Wednesday, May 1, 2024

What Does A High-Quality School Look Like

We are not going to identify high quality schools by focusing on scored from the Big Standardized Test. In fact, by treating those scores as the single defining feature of a HQS, we encourage school leadership to move in the wrong direction. 

So what are the defining features of a high quality school? 

Reflects Local Values

Long, long ago, I spitballed a school evaluation system that started with massive data collection about what the taxpayers of the district most valued. I still think that's a good idea. The story of the last twenty-five years is the story of state and federal government pushing their own ideas down on local districts, and I'm not sure that has improved a thing.

A high quality school would be very much of its community, reflecting local values, tradition, and style. 

Now, this comes with a huge caveat, because there are communities whose values arguably include "Keep Those People's Children away from mine." The HQS represents its entire community, so that includes issues as well. I'm not comfortable with the federal and state government telling a local district what and how to teach, but I'm perfectly okay with them telling the local district who to teach, and that they may not try to deprive Certain Students out of a complete quality education. So--

Quality Education For All

This means the rich kids, the poor kids, the kids of every race, the LGBTQ kids, the kids with special needs. It means that the school is a safe and welcoming environment for all students, physically and emotionally. It also means the students with various different goals and talents and inclinations. Because a HQS would provide

Multiple Paths For Students To Succeed

Test-centered schooling accentuated the worst tendency of traditional public education, which is to treat education as if it's a single race on a single track to a single finish line. In fact, students are headed in a thousand different directions, racing, strolling and stumbling toward a thousand thousand different life destinations. 

A HQS would reflect that, allowing students to pursue excellence in every direction from welding to nursing, music to accounting. A HQS embraces the idea that student achievement looks like a million different things, and it celebrates, supports, and encourages all of them. It is also structured so that students can switch and mix and match easily. Students graduate from the system with a sense of confidence and direction about their own future, whatever that might be.

A Culture of Attainable Excellence

In a HQS, students, teachers, and administrators believe that excellence and achievement are attainable, and the school culture is centered around the pursuit of that excellence (which is definitely not the same as attempting to stifle non-excellence), and the recognition that excellence is always a moving target.

That also goes with a culture that supports the idea that more learning leads to more life choices. 


My HQS doesn't have a single "how." The teacher part of my brain is, when it comes to the classroom, far more pragmatic than ideological. What works today? Let's do that. 

My frequent definition-- helping students identify and build the best version of themselves, grasping what it means to be fully human in the world. I realize that may sound warm and fuzzy, but it's not-- you get there by learning a ton of rich content and creating a vast library of skills. How? It depends--we're talking about building a personal relationship with the world, and like any relationship, it's shaped by the person involved.

I Have Deliberately Skipped The How

I'm not sure I've said much radical here. The root of most education debate has been either "Okay, how do we create this" and "That sounds expensive--could we come up with a cheaper version."

I'm not going to address the "how" because I don't think all HQS look the same, and there are multiple pathways to get there. And we'll disagree about that--I don't think you ever get there with a classical academy, with its insistence that there is one set of always-right answers and "being educated" means learning that list. Nor do I think market forces (part of the Twitter thread that sparked this post in the first place) will ever get us HQS for more than a select few. I also have thoughts about how such a school should be managed and funded, but those are other long posts. 

This is the long rambling post I promised Mike Petrilli, who asked the question. Here you go, Mike. There's more in my two part post about how to do education choice (Part I and Part II). Maybe some day you can invite me to DC to sit on a Fordham panel. Thinking about what a high quality school would look like is always worthwhile--perhaps more worthwhile than all the "how" conversations that continue to rage.

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