Monday, June 15, 2009

A New Way To 'Rate' Schools

During my long and arduous job hunt, I researched many school districts and schools throughout MA, RI, CT, and NH, looking for leads on the school environment, the level of commitment, respect and interest of the students, the comaraderie of the faculty and staff, and, of course, the availability of jobs (often information related to school enrollment, growing/shrinking population and/or enrollment, impending teacher retirements, school size and size history, etc. were all pertinent).

What I found were a ton of websites offering scattered, outdated, or partial information relating to one or a few of the things I felt were pertinent to my search. Concurrently, if I were a parent or new family looking to move, I would be looking for much more information on a district than what could be garnered from the websites listed. Of course, it seems the web is the fastest and most comprehensive way to discover as much as possible about a town or a school district, short of sitting down and studying the district or speaking with a few dozen townspeople, teachers and administrators, and students.

So how does a prospective teacher find out as much as possible about a district? Well, the MA Department of Education has a website listing the district profiles, which outline the demographic, enrollment, test scores, staffing, salary, etc. data for the school district, up to the most current year (2008-2009 data was on the website). This is helpful, but leaves out many crucial aspects of a school, mainly: the average class size.

I could find no website offering the average class size. As a teacher, this is very important to me, and as a student and a parent, it is dually important as no student wants to be lost in a sea of sleepy adolescents and no parent wants their child to join these ranks. Everyone wants a healthy mix, manageable and teachable class sizes, and ample opportunity for extra help, further explanation or additional projects/assignments/etc. Arguably, learning isn't as fun and interesting if there are no opportunities for discovery and appreciation of the material being presented and many research studies have found irrefutable correlations between class sizes, student memory and enthusiasm, teacher longevity and passion, and (perhaps most importantly in today's world) test scores.

There are websites which offer up the average student/teacher ratio, which is helpful in determining class sizes, but these numbers also take into account special education teachers and teacher's aides (even if any of these teachers aren't 1.0 FTE [full-time educators]). Therefore, the numbers are skewed. A student/teacher ratio of 13/1 might sound appealing since it would seem like class sizes of 13 are the norm, but a school might have classes of 20-30 with a number like that, given the number of special education classes with fewer than 13 students in them, and with the addition of teacher's aides of classroom aide's which also lower the ratio.

One school district I investigated has a student/teacher ratio of 19/1, which was above the MA state average. After calling the school to get some further information, I spoke with a representative from the high school who informed me average class sizes for seniors averaged around 20-25 (not bad by any means), but average sizes for freshmen classes could average up to 40 students per class (and one of her classes that year was at 43).

For both a teacher and a parent, this is necessary information that, although it might be a turn-off to some, needs to be presented in some way to give a proper portrayal of the type of atmosphere of the classroom. Does this mean the classrooms are filled to the brim? Students without desks or proper materials? Does it mean there is a burgeoning influx of freshmen each year and a high drop-out rate, which offsets the average class size?

With so many questions there is only one thing for certain: 19/1 is incorrect at best, and negatively misleading at worst.

For some teachers, demographics (racial makeup, socio-economic status, two-parent households, amount of population with at least a diploma/bachelor's degree, etc.) is extremely important in determining a district to teach in. As a young (and arguably too optimistic and passionate) teacher, I could care less about such factors as the potential for success and unconfined achievement is inherent in every student, regardless of these factors, and is often used as an excuse or a crutch by people (sometimes the students' themselves) who look for explanation behind a negative or skewed number, and look for somewhere to cast blame. Pulling up one's self by one's own bootstraps is arguably the most noble or virtuous ideal in our current society, as rags to riches is still glorified tremendously, perhaps even above middle-class to riches. The American Dream is alive and well still (despite the recession), but its shape has changed, its ideals are shifting, and its parameters are constantly jostling for proper position. But this is another entry entirely.

So how can a school district/town properly portray their schools and get all the important or necessary information out to the public, to prospective students/families moving to town, to students deciding on public vs. private school, to teachers looking for their first jobs or for better positions? The answer is: the internet.

