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Commentary: Parents deserve a better measure of school quality

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by Helen Gym

Every once in a while, it becomes apparent just how differently parents view high-quality education than do the reformers out there who are defining it purportedly for our own good. The GreatPhillySchools website (GPS) is just one example of this difference in viewpoints. 

GreatPhillySchools launched Oct. 15, touting its “groundbreaking” schools database for parents and caregivers. The database is a project of the Philadelphia School Partnership with collaboration from groups like the Notebook. The database says it ranks schools according to five metrics -- academics, safety, attendance, achievement-gap gains, and college-bound numbers.

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According to those metrics, only 13 of the 400-plus schools in the database earn a rating of 10/10 (10 out of 10) in overall excellence. And according to such metrics, Masterman is a 10 and Alcorn is a 1, but do we ever learn why?

I can’t deny that I am a bit weary of yet another ranking system for our schools. We have AYP, SPI, and a slew of websites from to Philadelphia Magazine already ranking schools. But because the Philadelphia School Partnership has described itself as a promoter and identifier of “great” Philadelphia schools, I was willing to give its database a try.

The site suffers from technical glitches, an unattractive design, and a too-soon-for-prime-time feel. But setting aside these issues, my most striking realization was how un-excellent a standard the folks behind GPS use to define greatness.

Take academics. As a parent I would define academics at a great Philly school as a rich course of curriculum including science and social studies, vibrant arts and music programs, academic supports and programs for struggling students, and an array of services for new immigrants learning English or special education classes for those with IEPs. I would expect to see small class sizes, a well-stocked school library, and teachers with specialized degrees and certification in their content areas.

But don’t expect such an analysis. At GPS, academics is solely defined as the 2012 PSSA test data. That’s it. Even the District’s School Performance Index (SPI) shows a school’s growth over time. Don't expect to see graduation rates listed for high school either. Here, I guess you’re only as good as your last test score.

Safety is another metric that GPS ranks. As a parent, I care deeply about the climate of my child’s school. I want to know what the suspension rates are and how disciplinary situations are handled. I’d like to know whether the school has a relationship with professional counselors, victim service agencies, and trauma specialists if the need arises. I define safety in terms of school nurses, well-trained safety personnel, clear disciplinary protocols, and a principal who greets students by name.

The GPS database won’t give you a parent’s perspective on climate and safety. Instead, safety is defined solely by how a school ranks in terms of the number of serious incidents reported to the state -- assaults, weapons violations, etc.

Not surprisingly, this simplistic definition can actually obscure critical information that most parents would find pretty important. Take Mastery Pickett, which GPS ranked an outstanding 9/10 on safety. I would think most parents would also want to know that last year, Pickett issued 597 suspensions for a population of 617 students -- but you won’t find any mention of it in Pickett’s profile.

Simplistic measures have a skewed impact when looking at a school like Green Woods Charter. The District has singled out Green Woods Charter for setting up outrageous obstacles in its admissions process. Not surprisingly, Green Woods' student body is unusually homogeneous in terms of race and income, but because of that, GPS doesn't assess Green Woods for its achievement gap.

GPS ranks Green Woods a 9/10 -- certainly qualifying it as a “great” Philadelphia school -- but it makes no mention of the fact that it’s almost impossible to get into the school unless you have an inside track. Meanwhile, Cook-Wissahickon, whose PSSAs rank among the top scores in the city and whose student body is diverse, ranks lower than Green Woods, with an 8/10 ranking.

In a city like Philadelphia, where poverty and inequity are massive obstacles for our children, a great school values diversity, serves all students, and doesn’t set up ridiculous barriers to entry. A great school is one where people figure out the services students need -- not the students they want to serve.

There are other important aspects of great schools that you won’t see valued on the GPS database. For example, a great school has an effective principal leader and an experienced and stable staff, including mentors and support personnel, who work as a collaborative team. But there’s no effort to measure stability in school staffing, even using something basic such as teacher turnover or average years of teaching experience.

A great school would be up-front with me about the age and condition of its building -- whether it has functioning science labs, modern electricity and air conditioning, a full-service kitchen serving freshly cooked food, and a playground or greenspace. After all, we’re getting ready to close schools based on building conditions. Isn’t this information parents would want to know and don’t have access to?

A great Philly school shows growth over time, a deep commitment to equity, and an engagement with the participatory process of learning. A great school anchors itself in the possibilities of our communities and our neighborhoods. Who wouldn’t welcome a database that embraces and quantifies such values?

Instead we get a stripped-down, lowest-common-denominator version of crude definitions of school functionality: primarily attendance, test scores, violence. I understand that this is a work in progress, but I can’t help but feel that for some reformers, it’s OK to spin this stuff in Philadelphia when they wouldn’t imagine doing it, say, in Lower Merion or other successful school districts. Only here can you find an influx of reformers who treat parents as clueless consumers of random information and expect that to pass as quality.

At the GreatPhillySchools website, a definition of quality is revealed as little more than a simplistic interpretation of limited vision and even more limiting data. As parents, we deserve more from those who promise greatness.

Helen Gym is a Notebook board member and regular contributor. The ideas expressed are solely the opinions of the author.

READ: GreatPhillySchools is about empowering families


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