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Education Opinion

Assessing the Quality of an Elementary School

By Bill Jackson — October 10, 2012 3 min read
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Note: Bill Jackson, founder and CEO of GreatSchools, is guest posting this week.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about my dream school information system - what I’d really like to see out there to power informed school choice.

Before we do that, though, I’d like to share how I would go about assessing the quality of an elementary school if I was choosing one for my daughters today. This is all in the spirit of keepin’ it real. I’d love to hear your ideas.

As the CEO of GreatSchools, I have to start with the data, of course. At GreatSchools.org, I can access data about test scores and student diversity. In some locations, I can also find about special programs, curriculum, extra-curricular activities and transportation options. This is great stuff - it helps get me oriented.

But then I have to go to the school and look around for myself. And when I visit an elementary school, I’m putting it through five tests over the course of my visit:

1. The student engagement test
2. The high expectations test
3. The range of exposure test
4. The recess hangout test
5. The principal leadership test

1. The student engagement test

The first order of business: are the students engaged in learning? It doesn’t matter whether the teacher is standing in the front of the class talking to the students, the whole class is working on something together, students are working in small groups, or students are working individually. The question is: are the wheels inside students’ brains cranking away?

Try this: wander down the halls of a school and peek into classrooms and rate engagement from zero to 10. This classroom described by Doug Lemov might rate a 10.

I don’t claim I can tell from this test whether teachers are brilliant - whether they fill every moment with well-designed instruction. What I do claim is that you can tell whether it’s even possible for students to be learning a lot. As Daniel Willingham explains in his book Why Students Don’t Like School, people learn what they’re thinking about. If students aren’t thinking about anything, they’re not learning anything.

Bonus points: if I can find a few fourth or fifth graders to talk to, I ask them what they’re learning these days that interests them. I want see if I can get them on a roll, responding to my questions and to each other about something they’re learning. (Warning: this exercise is also measuring the extroversion of the students you run into, so don’t take the results too seriously.)

2. The high expectations test

OK, let’s make this simple. Go find some fourth grade writing. Does it look more like the higher or lower scoring examples provided here by the Massachusetts Department of Education?

That’s 60% of the “expectations” grade, right there.

For the other 40%, go into the bathrooms and see how well they are taken care of by students and custodians.

3. The range of exposure test

As I described yesterday, I want my daughter to get good at some things, including arts and science. This means that it’s really helpful if the school is actually teaching art and science.

Try to get your hands on the weekly schedule of a student. How much art and science do they have? Then, try to get a sense of the quality of those activities; what evidence of student work can you see? Does science class give kids the opportunity to do some actual science?

How about athletics? Library? Other extracurricular activites? The essential question: will this place help my child develop foundational skills and light sparks of engagement?

4. The recess hangout test

Escape your handlers and go find recess. Hopefully, some kids are outside playing.

What can you tell? Are kids treating each other well? Are adults watching? Are adults interacting with kids?

Are the kids playing and having fun? When kids are left out, are they left out for long or do others come and engage them?

5. The principal leadership test

I believe the quality of the principal is the key leading indicator of the quality of the school.

Watch the principal interact with the staff. What is being communicated in that interaction - verbally or not? Does the principal have the respect or even admiration of the staff? Is the principal attuned to details of what is happening around him or her?

Ask the principal: What are you working on at your school now? Get into a conversation about that. Understand why the principal has chosen to focus on those areas. What kind of vision is being revealed? Assumpions about education? Approach to building and supporting a team of teachers and staff?

There you have it

At GreatSchools, we’ve just released a new video about choosing an elementary school that shows some of these techniques in action. Or find our middle school effort here and our high school thinking here.

--Bill Jackson

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.