As the new school year kicks off, I want to encourage school district leaders to consider a new way of planning and setting goals for the year.
From what I have witnessed, most school districts seem to set goals using citywide numbers of averages. For example, they might track and publicly report on the percentage of students achieving proficient on state tests or on the average ACT score of the students they serve.
But families and students don’t experience citywide numbers or averages. They experience schools.
With that in mind, I’d encourage school district leaders to consider setting a different goal that properly recognizes the school as the unit of change:
- Increasing the number and percentage of students who are attending highly rated schools
- And decreasing the number and percentage of students who are attending poorly rated schools.
Put more simply: More kids in better schools every year. That is the key goal.
This perspective opens up new ways of growing great schools and maximizing opportunity for children. And if you are successful you will see trends similar to those experienced in Lawrence, MA or Denver, CO.
Goal setting in this way requires you to set a baseline. There are several ways to do this. One method is to use the ratings of your state accountability system, for example, the SPS system of the Louisiana Department of Education. The other is to work with local stakeholders (parents, principals, civic leaders) to create a local definition of “great school” that extends beyond simple test scores.
We’ve supported a number of cities to develop hyper-local and holistic “school performance frameworks” that they use to set goals, incent performance improvements, strategically allocate resources, and inform parents. No two of these hyper-local school performance frameworks are the same. But they do have one thing in common: they all include information that goes beyond standardized test scores. For example, the rating for a school in Camden (NJ) is based 50% on student outcomes on state tests and 50% on a school visit conducted by fellow principals, teachers, and administrators to evaluate if the school has a positive school culture, challenging instruction, and engaged students. The rating system in Oakland uses student academic performance, student growth in test scores, but also has school culture and climate measures, including student survey results related to student engagement and mindset. And the system used in Chicago includes information on academic performance on national norm reference tests, freshmen on track rates (which look at course level grades and attendance), college enrollment and persistence, and results from the 5 Essentials survey of school climate.
Remember that families experience schools, not citywide averages. Define greatness in your city, set your goals, and direct your energies accordingly. And most of all, good luck.