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A caveat: This post is strictly my opinion and does not cite research. I may do some research in the future to see if I can support this opinion with fact.
There is a lot of talk about “high-performing” schools versus “low-performing” schools. The first question we should be asking is how do we measure performance? The simple answer for most ratings is performance on state competency exams. That is the sole measure of performance used by the group Greatschools.org.
I happened to look at greatschools.org’s ratings of the schools in the Rochester, MN public school system and in the Elmbrook School District in Wisconsin where I grew up. I was not terribly surprised to find that every single school in the Elmbrook district received a rating of 10, the highest rating given by Great Schools. I was surprised to find that only one school in Rochester received a 10 rating from Great Schools. I won’t name that school; you can look it up for yourself on the Great Schools website. Rochester had several schools that scored 9’s from Great Schools, so it isn’t all bad news for Rochester.
The second question we should be asking is whether or not ranking or rating a school’s performance based solely on competency exams is reasonable and appropriate. I say it is not for several reasons:
1. We end up comparing apples to oranges. It is completely inappropriate and unfair to compare the Rochester Public Schools to the Elmbrook Schools for a couple of reasons.
a. Different states have different competency exams.
b. The communities are very different: Brookfield and Elm Grove, WI, the communities that comprise the bulk of the Elmbrook schools system are VERY affluent and exclusive Milwaukee suburbs. Rochester, MN is a much larger community, in fact, the “big city” in Southeastern Minnesota, and as such is composed of a diverse socio-economic and ethnic array of people.
So, moving on to my premise, what is the net result of “moving” students from low-performing schools to higher-performing schools? If that is the only change that is made, and depending on the number of students allowed to transfer (in the Elmbrook schools the number of open enrollment slots for next school year is only 102…a number low enough to ensure they can maintain their high marks!) the net result would be a drop in the overall performance of the high-performing school. As noted, of course this doesn’t occur because the number of open-enrollment seats is capped at a low enough number to ensure that the high-performing district remains high-performing. I sincerely doubt that the performance of a low-performing student (usually not the students who utilize open-enrollment anyway!) would dramatically improve simply because the student now attends a so-called “high-performing” school.
You see, things like averages and test scores can be manipulated to tell us whatever we want to hear. Just because a school receives high marks from an organization like Great Schools does not mean anything more than that students scored well on state exams. There are a variety of reasons students in the Elmbrook Schools perform well. First and foremost is that they are privileged. Secondarily, as a high-property value district, the schools receive much more revenue per student than a typical district: they can spend more on education!
Now, imagine for a moment that we could take all of the students from the low-performing schools in Rochester, MN and place them in the high performing schools (nevermind that we cannot because space, staffing, and fire codes will not permit) but if we could, what would happen to the performance of the “high-performing” schools? It doesn’t require a PhD to determine that they would very quickly become low-performing schools because nothing has changed except moving the students from one building to another. The low-performing students will still carry whatever baggage they were carrying that caused them to perform at a lower level than their more affluent peers at the high-performing schools.
Folks, this is not about teacher efficacy or performance. There are fundamental social issues at play, and until we address those issues, we are only playing shell games.
UPDATE 2.14.2011 2:50PM: Just saw an interesting article about “The Bartleby Project” from HuffPo. I’m not endorsing the project based on what I know, as I believe there is value in standardized tests (although they should not, IMO, be used as sole measure of school performance!) but I enjoyed the Herman Melville story and film adaptation, “Bartleby the Scrivener” from which the project derives its name.
In brief, Bartleby does only what he prefers in the story and replies when asked to perform a new or disagreeable task, “I’d prefer not to.” The project asks students to write “I prefer not to take your standardized test” across the top of the test answer sheet. I would expect to see a few of these popping up around the nation during the next round of standardized tests. You can read more about the project here: The Bartleby Project