A better way to grade schools
Taxpayers spend an enormous amount of money developing and enforcing methods for evaluating whether individual schools are performing well. I think we should spend that money hiring more teachers instead. Honestly, it is relatively easy to tell if a school is good. One simple way is to ask the students.
Our national obsession with ranking schools tends to neglect this way of measuring school quality. I have not seen data reporting on how students rate their schools — in fact although I have attended some local school board meetings where high school students have spoken about their education, I have never seen data reporting what students say. The data I have seen is all based on scores on standardized tests, and these tests are extremely expensive to develop and score. Furthermore, it is a love of schooling that turns young people into that elusive but key commodity — lifelong learners. I believe that if we are going to issue report cards for schools then these should be at least partially based on how much students love their schools.
What kinds of schools do students tend to love? In my experience it is the schools whose teachers are given enough breathing room in their day to form relationships with their students. You can’t show a student you care about him or her if you don’t have any time to exchange a few words with individual children. It’s hard to get to know one student when you teach hundreds of them. It’s difficult to develop positive relationships with students when you are asked to teach subjects that are not a comfortable fit with your interests and training. Schools need to work on creating the conditions that allow teachers to form healthy bonds with students.
Lots of different kinds of schools can allow teachers and students to form positive relationships if they make this a priority. Small schools have it easiest — size alone allows a child to be known by the adults in the school. This is one of many reasons that community-based schools work so well. Bigger schools can also be successful but they must work at it. They need to group students and teachers into manageable teams, so that students feel connected to a consistent group of teachers who can know them well. Above all, whatever the size of the school, the administration needs to prioritize creating the conditions that will maximize connections. Time in school for teachers to get to know students is where we should put our money.
I’d like to see schools ranked based on whether their students feel known, respected, and cared for. I am sure that the top schools in such a ranking list would be those that end up creating the life-long learners we seek.