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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Accountability Opinion

Let’s Take a Holistic Approach to Judging Schools

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 14, 2022 8 min read
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(This is the final post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are other ways than standardized-test scores to evaluate the effectiveness of schools?

In Part One, Holly Spinelli, Tameka Porter, Ph.D., Mary K. Tedrow, and Meghann Seril shared their responses. Holly, Tameka, and Mary were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Joseph Rodgers, Lorie Barber, Cindy Garcia, and Mike Kaechele contributed their reflections.

In Part Three, Denita Harris, Jennifer Mitchell, Rebecca Alber, and Amanda Kipnis offered their answers.

Today, Ron Berger is wrapping up this series.

Learning From England

Ron Berger is the senior adviser for teaching and learning at EL Education, an author of many books on education, and taught public school for over 25 years.

There are few topics in education that almost everyone seems to agree on, but attributes of a good school may just be one of them. When I talk to parents about what they hope for in a school for their children, the responses I get are the same across all kinds of differences—geography, income, job, politics, and race. And this has been true for all of my 46 years in education.

Parents want a school where their children feel safe physically and emotionally; where their children are known and valued; where academic standards are high and where the work is engaging and meaningful; where students of all abilities are given effective support; where the school culture builds positive character habits such as respect, responsibility, courage, and kindness; where there is a wide range of opportunities beyond the classroom in areas such as arts and athletics; where the physical facilities are ample and well-kept; and where their children will become confident, capable learners and good citizens.

Despite the remarkable and almost universal agreement in this broad constellation of features that are important in a school, we continue as a nation to ignore it. We rank all schools based on a single feature—annual test scores in two subjects—and we additionally rank high schools on a second feature—percentage of graduates attending high-status colleges and universities. From an equity perspective, it’s important to point out that both of these metrics are correlated exactly with parent income. Most “good” schools are getting credit for success in an area that data would suggest was predictable regardless of the school attended.

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Imagine if we took this reductionist approach we apply to schools and used it to assess how our own children are doing:

“How are your kids?”

“Well, my daughter is an 82—she’s proficient, but my son is a 66—he needs improvement.”

There are so many factors in the physical and emotional health of our children, their habits, needs, dispositions, talents, interests, and achievements, that the idea of describing our kids with a single number or label is absurd.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are methods of assessing and describing the holistic quality of schools that are informative for families and communities and important for schools in their continuous improvement efforts. These “school quality reviews” or “credential reviews” are often used overseas and also in school networks within the U.S. My own organization, EL Education, collaborates with our public school partners across the country in an annual review of school quality to inform ongoing work for improvement and equity.

I have heard educators and policymakers dismiss this idea as aspirational or even impossible. School networks and associations may do this, they say, but scaling it up to all public schools is just not feasible. Let me counter that perspective by sharing a story with you from England, where every school is assessed holistically and where high-stakes testing does not take place every year for students but only in a few selected years of a student’s educational journey. (Lower-stakes diagnostic testing of students happens all the time but serves a different purpose: supporting student learning instead of ranking schools).

I have had the privilege of working for many years with a network of schools in Northern England, the XP School Trust, that uses the EL Education school model. The recent official school quality review of the first XP School by Ofsted (National Office for Standards in Education) was very different from what school communities in the U.S. receive.

In addition to an overall grade for each of four domains of the school experience—Effectiveness of Leadership and Management; Quality of Teaching, Learning, and Assessment; Personal Development, Behaviour, and Welfare; and Outcomes for Pupils—the report contained 12 pages of detailed evidence from observations, interviews, and data. The school received a grade of Outstanding in each of the four domains, but what is most compelling is the nature of the qualitative feedback.

Following are sample bulleted quotes from the report:

  • Pupils’ behaviour in lessons and as they move around the school is impeccable. They are very aware of the needs of others and clear about the positive impact of minor acts of kindness. As one pupil said during a discussion session, “Holding a door open for someone may be a small thing, but it can make their day.”
  • Leaders and governors manage the performance of staff very effectively to drive up standards. The impact of staff actions on improving pupils’ progress is regularly checked through conversations and a range of thorough and detailed checks and scrutiny of pupils’ work. ... The induction process for staff new to the school is very detailed and effective.
  • The curriculum at the school is broad, balanced, and interesting. It is underpinned by a very wide range of extra-curricular clubs and sports opportunities that are open to all ... (including) opportunities for students to develop as leaders and organisers of charity and other events.
  • Pupils show significant respect for others’ views, but they are also not afraid to take a stand if they see inappropriate or ill-considered views being expounded. They have regular opportunities to discuss and reflect on their learning, progress, and attitudes.
  • Pupils report that there is no bullying at the school. Inspection findings show that incidents of bullying are very rare. Pupils are very clear about the forms that bullying can take.
  • Parents are provided with clear, regular, and detailed accounts of their children’s progress. There is almost 100 percent attendance at pupils’ progress evenings and events. Pupils lead the discussion of their work and progress during these sessions.
  • Parents are overwhelmingly positive about the work of the school and the positive impact it is having on their children’s intellectual progress and moral well-being.

Few schools in the U.K. are delighted to host government inspectors. But I believe they have no idea how much better this system is from what schools experience in the U.S. If leaders, teachers, and families in the U.K. were to learn that U.S. schools receive only one piece of feedback—test-score numbers in two subjects—with no feedback about all the dimensions of their school that support student learning and growth, I believe they would feel great sympathy for us.

It truly does not have to be this way. We create accountability systems for schools for two purposes. First, to identify which schools—and which aspects of a school—are doing well, so we can learn from them and build on that success. And second, to identify which schools—and which aspects of a school—are not successfully meeting the needs of students, including every subgroup of students.

Both purposes are important only to the extent that the accountability system guides improvement. The more holistic and detailed the feedback is, the more useful it is and the more likely it is to lead to improvement. Unfortunately, this is not the norm in the U.S. Instead, we spend a great deal of time and funding supporting a system that provides little information (literally only scores on end-of-year tests in mathematics and English) and therefore is painfully inadequate to guide school improvement. Of course, it matters that students have strong skills in mathematics and literacy, but that is far from all that matters.

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Thanks to Ron for contributing!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all Ed Week articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 10 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.

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