positive social and academic student behavior. Principals monitor the success of these programs, collecting data on the number and type of student referrals for problem behavior. Bribery undermines intrinsic motivation. Certainly, schools ought to recognize hard work and student achievement through things such as the honor roll. But the expectation should be on valuing learning for its own sake, not for some external reward like cash for good grades.

So what are some of the things I personally would look for as evidence of an effective school? Here are 12 suggestions:
  • Students demonstrate mastery of subject material in multiple ways, not just on standardized multiple choice tests.
  • A safe learning environment free from violence, drugs, and other discipline problems.
  • A focus on academics. It's not the school's job to take care of students' every need. A teacher should instruct, not act as therapist, social worker, foster parent, etc.
  • High standards for all students. No more patronizing attitude that girls and minorities need a dumbed-down curriculum in order to "feel good about themselves." Frankly, it's insulting!
  • The school fosters a true love of learning, so that students will continue to seek out new intellectual challenges and avenues for growth long after graduation.
  • The school encourages creativity, thinking "outside the box", and approaching problem-solving in novel ways. If the U.S. wants to compete in the global postindustrial economy, we've got to be the innovators.
  • Less reliance on textbooks and worksheets and a greater emphasis on experiential learning. Field trips shouldn't be limited to once or twice per year but rather frequent excursions. Learning doesn't just happen within the confines of the classroom.
  • A rigorous curriculum that is tailored to the needs of the individual children, not a "one size fits all" cookie-cutter one mandated by some committee of educrats hundreds of miles away in the state capitol or thousands of miles away in D.C.
  • The school recognizes that intellectually gifted children have special educational needs and provides them with opportunities for acceleration, curriculum compacting, enrichment, and so on. It's not "elitist" to have GATE, it's a matter of providing the gifted with an appropriate education the way we do children on the other end of the IQ spectrum.
  • Bright, hardworking teachers who have completed academically rigorous teacher preparation programs that focus on subject material and proven pedagogical techniques rather than anti-intellectual, politically correct edubabble.
  • Hiring, pay, and dismissal of teachers based on performance (multiple measures not just standardized test scores) rather than seniority.
  • The school recognizes parents as the primary educators, and works with them rather than undermining them.
Hmm, now that I reflect on what I've written, it basically boils down to saying that traditional schooling should be more like homeschooling!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great analysis and suggestions.

I would also suggest dividing kids up by ability, not by age.

I also want to look like Claudia Schiffer and be able to move objects with my mind. Hey- it's as likely to happen as any suggestion for re-vamping the educational system that you and I might have! :p