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The Making of an Excellent School: Not So Easy, Not So Fast

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I am a daily follower of Diane Ravitch's blog. She calls it "A site to discuss better education for all" and she posts at least five or six times a day, every day. I am in awe; she is indefatigable. In addition to putting in her own two cents -- she is determined to save the institution of public education, essential to a democracy, which is under attack on all sides by "reform" strategies such as charter school formation and vouchers -- she is an aggregator, highlighting many excellent posts by others. Following her has been an eye-opening experience for me, a somewhat literal person, who belongs to no institution. I did not understand how something as benignly written as the Common Core State Standards could be hi-jacked by political and corporate powers to create schools that are now submersed in mind-numbing test prep and fear in the name of "accountability."

As a children's science book author I have been shielded from politics, even the kind that occurs in a small organization such as a school. Back in the days when I was a teacher, in the late 1960s, teaching was fun. As an author, I get to do the fun stuff when writing my books and when guiding my grandchildren's educations. So I have limited experience working on teams. I emerged from this role briefly in 2011 when I was invited to join the board of a charter school in its second year of operation.

The K-5 elementary school I became a part of is a science/technology school primarily for minority kids. The attendees are determined by a lottery. For the most part, the school has funding to hire staff for children with special needs but not for the most extreme cases.

The founding board consisted of six very committed, dedicated people including professional educators who jumped through hoops for five years before they finally won the charter. It was only when this happened that they could move forward with finding a space, renovating the space, and hiring a staff. There was plenty of money, about $13,000 per student, although a big chunk of it went to the consulting firm that had worked on spec to help them get the charter and now it was payday as they continued to advise. The board also had the policy of paying competitive salaries for staff. I was invited to join the board (an unpaid position) during their second year of operation because of my expertise as a science educator. I came to know and care a great deal about this school. I saw that even with enough money and the best intentions how very difficult it is to create an excellent school from scratch.

Now in their fourth year, they are getting there but it takes time and it takes the right people to create a school culture where teachers are empowered so that learning takes place. The founding board had a clear vision of what they wanted to create and they are the kind of people who should start a school. I'm not sure they knew what they were getting into when they began the process. I left the board because they were not yet in position to use me for curriculum and instruction. (I voted on various construction improvements to the school and administrative issues, not my forte.) How is the school doing when it comes to testing? They have a way to go. But the atmosphere in the school is happy, the parents are very involved, and they finally have an excellent staff.

Many years ago (1986) I wrote an article for Parents magazine called A,B,C, or F, Test Your Child's School. The paragraphs that date it are the ones on standardized testing:

"A school's performance is often evaluated by the results of standardized tests given to children in certain years such as third, fourth, and fifth grades. These tests purport to evaluate skills and achievement in subject areas with respect to national and local norms. What is really being measured is test performance. Taking these tests too seriously can be a big red flag. If a school gears teaching to these tests by drilling students on the bits of knowledge needed to fill in the blanks, bored, turned-off kids are a certain outcome. Ask what the school's policy is on standardized testing. Do teachers end up teaching to the test? Know that the best schools take testing in stride and have faith that good educational practices produce fine results on tests.

"At best, standardized tests are guidelines for academic standards, not an educational objective in themselves. A child's performance on a test is a valuable measure only when there is a wide discrepancy between his or her score and class room performance. This is particularly true when a child's scores are high, but classroom performance is poor. The test indicates that the child is capable of doing well, and the discrepancy is a clue to look for psychological reasons for the problem. It is reasonable to ask a principal the school's national standings on these tests. Beware the administrator who puts too much stock in them."

If you read the entire article, you get a clue that creating and maintaining an excellent school is not a walk in the park. The recent cavalier closing of so-called failing schools and vouchers for school "choice" could be throwing out some valuable babies with the bath water. The so-called "reform" movement is having a ripple effect across the country. The most hopeful document pertaining to our schools is one that Diane Ravitch gave a shout-out to recently: It is James Meredith's American Child's Education Bill of Rights.