What Makes a School Great?

What Makes a School GREAT? What You Need to Know

How To Tell If a School Is Great

Let’s take a moment to be real here.  Most schools are doing a pretty good job.  Some are doing great,  and some are just plain bad.  So what makes a school “good” or “bad”, and how is a parent supposed to tell the difference?  School ratings and school report cards are easy to find online, but what do school ratings measure?

As a former vice principal and school psychologist (you can read more about me and my mission here), my goal is to help parents understand the school system – including what makes a school great.  Keep reading for a breakdown of the important information you need to know.

Check School Ratings & State Report Cards

Online school ratings, such as greatschools.org, are based on state report cards.  They are a good start for parents.  They are more user-friendly than what you would find on a the actual state report card, but they don’t provide the depth of information.  To find your school and district’s report card, Google your state’s name + “report card” (ex: Illinois school report card) and look for .gov sites or links to a school district or school’s website.

States create report cards that provide accountability for public schools and districts.  They provide parents with information about how a school is performing relative to state expectations.  This rating comes from how well students score on state tests, typically in Math and Reading. Students begin taking these tests around 3rd grade.  Each student in the state takes the test at the end of the school year, and scores become available the following fall.

Although states have some freedom to choose how to rate their schools, you will find commonalities across states.  Typically, school report cards include similar indicators or categories.  Three common ratings include student achievement (percentage of students who are considered proficient), academic growth, and achievement gaps.

Student Achievement Rating – it’s not as important as you might think!

I’m going to argue that this rating is the least important when determining if a school is great, and here’s why: these scores are highly correlated with income.  In other words, they have more to do with  families than schools.  You can find hundreds of empirical studies supporting this claim with a quick Google search, but here is a great report by legendary Grant Wiggins, in case you’re interested. Despite all this, the achievement rating is what most people check first.  It’s the easiest to understand, and it is the most publicized.  Yes, it is important to consider.  But don’t base your decision solely on this score.

Academic Growth – now we’re getting into the important stuff

Academic growth is also measured by scores on district tests.  BUT, rather than measure students’ achievement on one test, it measures students’ growth over multiple tests.  Growth is a big deal.  Students who are low achievers need to grow at an accelerated rate, and students who are high need to continue to grow academically.  If a school has a high growth score, its teachers are likely focusing on individualizing their instruction to meet the needs of each learner, as opposed to “teaching to the middle”.

Achievement Gap or Equity Score – this is big.

“Achievement gaps” are a hot topic right now, and for very good reasons.  They refer to the “gap”, or disparity, in achievement test scores between different demographic groups of students.  Nation-wide, there is a trend of underachievement by certain racial and ethnic minorities, English Language Learners, low socio-economic status, and students with disabilities.  This phenomenon impacts the make-up of Honors and AP classes, graduation rates, college admissions, later career options, and subsequent socio-economic status as adults.

While there are several valid hypotheses about why this disparity might exist, cognitive ability is not one.  That is huge.  Really huge.  Civil rights huge.  And it has to be addressed.  No longer can educators simply observe the trend of under-performance; they are now being held accountable for fixing it.  Hence the inclusion of achievement gap scores in the state report cards.  If you’re interested in reading more about achievement gaps, check out the National Center for Education Statistics.

So why does this matter when determining if a school is good?  Because schools that are closing this gap are ahead of the game.  They’re being innovative and relentless.  They’re committed to supporting all learners.  In other words, they’ve got what it takes to be a good school.

Visit the School

Want to know if a school is good?  Then get off the internet and get there. To know what it feels like, you have to power down and head out. Call the school and request a time for a tour and a brief meeting with the principal. Here’s what you want to find out when you visit:

  • What do they think is important?
    • School administrators create goals and improvement plans for their schools.  In which areas does the school have goals? Social-emotional learning?  Math?  Achievement gaps?  Knowing these goals gives you insight into the staff’s focus and the direction the school is heading.  I would suggest asking for a copy of the School Improvement Plan.  Parts of it should be available to the public.
  • How does it feel?
    • Tour the building.  What do you see on the walls in the hallway?  Do people smile and greet you when you arrive?  If you don’t feel the love, your child won’t, either.
  • Who works there?
    • Knowing who is on staff tells you a lot about a school.  Does the school have a full-time specialist for social-emotional support (social worker, counselor, or school psychologist)?  Is there a math specialist or reading specialist?  Find out the adult to student ratio. Smaller class sizes are especially important in early elementary grades.
  • How can parents get involved?
    • Schools that seek opportunities to involve parents are schools worth pursuing.  Ask if there is a strong Parent-Teacher Association or other ways parents can be part of the school.  Bottom line: if they don’t want you there, you probably don’t want your child there.

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