When we’re identifying the best K-12 schools, some easy information to get is the school’s standardized test scores. Some states assign A-F grades to schools to make it even easier for us. These “grades” usually include not just student test scores, but data such as student attendance, graduation, and suspension rates. The better the school’s scores or grade, the better the school. But what if this isn’t true?
The problem with these student performance indicators is that they may have nothing to do with the quality of the school. Students’ performance is highly correlated with family income and parents’ education levels. When a school serves students from higher income families and who live in home and community environments with more educational supports, their students have higher academic outcomes. Highly educated students in, highly educated students out.
John Hattie, a respected education researcher, calls these schools “cruising schools”. Students and teachers can “cruise” in a Horace’s Compromise with few consequences: Students aren’t pushed too hard, teaching and learning is fairly traditional, and no one complains because student outcomes are high. There isn’t any reason to improve what’s happening in classrooms because students are doing just fine.
This isn’t to say that teachers in these schools aren’t skilled and providing value to students; it’s just that they aren’t as likely to get feedback and reflect more deeply on their practice because any weaknesses are concealed; students are scoring well, so teaching must be great. And if teachers aren’t meeting students’ needs, the students’ parents provide enough supports to essentially hide the teachers’ weaknesses.
Unsurprisingly, many teachers want to be in these schools. It’s exciting to teach students who are academically prepared and whose parents provide so much support. And it’s great job security: working in a cruising school gives teachers confidence that the school won’t incur the consequences poor performing schools experience–district takeovers or mandated remedies. Teachers are virtually guaranteed that they won’t ever be forced to change their practices or curriculum.
Sure, working in a school with highly educated students can push teachers to challenge each student every day. But it can also give teachers a false sense of their own effectiveness. Because most schools and districts have no reliable or valid way of measuring growth, teachers don’t get accurate feedback. In the absence of assessments that track growth, it’s tempting, and incorrect, to believe “My students did well on the standardized test, therefore I’m a good teacher.” When there are some students in the school who struggle, the high test scores can hide them. Teachers can inadvertently blame the students; “Everyone else seems to be fine, it must be the student’s problem.” Teachers aren’t necessarily to blame; some might argue that the way we’ve thought about schools and measuring them encourages this thinking.
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of interest in pulling back the curtain: the idea that a high performing school isn’t providing much academic benefit to students is unsettling, and risky. A researcher internal to a district told me that when they did a value-added analysis of student performance, and found that the school with the highest student test scores actually provided the lowest added value in the district, they were told not to reveal the information for fear of the backlash. That the Superintendent’s children attended that school didn’t encourage more transparency.
I’ve visited schools that had high-performing students and seen instructional practices that are just on par, and sometimes inferior, with those I’ve seen in lower-performing schools. And yet the teachers brim with confidence, and even some egotism, about their school’s academics. Parents don’t have the experience or the informed eyes to be able to assess and compare classroom instruction, and to independently contradict test scores and reputation. Professor Hattie said in a recent article “We prize high achievement, we prize schools that led to high [test scores], and we consider that successful students are the brightest. This is corrupting our system, leading parents to seek the wrong schools.”
So what’s the solution? Comparing a school’s performance to other schools that serve similarly resourced populations can help. Using more value-added assessments can also provide more accurate information. And staff in schools serving high-resourced communities can push themselves to not rest on their high test scores, but to develop a culture of continuous improvement.
Of course, parents select a school based on many criteria, test scores being only one. How the school feels, where neighbors’ and friends’ kids attend, the impression of the school’s staff and leadership, and other inchoate factors are considered. However, if parents do want to consider the quality of teaching, let’s give them accurate information. Most parents would not choose to put their students in a school that lets them cruise.