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What Defines a Great School?

Having worked in education for more than thirty years, I often hear parents proclaim their child attends a great school, while others lament that their school falls short. My first thought is, “How do you know? I often ask the parent if their school has a stated mission statement and core values. Do they believe the school is living up to the mission and values? How do we really know? What are the metrics? There is an old adage - What gets measured, gets done.

Currently, North Carolina evaluates its public schools on one thing: a battery of standardized test scores. Each year the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) gives every school in the state a letter grade (A - F) based on student test performance. The majority of these tests are designed to assess two areas: 1) whether a student performs at grade level in reading comprehension and mathematics (what is called “proficiency” or “achievement”), and 2) whether an individual student is demonstrating academic “growth” over time (usually defined in years).  

Is it working?  

Many political and educational leaders across our state believe the current system for evaluating public schools is broken. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt (a Republican) believes the model is flawed because it overemphasizes student test scores, while not accounting for other important ways schools prepare students for success beyond high school. Truitt can envision the model including other measures - not solely test scores.

What might be some other measures to assess whether a school is good quality?  In an age of rising violence on campus, what about including an annual safety audit?  What about a metric to measure student or parent community service or volunteerism, or attendance, or the extent of disciplinary infractions?  Schools could even review parent or student survey results, with questions focusing on whether the school is fulfilling its mission and instilling values.  What about including a writing component?  All in all, there are a host of factors parents could agree on that define a great school. Creating metrics to assess these factors is the important work of DPI.  I applaud Truitt and her team at DPI for renewed efforts to examine what makes a great school.           

At Union Academy, we are a nationally-recognized school of character.  We believe character development and community service are as important as academic performance. Our holistic mission is to develop the whole child.  We prepare students for college and life by teaching a curriculum that both prepares them for standardized tests as well as what it means to become a responsible adult.  Developing soft skills in our students is fundamental to our mission at UA.  And we seek to measure all of that. 

Are standardized tests vital in N.C. public education? Yes, especially to help our underserved Black and Hispanic students have a better chance for success in college and life.  However, a school -which is a community of students, parents and educators - is so much more than the sum of its students’ test scores. 

North Carolina should expand its thinking as to what makes a great school.