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What Is a Good School?

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This post is by Justin Wells, Executive Director of Envision Learning Partners, which partners with administrators and teachers to help them use and adapt performance assessments.

If someone tells me that a school is good, I tend not to believe it.

It's not that I won't believe it, or that I therefore assume that the school is not good. It's just that I like to withhold judgment until I see some evidence (a habit that I hope we instill in our students as well).

The evidence that I want to see is different from what most folks seem to reach for when they are sizing up a school. I am not interested in the school's standardized test scores. I am not drawn to "walk through" the classrooms. I resist generalizing about a school's culture or quality based on a tour of the campus. If it's a high school, I might be curious about graduation or college persistence rates, but I won't draw any conclusions from that.

Before I'll say anything about the quality of a school, here's what I want to see: a few pieces of student work that have been deemed, by the standards at that school, as promising but not yet proficient. If there's a letter grade attached, I'll take it at a B- or below.

Because I am a writing teacher, I'd love for at least one of the artifacts to be a piece of writing. Let me also see what the school counts as substantive work in math or science. A video of a student presentation would be great if it's available. If the school has a particular strength or focus, say engineering or performing arts, then include work that represents that.

To each artifact of student work, please attach the assignment or task that prompted the work and the rubric that was used to evaluate it. Let me see what feedback, if any, has been offered to the student. Note whether the student can revise or resubmit the work.

Once I have these things in front of me, I'd also like to hear answers to the following:

  • Were these assignments designed in collaboration with other teachers or using some set of criteria that other teachers agree to?
  • How widely are these rubrics used? How often do the students engage with them?
  • What percentage of the students' grade-level peers saw this or a similar assignment?
  • How many other teachers agree to this work's quality?

That's it. Now give me some time to look through the work. Yes, I'll probably have a few more questions, but they are best answered by the students who did the work. May I speak with them?

In other words, what I want to "walk through" is not the school, but the school's performance assessment system. A functioning performance assessment system means that targeted skills are announced, rubrics are shared and regularly used, teachers are calibrated on the quality of assignments and student work, and students can explain what they are doing and how they are growing. A system means that high expectations are not random or tracked; they are held for all students who attend that school.

If I can agree that the student work has been assessed fairly, and there's evidence that a functioning performance assessment system is behind it, then I am willing to believe the claim that the school is good.

And if the school keeps doing what it's doing, it will get even better.

 

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