Our Desire for Quality Public Schools:
Part 1: Defining a Quality School
Quality education has been one of the most sought-after pursuits in America since its founding. Black, white, Asian, Hispanic, rich, poor, formally educated or not, rural, urban, suburban, whomever—all parents have the goal of seeing their child properly educated and reaching their greatest potential. This is not just an American vision; it is an innate desire of humankind. Still, our education system has not been exempt from participating in the American legacy of dehumanizing Black people. The American education system has been and continues to be one of the most oppressive institutions in the nation. And this has resulted in many different responses from its people. However, we know that we accomplish more together, we know the collective is stronger than the individual, that united we stand and divided we fall. With that, consider this invitation to work together to address our shared desire for quality public schools. I propose that we invest our collective energy in focusing on three simple things:
- defining a quality school
- monitoring and maintaining our schools, and
- shifting who’s in charge.
Here, it is best that we address the first—defining a quality school. Identifying a quality public school is one of the most challenging and essential tasks a parent undertakes. In Chicago, the district would have you think that they have taken care of that task for us, with their School Quality Rating Policy, SQRP for short. Essentially “the district,” well-intentioned, determine what they consider to be indicators of high-quality education. Then, they evaluate the schools each year and assign one of the following ratings: 1+ (the highest grade), 1, 2+, 2, and 3 (the lowest grade). The indicators used to determine school quality are different for elementary, high, and option (formally known as alternative) schools, but the policy applies to all publicly funded schools, including charters. While I advise anyone interested in the details to visit the district’s SQRP web page and check out the latest Intro Presentation (2018), the district’s idea of a quality school can be summed up into three weighted categories:
- Growth on standardized tests accounts for about 65% of the score in elementary schools, 25% of the score in high schools, and 50% of the score in option schools.
- Attendance rate, 20% of the score in elementary schools, 12.5% for high schools, and 20% for option schools.
- And then comes schools’ performance on the 5Essentials Survey. This survey is what students, teachers, and parents observe and report about the school and includes questions about the school’s culture—the quality of instruction, the supportiveness of the environment, and the like. It accounts for 10% at elementary, 6.25% at high, and is not a factor considered in the rating of option schools at all. If there is “not enough” data for an elementary or high school, it is eliminated from the rating altogether. This is why it’s likely that most of us with school-aged children have not heard of 5Essentials, though I know it’s been used in the city since at least 2013.
The fact of the matter is that the district's way of measuring the quality of our schools is backward and contributes to the perpetual dysfunction of our schools. There is ample research that shows, and frankly, it’s common sense—students who feel safer at school, feel included, trust their teachers, etc., are more engaged and learn more. They would have higher attendance and increase the likelihood of performing better on standardized tests (though, Black students held to standardized tests scores as a quality indicator is a separate, nuanced issue). By prioritizing standardized tests and attendance rates as a determination of a school’s quality and being willing to eliminate what students, parents and teachers say, the district has established a system that devalues the importance of culture, agency and community. So, rather than relying on 1+ through 3 to measure the value in a school, I would encourage each of us to look at individual schools’ 5Essentials survey data. What are the students, teachers, and parents saying? Is there academic engagement? Is there ambitious instruction? Is there a supportive environment? Are families involved in the school? Is there effective leadership? Are teachers collaborative? Minimally, if a school has not prioritized having students, parents and teachers taking the 5Essentials survey, I would highly encourage you to get those answers yourself before entrusting them with your child. They must receive feedback on the critical social components that impact student learning and growth, such as trust and commitment. Maximally, we should all speak out to advocate for a change to the School Quality Rating Policy so that grades 1+ through 3 are based on what we think is most valuable to the students and their families, not “the system.”