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Families & the Community

GreatSchools Finds a Niche in School Ratings

By Christina A. Samuels — April 03, 2012 6 min read
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Plug a school name into any Internet search engine, and within a few pages, you’re likely to come across the GreatSchools website.

GreatSchools.org neatly ranks more than 136,000 traditional public, private, and charter schools nationwide on a scale of 1 to 10, based on state test scores. But what often draws readers are the gossipy insider comments posted by parents, students, and teachers, and the star ratings those commenters contribute.

The growth of online school rating services has gone hand in hand with the growth of the school choice movement: Parents need independent information on the array of educational options opening up to them. And the San Francisco-based nonprofit GreatSchools has garnered long-running support from philanthropies that back such school choice measures as charter schools and private school vouchers.

GreatSchools.org is not the only website that ranks pre-K-12 schools. The Internet search engines Yelp and Google offer school ratings, as do websites such as Schooldigger.com and Privateschoolreview.com. But with 40 million annual unique visitors, GreatSchools is the one most used, according to Alexa Internet, which tracks Web traffic.

The site’s founder and chief executive officer, Bill Jackson, says GreatSchools wants to be more than just a school ratings site: He sees it developing into an association that serves parents in the same way that the AARP serves retirees, or that AAA represents drivers.

“We see ourselves offering incentives, discounts on products, and services that will support parents toward preparing a high school graduate.” Mr. Jackson said.

But that kind of expansion may worry some educators, who see the nonprofit organization’s ratings as too narrow to provide a fair and full picture of their schools. In response, the site is expanding its schools pages, allowing administrators to contribute videos, pictures, and other information.

New Platforms, Partners

Already, GreatSchools has expanded its reach beyond the Web, printing glossy guides to schools that go to parents in the District of Columbia, Indianapolis, and Milwaukee, all cities with extensive charter school programs. It has plans to expand its mobile-application presence, reaching millions of parents who may not have regular Internet access at home but can access the Web through smartphones.

Supporters

Fourteen foundations and organizations helped support GreatSchools’ school ratings and parent education efforts in 2011.

*Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: $265,493

Fight for Children: 75,000

Geico: 2,000

Goldman Sachs Group: 440,000

Kern Family Foundation: 100,000

Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation: 15,000

NewSchools Venture Fund: 125,000

Robertson Foundation: 1,000,000

Rotary Foundation of Washington, D.C.: 2,500

Target Foundation: 250,000

Venable Foundation: 5,000

Verizon Foundation: 1,000

*Walton Family Foundation: 4,775,000

Zoom Foundation: 110,000

TOTAL: $7,165,993

*These foundations also support some coverage in Education Week.

SOURCE: GreatSchools

In December, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced a partnership with GreatSchools that will allow parents who live in public housing or receive housing vouchers to learn more about school options through GreatSchools resources. “The partnership with GreatSchools is HUD’s opportunity to give families in our rental-assistance programs tools to find the very best educational opportunities for their children,” Sandra B. Henriquez, HUD’s assistant secretary for public and Indian housing, said in an email.

That aspect of parent empowerment has drawn support from philanthropic organizations such as the New York City-based Robertson Foundation, which provided $1 million to GreatSchools in 2011.

“The reality for a parent making a decision about schools is that there’s an awful lot of word of mouth. One of the things GreatSchools does is give you independent data,” said Phoebe C. Boyer, the foundation’s executive director.

Other backers include the WaltonFamily Foundation, which helps support Education Week’s coverage of parent-empowerment issues, and the Joyce Foundation, which supports coverage of teacher-policy issues.

The site also has created Web-based teaching modules, called College Bound, for teaching parents how to navigate a conference with a teacher, or how to help with homework. Those modules are currently available through 20 district, charter, and nonprofit partners.

‘Skin in the Game’

Parents, Mr. Jackson believes, are an “underappreciated” part of a child’s educational success.

“Families have the most skin in the game,” he said. “They need to understand their role in helping their children.”

GreatSchools was founded in 1997 as an independent rating system for schools in the Silicon Valley area of California. The site was one of several projects that Mr. Jackson, an Internet entrepreneur, worked on as a way to promote the nascent computer-networking industry.

A confluence of circumstances led to GreatSchools’ growth in the state, he said: the creation of a common testing system that allowed California schools to be compared with one another, the birth of charter schools in the state, and the spread of Internet technology that allowed information to be disseminated widely and quickly.

The site next expanded to Arizona with Texas, Florida, and Washington state soon following. The federal No Child Left Behind Act, with its emphasis on standardized testing as the gauge of schools’ progress, “was really a huge boost” to the site, Mr. Jackson said.

But the states didn’t always make that information easily obtainable, Mr. Jackson said, so GreatSchools tried to present it in an easy-to-comprehend manner.

By 2001, parents and others involved in a school could leave anonymous comments on the site, which draw more attention from school leaders than the rankings based on test scores, Mr. Jackson said. The site is closing in on nearly 1 million reviews and plans to expand its rating systems next year, inviting its anonymous commenters to go into more depth about benefits—or drawbacks—of a school that may be difficult to capture in a number ranking.

Under the protection of anonymity, commenters tend not to pull their punches. For example, this comment on the 4,000-student Adlai Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., which rated 10 out of 10 points based on test scores and received five out five stars in its “community rating": “This is a school meant only for superachievers,” said one poster identified as a parent.

On the Web page for Pflugerville High School in suburban Austin, Texas, which has a 6 out of 10 rating for its test scores and an average of three out of five stars from its community members, one poster identified as a student praised the teachers, the administration, and counselors but had harsh words for his peers.

“Being a student, I have firsthand experience dealing with the kids who go here,” he wrote, “and, to be quite blunt, a good amount of them are loud, annoying, and rude to not only teachers but also other students.”

Assessing the Reviews

Attacks on teachers and drive-by insults are barred under the site’s terms of use, but GreatSchools relies on readers to flag inappropriate remarks for removal.

“Our philosophy on this is that we’re not expecting that any one review will provide the revealed truth about a school. The value is when you can read five or 10, preferably more than 10,” Mr. Jackson said. “If there’s one or two or three on a school, it’s difficult to know who’s writing that review.”

But more reviews tend to reveal patterns, he said. “As you read certain things,” he said, “it can prepare you to know what questions to ask if you choose that particular school for a visit.”

Damon T. Murphy, the superintendent of the 6,500-student Canutillo Independent School District in suburban El Paso, Texas, said his school board voted this year to try to raise its GreatSchools profile at least one point from 5, where it had stalled for several years.

The vote came before he knew how GreatSchools creates its test scores. Though the star ratings are purely subjective and based on commenters, the numerical rating is based solely on test scores,which disappointed Mr. Murphy. But, he said that GreatSchools was receptive to his suggestions that more measures be incorporated into a school’s “grade.”

The district is drawing more middle-class families “that have more of a tendency to ‘shop’ their child’s education,” Mr. Murphy said.

School rating systems “are a reality that school systems across the country will have to come to grips with,” he added. “If GreatSchools doesn’t do it, your local newspaper will.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2012 edition of Education Week as GreatSchools.org Finds Its Niche

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