What’s a good school? The answer matters!

What’s a good school?  And how do you know?

How you answer may affect where you choose to live, send your children, or teach.

How we answer as a state can affect the future of children, teachers, schools, and communities.  Teachers may lose their jobs, schools may close, tax bases may shrink.

There are a lot of ways to rank schools. 

This week Niche listed the “Top 100 Public High Schools in Massachusetts.”  You may be surprised.

It’s quite different from Boston Magazine’s “Best Public High Schools in Greater Boston.

That’s because both rankings include MCAS scores — but also other things.  Both include graduation rate and sports.  Niche includes lots of other data, including diversity, and parent and student surveys on food, school culture and safety, administration, and other topics.

And US News produces a ranking different from either of those, again largely based on test scores, with some adjustment for demography.

The Mass. Department of Education ranks schools and places them in levels based mostly on standardized test scores, which in turn correlate highly with parental income and education. This ranking determines which districts are in the “bottom 20%” or Level 3. Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester has the discretion to choose schools from among those at level 3 for drastic intervention, but he usually defends this decision with test scores.

Rankings that purport to measure school quality are very different, depending on what the rankers think school quality consists of.

The Board of Education is taking comments through March 9 on their plans to change how they rank schools. This is in response to new opportunities offered by the 2016 federal Every Child Succeeds Act. 

Here is a link to plan highlights, an executive summary, and the 121-page plan that will be submitted to the federal government.  The accountability section starts on page 15.  And the details are important.

You can offer your comments here.

Ranking systems may appear scientific, but they don’t reflect what most people want in a school.

At a charter school gala, a trustee said he knew it was a great school because when he walked in he saw the children and teachers working hard and smiling.

When I ask people what they want to see their children learn, they say things like: love of learning, getting along with others, thinking for themselves, being creative, expressing themselves in writing and speech…

When our granddaughters’ school had a year-long redesign process, parents and teachers chose as our themes: Joy, Excellence, Creativity, and Openness.

When the Mass. Business Alliance for Education asked business leaders what changes they wanted to see in schools, they asked for more emphasis on applied skills and less emphasis on teaching to the test.

Are there better ways to judge schools? Is it even meaningful to rank all the schools in the state on a single dimension? Why do we need to rank schools at all? 

Do it yourself!
A few years ago, Holy Cross professor and Somerville resident Jack Schneider created a “Dream School Finder,” published in the Boston Globe.  The tool allows you to weight available data and then rank schools according to your own values.

What polls say
Last year, I reported on responses by readers of my newsletter to a poll about how to assess schools, and compared them to a national poll.

Some districts are trying new ways to measure school quality and student learning.  More on that soon.


8 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Other things I would include.

    College acceptance rates, extra-curricular opportunities, teacher-student ratios, staff credentials.

  2. Rankings are a stupid, statistically unsophisticated

    way to sort most things, but they are definitely terrible for schools. How much difference is there between the schools on the lists? Is the difference significant? The first thing to do is get rid of rankings.

    There are three schools from Western Mass. Clearly, Eastern Mass offers a better education.

    Of the top ten schools, 6 are from the most affluent communities in Eastern Massachusetts. Clearly, the best schools are in rich communities.

    Two, if I’m not mistaken, are exam schools. Clearly, exams schools are better than other schools.

    Ergo, to improve Massachusetts education, we should move our school buildings to the other side of Route 495 into rich communities with exam schools.

    • That's the point, actually

      The fact that the rankings are so different demonstrates their lack of validity. But rankings affect perception, and even property values.
      The state system has very serious consequences. If your district is in the “bottom 10%,” even if some of your schools are ranked high, 18% of your school spending can be sent to charter schools, compared to 9% if you’re in the “top 90%.” If your school is in the “bottom 20%,” the commissioner can use his discretion to label it “low-performing,” subject to interventions like firing at least half the teachers, closing, or giving it to a charter operator. And you’re right, all these schools educate children living in poverty.
      Why not make your comment to the Board of Education? The federal law doesn’t require Levels 1, 2, and 3; just identifying the lowest 5%. And it would allow more appropriate “interventions,” addressing the real problems those schools face, such as inadequate funding and challenges students face at home.

      • I'm a teacher and active in the MTA.

        I’m aware of the stupidity of our state system. I teach in East Longmeadow and live in Granby. I have witnessed the abusive treatment the state doles out in Holyoke and Springfield. School policy is made in Boston, for Boston, and the BESE is so far removed from the work of teachers, our state should be embarrassed.

        If the problems are going be addressed with more money–particularly for impoverished communities and regulations–it needs to start with the legislature. You yourself do a great job in my opinion, but the House is terrible. Teachers don’t need all the power, but we need more when it comes to education policy. The BESE has a distinct managerial bias. They know so little that they direct policy by numbers. If anything is going to change, it’s going to start with the legislature or a ballot initiative.

        I write the BOE when the MTA has a plan. I suspect they are very much immune to criticism of their policies. Which of the Board of Education members would care what I have to say? There are others with more expertise and authority–not to mention PhD’s–who have tried to talk about education policy. Daniel Koretz is one.

        • We could start...

          …by not banning those in the education field from serving on the BESE.

        • heh

          “I write the BOE…..I suspect they are very much immune to criticism of their policies.”

          I think most of the Board — made up of people who are good at scoring high salaries and moderate political connections — doesn’t understand what you say. From what I’ve seen, the vast majority of the board seems to believe their job is to do whatever the Commissioner of Education tells them to do. Given our Commissioner has never seen a test or a charter he doesn’t love, and the people who’ve been choosing the Board’s members share that agenda, I suspect it’s on purpose. Most members are happy collecting salaries to act as a glorified rubber stamp.

          sabutai   @   Sun 5 Mar 8:36 AM
  3. Well....

    As soon as one notices that “the best” and “the richest” have a distinct overlap, no matter what the system, one realizes the true problem.

    It’s not always a matter of the income of the families, although we’ve seen that’s the prime determinant of homework completion and test scores. It’s also a function of the extent to which families are willing to support schools in their community.

    sabutai   @   Sun 5 Mar 8:31 AM
  4. Public Rankings exacerbate inequality

    When the state ranks schools, this has the effect of increasing inequality overall, because it gives the public a very clear and coordinated signal as to what they should do: where to purchase houses. It is, in some ways, like the old FHA “redlining”.

    Before rankings, parents had to rely on things like their own research, contacts, and senses. They could use their own criteria and weights as to how to judge a school. Maybe they were more athletically oriented, so they would look at a school with an emphasis on athletics as being more desirable than one that did not.

    Once the state started ranking and publishing the results using initially simplistic criteria (using MCAS scores to put schools into 4 categories), this all changed. Would any reasonable parent “choose” a school that was marked as “needs improvement”? I have heard people suggest that such parents should even be investigated for child abuse for knowingly putting their kids in a bad school.

    Once the rankings went into effect, housing patterns changed. School systems I remember as a kid as being “simply decent” suddenly started to be viewed as the equivalent of a high-end country club. Other systems started to be viewed as pariahs. Housing values soon followed, further damaging the “have-not” communities.

    I suggest that instead of using rankings, the state should simply release the data and let people form their own opinions, making sure to not release data in a way that would obviously push people to false conclusions (i.e. correlation, not causation). Forget about publicly labeling districts. Don’t hide information, but don’t lead people toward certain districts and away from others based on a simplistic ‘grade’.

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