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Education Opinion

My Dream School-Information System

By Bill Jackson — October 11, 2012 5 min read
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Note: Bill Jackson, founder and CEO of GreatSchools, is guest posting this week. Follow Bill and GreatSchools on Twitter at @Bill_Jackson and @GreatSchools.

My dream school information system would provide insight into whether a particular school would help my daughters realize my aspirations for them (see Tuesday’s post) and as well as shed light on many of the aspects of schools I look for on a tour (see Wednesday’s post).

This month, GreatSchools is launching some elements of this vision with pilots in Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Washington, DC. But I’m going to challenge myself to think beyond our current innovations and imagine what might be possible in the future. In this spirit, my dream school information system has five components:

1. Student achievement and teacher quality
2. School climate and culture
3. School program and curriculum
4. Parent and student reviews
5. Principal interview

1. Student achievement and teacher quality

In addition to absolute test scores, I want to see analysis of student growth on test scores. I’d like simple ratings that compare the school to other schools and I’d ideally like ratings for subgroups of students such as racial and ethnic groups and English Language Learners. And while we’re at it, I’d like to know about the quality of the test being used by the state.

Then I’d like to see typical samples of student work, including writing and mathematics, for the highest grades in the school. These samples would somehow be randomly chosen and linked to exemplars that shed light onto grade-by-grade and subject-by-subject expectations I ought to have for my children.

Then, how about some insight into whether this school and district (or CMO) has a real teacher evaluation and professional development system? In this spirit, I’d like to know the distribution of teacher performance ratings at the school. (For example, in the case of DC public schools, I’d be able to see that the school has 30% “highly effective” teachers, 40% “effective” teachers and 30% “developing” teachers.)

Then, for high schools, I want to know how well kids who graduated from a particular school do in college. Are they attending and graduating from college? Do they need to take remedial courses? For those who do not go to college: where do they go? Are they employed? How much money do they make? (OK, that might be a little unreasonable, but we’re thinking big here.)

2. School climate and culture

At GreatSchools, we consider “climate” to encompass factors like sense of safety, quality of relationships between teachers and students, and quality of communication with parents. These things can be measured on a scale of “good” to “bad.”

On the other hand, we think of “culture” as encompassing facets of schools that cannot be rated on a scale of “good” to bad.” For example, a particular school might emphasize competition more or less. A more competitive environment is not necessarily good or bad - it depends on your values and desires for your child.

My dream system would provide insight into both climate and culture. Surveys of students, teachers and parents are a good bet to provide some of this insight, but we’ve learned at GreatSchools that this is tricky business. Surveys measure the perceptions and experiences of respondents as well as the performance of institutions. So one has to use surveys that have been tested and validated in at least some situations.

Later this month, we’re going to launch a pilot climate rating for the first time for schools in Milwaukee. At this point, the rating will be based on surveys of teachers. Maybe in the future, we could enlist parents to do the recess hangout test (see yesterday’s post) and describe what they see.

3. School program and curriculum

I want to know all about the school’s curriculum and programs. We’ve got this down pretty well in our next-generation school profile launching this month in select cities. For example, check out St. Joan Antida High School, a private girls-only high school in Milwaukee that accepts vouchers. You can see tons of details here.

Another way to get insight: photos and videos that shed light on unique features of schools. For an example, see this video linked from the GreatSchools profile of Amy Beverland Elementary School in Indianapolis.

In the future, I’d like to get parent and student reviews that provide insight into the quality of programs at middle and high schools. In addition to learning whether the school has a band, we could learn about how meaningful that band is to students and families.

4. Parent and student reviews

I want to read what parents and students have to say about the school - whatever is on their mind. Ideally many parents and students would offer their thoughts, not just the boosters and the haters.

We’ve got a million of these parent reviews already on GreatSchools, but we need many more.

See, for example, the reviews of Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, DC for some insight into the value of student and parent reviews of schools.

5. Video interview of the principal

I’d like to see a video interview of the principal. Every principal would be asked:

• What are you working to improve at your school?
• Why did you choose these priorities?
• What successes are you seeing?
• What challenges are you confronting? How are you dealing with them?

Perhaps parents could record and upload these video interviews. I think we’d learn a lot from them.

Some other practical stuff:

Of course, I want to be able to search and screen for schools with particular characteristics. Here’s our latest effort at that...try out our new filters being piloted in Indianapolis. Click on “new filters - narrow your search” to explore.

Then, I’d like to see school attendance boundaries. We’ve got those now on GreatSchools for most schools in the nation. See, for example, the attendance boundary for Amy Beverland Elementary School in Indianapolis.

Another great thing to know: my chances of getting my child into a particular school. For example, if I want to get my child into MacFarland Middle in Washington, DC, no problem - all the applicants got in last year.

But at KIPP AIM Middle School, it’s much harder. Only 30% of applicants got in last year.

Ideas for what I’ve missed? I’m eager to hear.

--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.