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Strengthening Community Demand and Support for High-Quality Education

Note: Bill Jackson, founder and CEO of GreatSchools, is guest posting this week. Follow Bill and GreatSchools on Twitter at @Bill_Jackson and @GreatSchools.

As promised, let's talk about building community demand and support for high-quality education. That's key if we're going to build great schools and achieve excellent educational outcomes in our communities.

Of course, people have different ideas about what "high-quality" education means. Take parents themselves. In my Tuesday post, I shared my own aspirations for my daughters' education. Other parents have different aspirations. How are we going to build community demand for excellence if we have lots of different ideas about what excellence is?

My answer to this question: First build a strong consensus around the high-level goals of education and then create a portfolio of schools and other educational resources that help families pursue those high-level goals in the ways they think best. In other words, first, get everyone on board to demand results from the system at a high level and then foster the creation of organizations that contribute to common goals and respond to the full range of families' aspirations.

I think it's possible to get consensus around the highest-level goal of education: to launch young people with the knowledge, skills, and character strengths necessary to advance the economic and civic well-being of the community. In fact, this is very similar to how most parents would describe their high-level aspiration for their own children.

It is impossible to precisely measure the degree to which children are on track for this ultimate goal, much less the degree to which schools help children achieve it. But we can identify some milestones along the journey. Thinking about PreK through high school, here's the start of a potential list:

• Prepared for kindergarten by age five
• Reading by 3rd grade
• Cultural literacy by 6th grade
• Algebra by 9th grade
• College-ready high school graduation by 12th grade
• Children's participation in athletics, arts, and other enriching activities throughout

The Strive Partnership in Cincinnati has developed a more complete list of milestones toward career and life success. The brilliant thing about their list is that it shows both academic and family support milestones - it acknowledges that education is a collaborative effort between schools, parents, and other community organizations.

Strive also issues annual reports that show how the community as a whole is progressing toward common goals and how different organizations are contributing. The beauty of these reports is that they measure progress in terms of straightforward concepts that people can understand - concepts like "mastering algebra by 8th grade" and "college enrollment."

I think this approach is better than giving schools A-F grades based on standardized test scores and other measures of school performance. It's true that A-F grades are easy for everyone to understand - that's their strength. At the same time, however, they come with a serious risk: because they are so judgmental, they divert people's attention away from the actual work of improving education toward debating the accuracy and fairness of the rating itself. (See here for the current debate in New York City.)

Better to simply say: Lincoln Elementary School has 57% of its 3rd graders reading at grade level - and its goal is 75%, than to give it a "C".

Another reason that the Strive data reporting approach is better than A-F ratings is that it makes apparent the interdependency of various actors in the system, including schools, community organizations, and parents. In this way, it helps to build trust between them - an ingredient that is generally very helpful when you need a team approach to improving outcomes for kids.

The ultimate goal - and the sign that we have succeeded in building community demand and support for high-quality education - is that everyone is working toward the community's goals and the community is growing in its capacity to deliver on the goals. Teachers are getting better at teaching - so that more kids can reach the community milestones. Principals are improving their schools - so that more kids can reach the community milestones. Parents are gaining new skills - so their own children can achieve the community milestones in addition to other aspirations they have for their children.

Community nonprofits are boasting about their contribution to achieving community milestones in their fundraising appeals. And candidates for board of education races are arguing with each other about who will be better at driving the system to achieve community milestone targets. It could happen.

This brings my Rick Hess Straight Up Blog adventure to end. Thanks for listening. And thank you, Rick, for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts.

--Bill Jackson

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