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School & District Management Opinion

How Many Numbers Does It Take to Fix a School?

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — February 01, 2016 3 min read
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The experience of the last quarter century tells us that it only takes one number to label, shame, or laud a school. But it takes a bunch of indicators to help one improve. Using single indicators to name and shame schools mostly provides a reliable indicator of a neighborhood’s socioeconomic status, and historically the Failing School label doesn’t provide useful diagnostic information. So, the release on Tuesday of the School Quality Improvement Index by California’s CORE districts is a big step toward useful information.

To explain: if you stacked up the achievement numbers on the state’s mothballed Academic Proficiency Index, all the schools in the box (at the left) would be the same.

But these schools vary widely on other measures, (see below) such as English Learner redesignation rates, chronic absences, and suspension rates, which provide a school needed information about where it should direct its attention.

CORE is a collaborative of nine California districts—Fresno, Garden Grove, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Sanger, and Santa Ana—serving more than 1 million students. They’ve been working on the improvement index for several years. Tuesday’s release provides each school, each district, and the public with a report card that includes both academic and social-emotional domains.

Consider an example (above) from a prototypical high school: The school does not receive a single number summary score. Academic measures on the state SBAC tests are listed alongside graduation rates, absenteeism, suspension rates, and English learner re-designation. Social emotional skills and a schools culture and climate measures will be added this year.

These scores are indexed (see above, column “Index Level”) against other CORE data system schools and color coded red, orange, and green. The final column contains trends. Indexing provides a school with valuable information. For example, only 12 percent of students scored at a proficient level on the state’s new, more rigorous math tests. Not good. But the index score shows the school in the middle of the pack among the schools in the data collaborative, suggesting that issues with math achievement are systemwide.

“The single number has never been a big deal for us,” said Rick Miller, executive director of CORE districts in an interview last week. “Indexing matters, a single number doesn’t.” (See Miller’s presentation at Policy Analysis for California Education and slides explaining the system.)

The next page of the school data feedback (see above) contains breakouts by subgroup. CORE districts and the participating schools have had their results for months now. “What we heard from the principals was that they valued giving them context and where they fit in,” Miller said. See, for example the prototype school’s feedback on subgroup performance. “Look at the special ed column; it’s all red. Compared to all the special education populations across the network, this school is doing poorly.”

These more fine-grained comparisons tell a school where to target interventions. “The worst thing you can do is everything; you have to hone in and focus,” Miller said.

Another example from a presentation Miller has given several times compares schools on their academic and social-emotional domains. The left side of the graph shows the schools that are doing poorly academically. Most of those schools (the 164 indicated by the red bar) also have low social-emotional learning scores, but a few (17 indicated by the blue bar) are doing particularly well in the social emotional domain. “I can’t prove it, because this is the first year we’ve had data,” Miller said, “but my hunch is that these social emotional scores are a leading indicator (of a school starting to get better).”

Organizational reform ideas, such as professional learning communities (PLC), are based on educators working together with student data to solve problems. “The most meaningful reform I have seen in the last 20 years is the PLC,” Miller said. “If it works so well at the classroom level why not the school and district levels.”

The CORE folks have put down their bets that more and better data helps schools toward working professional communities. They call their indexes “measurable, actionable and meaningful,” and early experience suggests that they are.

Graphics: CORE districts

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