New Hampshire teacher Shawna Coppola wonders how to define a good school. She explains why the school she teaches in is an excellent school that defies all the current reforms and educates all children to meet their needs, not to raise their scores. The school may be closed because of the cost of renovations; besides, it does not have the cachet of the districts with high scores. This crazy notion that beloved community public schools should be closed is recent in our history, dating only to No Child Left Behind. That now discredited law decreed that schools must be subject to a cascade of sanctions, including closure, if their test scores don’t move towards 100% proficiency in grades 3-8. Never before in our history were public schools closed except for shrinking enrollments or consolidation of facilities—but not for test scores. Many states have adopted A-F grading systems, but those are overly simplistic and they rely too much on standardized test scores. How should we judge a school?
Here are Shawna’s thoughts on what makes a good school:
Recently a news item came out on our local NH station, WMUR, which listed the top 50 elementary schools in the state of NH. Previous to this, Newsweek had published their 2014 list of America’s Top High Schools. Both times, the district in which I live made the list. Our local high school was listed as the one of the best high schools in America, while our two elementary schools ranked near the top in the state of NH, respectively. You can find Newsweek’s list here (http://www.newsweek.com/high-schools/americas-top-schools-2014) and WMUR’s list here:http://www.wmur.com/news/30456516.
Over ten years ago, my husband and I moved to this highly-rated district so that our children could attend the schools here, which we had heard wonderful things about. By most accounts, the schools in the district are “excellent” schools. What people tend to mean by this is that the students in our district perform well on state-wide standardized assessments and on AP exams, graduate from the high school, and tend to matriculate at college immediately following graduation.
This used to impress me–at least, it did when I was still a wide-eyed classroom teacher only a few years out of college. With each passing year, however, it impresses me less and less.
The reason for this is because over the years, and through my experience as an educator, I have come to understand what it really means to be a school of excellence versus a school that is merely good at playing the game (or is lucky enough to be situated in an involved, highly literate, financially stable community). I do not believe ours is a bad or a poor district–far from it–but is it excellent? Does it deserve its place at the “top?” The short answer for me, as a parent to two students in the district, is…well, no. (I would be happy to elaborate further if you are interested.)
Alternatively, I believe that the school I work in now, Rollinsford Grade School, is one of the most excellent schools in which I have ever worked–even ever set foot in. If I were not here, working as a literacy specialist in grades K-6, I likely would not be working anywhere (in public school, that is). We have a long way to go, and can always improve, of course, but in all essence, Rollinsford is my dream school. At Rollinsford, we truly attend to the whole child. The social, emotional, and physical development of our students is just as important, if not more important, as their academic growth. We have worked hard to incorporate a sense of authentic inquiry into everything we–and our students– do. Our students have a voice, and their voice is heard and acted upon. We believe that there are a myriad number of ways that students can–and do–succeed. Each member of the faculty and staff identifies as a learner herself. Each of us goes above and beyond what is expected.
And yet, Rollinsford Grade School placed 130th out of 243 NH schools–in the bottom half. When I dug into the methodology used to complete these rankings, I wasn’t surprised to learn that it was highly flawed (you can find my somewhat detailed analysis here: http://mysocalledliteracylife.com/2015/01/04/unique-insight-into-schools-um-no/). Flawed not because of the science used, but because of the factors that were analyzed. Not one factor that went into ranking NH’s elementary schools included the factors that I, and most of my fellow educators, value– classroom pedagogy, school culture, student voice and choice, community outreach, etc. Sure, the rankings included analysis of surveys that were sent out to students, parents, and alumni of each school, but a district only needed 11 completed surveys per district to have its results counted toward the ratings. I’m sure it’s no surprise that the most affluent districts in the state, and the ones most likely to have more highly educated parents, fewer transient families, and less poverty (including the one in which I live), came out on top.
And now, with our enrollment decreasing each year and the need for minimal renovations that would bring a 78 year-old building up to code, Rollinsford Grade School is in the position of potentially being shut down, our students shipped off to a mediocre school district in the next town over. My colleagues and I–and many of our parents, whose children thrive here–are heartbroken. Not because we could potentially lose our jobs, but because one of the best schools with some of the most thoughtful, knowledgeable, progressive-minded educators may, someday soon, no longer exist. Because we have worked so hard to honor all of our students, not just those who fit the mold of the “typical” student. Because the children of this community will no longer have an alternative to the traditional, testing-focused, CCSS-centric types of schooling they will get in most other schools.
What I often write about–and what I think there needs to be a lot more conversation about, not only within the wider community, but within the world–is what truly makes a school “good” (or even “excellent”). (And is this the same everywhere?) Not for the sake of ranking schools, which is not something I believe does anyone any good, but for the sake of identifying those factors that make a school one in which both teachers and students are happy, safe, and engaged in the joy and the challenge of learning. So that schools that are not excellent can aspire to something–can make positive change toward excellence.
I think that in today’s educational culture, it is more important than ever to talk about what truly makes a good school vs. one that is only good at “playing” school. I would love to hear your ideas for how to make this happen.
Thank you for taking the time to read this.
Literacy Specialist, Rollinsford Grade School
Rollinsford, NH 03869