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Published in Print: February 17, 1999, as Calif. Web Site Provides Parent-Friendly Portraits of Schools

Calif. Web Site Provides Parent-Friendly Portraits of Schools

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Click on the profile of Hubbard Elementary School in San Jose, Calif., and you'll find that the school is using the Success for All reading program.

You'll learn that 12 of its 689 students were suspended last school year, most of them for fighting; and that 20 percent of the teachers have been on the job less than two years. You'll also discover that the principal thinks Hubbard is a "happy place," where parents feel at ease and there's a "culture of trust."

GreatSchools.net, where Hubbard Elementary makes its home on the World Wide Web, is one of many up-and-coming sites devoted to providing a detailed portrait for parents and others of how individual schools perform. The nonprofit group of that name was begun by computer afficionados in California's Silicon Valley who were searching for ways to marry their interest in education with the particular powers of the Internet.

Launched last year, GreatSchools.net includes profiles of about 300 public schools in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

About half of each school's profile is generated from state data sources. The other half is based on principals' responses to 15 open-ended questions that try to zero in on such matters as school climate and safety, teaching philosophy and curriculum, and leadership.

"For every one of those 300 schools, we went out to the school and had a conversation with the principal about what the school is trying to do to strengthen its work, and how it's doing relative to its own goals," said Bill R. Jackson, a former teacher and the president of the six-person company, whose $500,000 budget is currently supported mostly by foundations.

"We wanted to build a public appetite for a view of school quality based on a school's own conception of what's important," he added.

The company's reliance on qualitative as well as quantitative information to describe a school sets it apart from many such report card projects. But next fall, GreatSchools will go one step further.

It is now completing prototypes for a new version of its report cards that will rate a school in four areas--performance, teaching, the learning environment, and leadership. Those ratings will be based on a survey of the school's teachers and parents, state and district data sources, and a one-day site visit by a two-person team of GreatSchools staff that will spend time observing classes.

In each category, the three-level rating scheme will identify the school as "acceptable," "exemplary," or "needs improvement."

The new report card, the design of which is still subject to change, will also include a page-long narrative describing what makes the school unique, written by GreatSchools staff members, as well as a description of the school's curriculum and programs.

'Value Judgments'

"One of the major pieces of feedback we got from the first edition was that we didn't have enough of our own editorial voice in the profiles," Mr. Jackson said. "And we also didn't have the voices of parents and teachers. The metaphor somebody used with us is, 'It's like you went into a restaurant and went back into the kitchen and asked the chef what kind of dish he or she intended to create. Why don't you go ask the diners, or sit down and have a bite yourself?'"

"We're really talking about getting into the business of making direct value judgments about the work of schools," he added.

For example, in the area of performance, GreatSchools.net will estimate what percentage of a school's students master core academic skills by looking at all the measures a school uses, including state- and district-developed tests, and then evaluating those measures based on their "credibility." A district's own performance test, geared to the district's standards, for example, would receive more weight than an off-the-shelf, multiple-choice exam.

In the area of teaching, the team will rely on its own observations to answer such questions as whether students are engaged in classroom learning. It also will examine the qualifications of a school's teachers, such as the percentage who have "emergency" teaching licenses.

Work in Progress

When it comes to the learning environment, a school could not be rated as "exemplary" if parents and teachers identified safety and discipline as one of their top two or three concerns.

The characteristics of an effective school that the teams will be looking for are based on a review of research and of more than 20 school improvement models. All of the site visitors, who include former teachers and journalists, will receive a week or two of training to make their judgments more reliable.

"At first, our belief was we couldn't do this in a day," Mr. Jackson said, "but then we ran across more and more people who said, 'Yes, you can if you restrict what you're looking for to certain key things.' "

Merrill Vargo, the executive director of the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, which works with educators in the San Francisco area on whole-school reform, said GreatSchools.net's efforts are promising.

"Their goals are more impressive than their output right now," she said. If the company asks good questions, she argued, it will pressure schools to produce better data and descriptions of what they are doing.

'Best Foot Forward'

But she worried about relying too much on evaluations based on the one-day site visits.

"To do whatever sort of inevitably inadequate assessment two of them can do in a day in a school and then publish that as real data, that's the weakest link," she argued.

There is also the question of why schools would open themselves up to such a firsthand perusal and, possibly, criticism.

One middle school principal whose school is helping field-test the prototypes explained it this way: "A lot of Web sites are popping up now with parent information, and some of them are just awful." (Schools participating in the prototype remain anonymous, which is why the principal's name is not given.)

At least with GreatSchools.net, he said, there's a chance to point people in the direction of better information.

"It helped me get a real handle on stepping out of the craziness of administration and taking a look at where we are," he added. "For years in public schools, we've been good at just putting feathers in our hats or drawing our own pictures, and a lot of parents aren't buying it."

About 90 percent of the public schools in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties participated in the first editions of the report cards.

Schools haven't yet been asked to make a commitment for the 1999-2000 school year, when the company hopes to expand to cover schools in six Bay area counties.

The company also hopes to become self-supporting, by having businesses or communities sponsor the profiles, instead of relying on foundation grants.

"This is an opportunity for schools to put their best foot forward," Mr. Jackson said. "But our objective is to move beyond that and jump-start or catalyze really rich conversations in communities about school quality."

Vol. 18, Issue 23, Page 18

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