Our Take

Maybe We Should Rate Schools Like Ski Slopes

What is a good school? To some, a school is excellent when its students are getting good grades or high test scores. But for most parents, it’s much more than that. We want our kids to go to schools where they will be challenged, have opportunities to explore their interests, enjoy learning, and leave well-prepared for real life. No one wants their child’s school to be a joyless place where students go through the motions of learning only to find when they leave that it wasn’t enough to help them thrive.

We live in an age of information overload. Parents can usually access data about a school’s outcomes; how many students hit a certain proficiency level in math or reading, for example, or even how much students learned over the course of a year. Websites like GreatSchools.org offer even more layers of information.

But parents still can’t know what they really want to know: Whether the actual educational experience is any good. Parents don’t see much of what students are asked to do in class. They can’t easily tell if a teacher has ambitious expectations for what students should learn, or if the content is too easy or too hard. They trust that a high grade means a student has mastered the right skills and knowledge at the right time, but they don’t know for sure. 

What if we are missing another, better way of thinking about school quality—one that goes beyond the student outcomes? What if the truest measure of a school is the richness of the work it asks students to tackle every day?

I started pondering these questions after reading The Opportunity Myth, an eye-opening new report by my old colleagues at TNTP, a nonprofit focused on educational quality issues. They spent several years following the experiences of real students in real classrooms. Among other things, they examined the assignments students were given and how they completed them. They regularly surveyed students about their level of engagement in class.

Here are some key findings:

  • Students have big goals for themselves that require a college-level education.
  • Students generally do what’s asked of them in class and mostly earn good grades for their courses.
  • Yet, students spent huge amounts of time bored and disengaged, and far too much of the work they are assigned is watered-down to the point that it will not prepare them for the challenges ahead of them.
  • Low-income students and students of color are substantially more likely to be in classrooms where the assignments are substandard and the expectations are low.
  • This is not because they cannot handle more rigorous work; in fact, when they spent time in classrooms with rich, well-aligned assignments, students who started out behind began to catch up.    

I wonder if The Opportunity Myth is showing us a way forward. What if, alongside the star ratings or A-F grades given to schools by states based on their students’ outcomes, we rated how challenging each school’s coursework is? Schools where students are routinely asked to do work that is on or above grade level would earn higher ratings, while the lowest ratings would go to schools where students mostly work on easier tasks, not nearly as well-aligned to grade-level learning standards. You could call it a “Challenge Index.” 

Think of it this way: Before heading down a ski slope, skiers see clear symbols indicating the degree of difficulty they’ll encounter, from green “beginner” circles to “check your life insurance first” double black diamonds. Wouldn’t it change the way parents saw schools and interpreted grades if they had a similarly simple indication of the difficulty students will tackle in the classroom?

Under this approach, schools would gain more control over how they are rated and perceived. They could choose to swing for the fences with academically rich work on a daily basis. However, they would also need to find a way to support students to succeed in that work. Alternatively, they could prioritize making students feel successful and not asking anyone to press too hard… and accept a lesser Challenge Index rating. Not every ski slope is designed to be a double black diamond.

For parents, there would be unprecedented transparency. Each school would make a substantial portion of its assignments and assessments available for review externally — much the same way that schools provided materials for TNTP to review for its report. Perhaps parents could review documents for each school when considering their options, or state or district staff could conduct random audits. There would be parents who would not accept anything less than highly rigorous schools. I suspect there would be others who shy away from schools with incredibly challenging academic environments. They’d prefer less stress and homework, perhaps. Schools with decidedly low ratings would feel pressure to put better, more engaging content in front of students.

Is this a real problem? Am I saying that there are schools where students spend time on coursework that is two or three years below their actual grade level? Yes and yes. It’s actually pretty common. Read the TNTP report if you don’t believe me. There is always variation from one classroom to the next in a school and it is important to acknowledge that, but we see examples of this issue at EdNavigator all the time. Like a third grade classroom where student spelling lists consist entirely of simple, monosyllabic words that belong in first grade class. (That happened last spring.) Or seventh grade classrooms where students spend much of first quarter of the school year reviewing how to add three digit numbers – something they should have mastered long ago. (Just saw this recently.) When these are the things that get taught, imagine what’s not being taught. Imagine how many things students should be learning that they never get to do, and how frustratingly boring those classes must be for students who are capable of so much more.

I think we should give this a try. I suspect we may find that the same schools that did not perform very well under the old rating systems do not perform very well under the new one, either. But even if that’s true, we will put new focus on what teachers and students are doing on a daily basis and we will give schools and teachers more control over how their work is evaluated.  

Agree? Disagree? Have a better idea? Tweet us at @ednavigate.