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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 02/19/2010

The six standards of school quality

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is George Wood, principal of Federal Hocking High School in Stewart, Ohio, and executive director of The Forum for Education and Democracy, a nonprofit organization that is a collaboration of educators from around the country.

By George Wood
Years ago, I learned that if you want to communicate with people, it’s best to avoid jargon.

It was my fourth year as principal, and I’d decided to add a portfolio requirement for graduation. After two years of study, meetings, and hearings, we were ready to move forward and decided to share the plan with the entire community. Feeling creative, we decided to put the entire proposal in a booklet and mail it to every district resident.

Then, mistakenly, we decided I would write the booklet.

I was still under the influence of academia, having just left my tenured university post three years earlier. Consequently, our booklet was yet another exercise in academic writing. The community was bewildered, unsure of what we were proposing to do to their school, and damn sure that that college professor principal was not doing things in the best interests of their children.

I look back on that experience often. It was not a lack of education or intelligence that caused the unrest. Rather, it was the contempt we had shown for our community by using insider language that was confusing. I have tried to avoid ‘eduspeak’ ever since.

Thus I was taken aback by a response to a recent piece Pedro Noguera and I wrote on this blog about the reauthorization of ESEA (commonly known as No Child Left Behind).

This person wrote that when he “got to the last sentence/paragraph, I came upon a term that has become sickeningly ubiquitous and vacant: ‘high quality schools.’ Could all the pundits in the education system do without this phrase?”

Our critic may be on to something. After all, ‘high-quality school’ is one of those phrases that everyone can agree with only because they don’t know what it means. While I won’t give up using the phrase, I do think I should explain what I mean when I use that term--based upon my own experience as a principal of nearly two decades.

*A quality school is a place that graduates its students. Every school should clearly post its five-year graduation rates (some kids take an extra year), broken down by socioeconomic class, race and educational handicapping conditions. Meet the state graduation averages and you are an OK school. Beat them and you are a school of quality.

*A quality school engages and challenges every student. It’s no good just to pass students on and hand them diplomas. The best schools ensure that every student meets the same common expectations. While different students may meet these expectations in different ways, all students should have the same opportunity to learn. With our ability to track students using computers, it would be no problem to see which curriculum kids of different backgrounds are taking in a school. The quality schools would show no difference.

*A quality school should be able to demonstrate how much and how well students are learning. I have no problem with using an occasional standardized test to sample this; it’s akin to my doctor taking my blood pressure, pulse, and temperature every time I go in for a check up. But these are only indicators of health, not the whole story.

More importantly, schools should be willing to randomly sample student work and submit it, blindly, to panels of teachers who can score and compare the work to an established standard (as we grade the Advanced Placement Exams). High quality schools would have student work that is in the top tier every time.

*A quality school would also engage students in learning experiences beyond the school walls. At the high school level, this would mean 100% of the students would be involved in internships, college classes or similar experiences. The reason for this is simple; it prepares students for life after school.

*A quality school would have clear evidence of the success of its graduates. For students who go to college, transcript studies could show student grades and progress toward graduation; for students who go to the military, the armed forces could share detailed records on advancement, training and deportment; for students who enter the workforce directly, a simple system could be established that allows employers to track which schools their employees come from and respond to questionnaires about educability, work habits, etc.

Beyond work and college, random samples of students could assess whether they feel prepared for what came after school – including the demands of democratic citizenship.

*A quality school would establish a positive working environment for its teachers. The evidence is clear; well-prepared and well-supported teachers lead to student success. Interviewing teachers about the provision of professional development opportunities, administrative support, time to collaborate and curricular and teaching materials would yield the information we need about a quality school.

Six standards of quality: Graduation rates, challenging curricula, evidence of learning, experiential learning experiences, success after graduation, and teaching environments. They are standards that illuminate schools of high quality. And they are standards every school can meet.

George Wood's blog, 5000 Hours, can be found here.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 19, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Tags:  high quality schools  
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*A quality school would establish a positive working environment for its teachers. The evidence is clear; well-prepared and well-supported teachers lead to student success. Interviewing teachers about the provision of professional development opportunities, administrative support, time to collaborate and curricular and teaching materials would yield the information we need about a quality school.

Wow (tongue inserted in cheek). What a concept- schools that consider teachers to be part of the solution and not the problem.

Sarcasm aside, these ideas seem very sound to this reader.

Posted by: sanderling5 | February 19, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

Generally a good list. I'd modify number 1 to...

A quality school is a place that HONESTLY graduates its students.

DCPS is famous for summer school and "Credit recovery" courses that pass students who do NOT learn the material. These increase graduation rates without educating (NOTE: Some students do take summer school seriously, but not all).

I have several students who have never passed a high school math course during the school year. They fail during the year (38 weeks), and then somehow get A's and B's during the (6 week) summer session.

Currently I have a number of students who have flat out quit, telling me they will take the course in the summer, so why work now.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | February 19, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Great Job Mr. Wood!

Posted by: TwoSons | February 19, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Sounds nice. Now he should explain what quality schools do for the percentage of their students with severe disabilities: the ones who, because of intellectual disability, will not be going on to college, or even the workforce. He didn't mention students with special needs in the piece above: shouldn't their educations be a factor in a "quality school?"

Posted by: ontarget1 | February 19, 2010 8:06 PM | Report abuse

I'd like to thank those of you who took the time to read this. If I might respond: to ontarget1, my school serves kids will all sorts of abilities and disabilities. Students with disabilities, including on youngster who will graduate this year who is in a wheelchair and communicates through a computer pad, all meet the same standards, including a senior project and portfolio presentation. It takes more work, and more staff, but we do it because we are committed to ALL students, not just a few. Indeed, some of these students do not go to college, and in the current economy, the workforce is even more challenging. But through partnerships with local workshops, employers, and others, we try to help them make the transition as best we can.

As for sanderling5, thanks for recognizing that teacher are the solution. How long will it take this nation to realize that Ted Sizer was right, 25 years ago, when he said in his book Horace's compromise, that "Without good teachers, sensibly deployed, schooling itself is barely worth the effort." At my school we have two teachers run our Teacher Center, working with staff to identify professional development needs and opportunities. Further, we work hard to collaboratively make all decisions, such as the one we are working on right now on how to reconfigure our Advisory system. This has been studied by a student/staff committee (of which I am deliberately not a part) and they will make a recommendation to the faculty/student council next week. Teachers have always been the solution, not the problem, but, as is the case in many fields (from the military to the assembly line), the wisdom of the folks on the front line is too often ignored.

Posted by: DocWood | February 21, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

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