Mankato Free Press, September 17, 2003
The new “star” rating system for [Minnesota] schools has quite a few educators’ undies in a bunch around the state.
I’ve heard the terms like “unfair,” “unclear,” “meaningless,” and “misleading” bandied about. The word one doesn’t hear much is “silly.” Much like the antics of our former governor, these sorts of controversies generate a good deal of heat but not much light.
Now these stars are based on good, hard data. The spreadsheet that coldly calculates the ratings have such Calvin-Ball terminology as Actual Value by School for Subject and Grade to determine Group (actual number tested or % FRP tested) and Minimum Statewide Value for Subject and Grade to determine Group (mimimum number tested or minimum % FRP tested) with important provisos such as Comparison values must be greater than minimum values shown for school/grade/subject to be included in grouping. I’m impressed! (I don’t understand it, but I’m impressed.)
I suspect the Department of Ed really got the idea from reading movie reviews. The number of thumbs, bags of popcorn, or stars gives the potential moviegoer a quick indication if he should even read the review, let alone see the movie. Rating schools, however, is tad more serious. It’s one thing to blow a couple hours and a few dollars on a crummy film. It’s quite another to entrust your child to truly bad school.
I hope parents look to the stars, but continue looking beyond them as well. As both a parent and a life-long educator, I’d like to share my own five star system of rating schools.
Star One: School climate. Funny how a person can sense the safety, friendliness, and sense of caring within minutes of walking into a school. Little things like cleanliness, displays of student work, open doors to classrooms, laughter, respectful talk, presence of volunteers, and genuine smiles from both adults and kids are the barometers of school climate. If a school doesn’t earn this star, a parent doesn’t need to bother looking at the other criteria. Get your kids out quickly.
Star Two: Individual teacher quality. This is why total school rating systems aren’t very helpful. Five-star teachers are found in one-star schools and one-star teachers are found in five-star schools. Listen to what other parents have said about the teachers your children will have. Insist that your kids get the teachers that get good reviews.
Star Three: Libraries and technology. The quality of the library is the clearest sign of how much a school values reading, teaching for independent thinking, and life-long learning. A trained librarian and a welcoming, well-used collection of current books, magazines and computers with Internet access tells a parent that the teachers and principal value more than the memorization of facts from a text book, that a diversity of ideas and opinions is important, and that reading is not just necessary, but pleasurable and important.
Star Four: Elective and extracurricular offerings. What happens in class is important. But so is what happens during the other 18 hours of the day. I want elementary schools for my kids that offer after-school clubs and activities that develop social skills and interests. I want secondary schools that are rich with art, sports, tech ed., music and community service choices that develop individual talents, leadership, and pride in accomplishment.
Star Five: Commitment to staff development. The amount of exciting scientifically-based research on effective teaching practices and schools is overwhelming. Brain-based research, reflective practice, systematic examination of student work, strategies for working with disadvantaged students are some of the latest findings that can have a positive impact on how to best teach children. But none of it does a lick of good if it stays in the universities or journals. Good schools give financial priority to teaching teachers how to improve their practice. Would you send your child to a doctor who doesn’t know the latest practice in his field?
I hope the stars and report card do put some schools and districts on notice that improvement is necessary. The goal of Leaving No Child Behind is dead on. But as a responsible parent, please look beyond the stars.