Websites such as a offer a lot of information not readily found elsewhere: test scores from year-to-year (to determine if improvement is present or a plan for it has been implemented recently), enrollment size, spending per pupil, advanced placement exams, school demographics, and, most importantly and uniquely, parent reviews and ratings.

While ratings can be arbitrary--a student has a bad day and comes home and rates the school as a 1 star out of 5--the parent reviews, student reviews, and faculty reviews are very helpful, informative and offer a great glimpse into the types of relationships between parents, administrators and teachers. It is arguably the most unique and important tool in discovering how your child will like a district, how you will be respected as a parent, and what type of education and enviroment your child will experience. For prospective teachers, it's important to understand the current mentality and attitude in the district, the school and how it has changed (either for better or worse) over the past few years. is a great tool that, I believe, students should be urged to use at the end of the school year--to provide their overall vibe and experience for the year, what they thought of their teachers, if they felt they learned a lot, and perhaps, what can be done to improve the school(s). There is nothing like hearing from the mouths of babes what has to be improved and what needs to be improved to really cause a town to rally behind improvements, changes or ratifications to schools, budgets, etc.

Another important and relevant tool is Wikipedia. Seeing if a school has a webpage on Wikipedia is helpful in determining the technological prowess of a school district. Often, a school district will have an outside company or a technology specialist do their websites, but often Wikipedia entries are created by faculty/staff or students themselves to chronicle and display their school. It shows pride and thanks, positivity (or negativity, depending on what's on the page), and offers another glimpse into the school behind the numbers--especially if its a large and comprehensive Wikipedia webpage, and includes graphics, or includes some type of information not found elsewhere.

Faculty/staff webpages, blogs (ahem, ahem), etc. really convey a sense of wherewithal between the students and faculty and show the gap between classroom teaching and technology is beginning to close. What is more important to implement than technology? With most of the US population now 'online' in one way or another, is it surprising or depressing that 25% of schools in the US are not using the internet, are not internet-ready or do not even have a computer lab? (A story in the NY Times a few months ago chronicled a school in Mississippi that has been struggling to get a computer for years and has finally gotten one--a 1999 Gateway computer, unable to connect to the internet [which is also not available in the area], and printer. The students are finally able to type papers and use the built-in encyclopedias on the computer as an additional resource. While some may argue that it is simply a sign of the region the school is located in--disadvantaged, rural or isolated--the story continued on to say that more than 20% of the town has both a computer and internet access.)

The Bottom Line

Teachers and administrators need to do everything they can to promote the schools via new technology: internet pages and blogs (both personal and classroom), online assignments available long after the class recesses for summer, a comprehensive and inventive school webpage, and a determination to listen to students and parents and attempt to solve problems from year to year to increase the cohesiveness between both parties.

Parents need to vocalize or electronically express their concerns, but also their appreciations. Stating on that your daughter wasn't satisfied with her education in sixth grade says nothing about any improvements that she experienced in seventh or eighth grade, and displays nothing about any progress that may have been made by that teacher or that district when your son came through the school three years later. An entry that states concerns were met with answers, and solutions have been implemented, progress has been made, or you can tell that there is a caring and determined staff despite uncontrollable factors or budgets, is key to asserting the successes of a district, not simply its shortcomings.

Students need to truthfully and, without bias as much as possible, reflect what they subjectively thought about their teachers, administrators, school, etc. and what can be done to improve it. I will urge my students to create a Wikipedia page and add any historical information they can find about the school and/or town, to insert any successes (both personal and school-wide) to the page, to offer information about faculty and staff, and to continue to explore the opportunities the internet provides to thoughtfully and realistically portray their school so that any necessary changes or augmentations can begin as soon as possible.

The technology or graphic design classes in the school need to take over the school website and make it flashy, including the latest java applications, etc., and need to give a comprehensive overview of the school: include a separate webpage for each teacher with their name, photo, classes taught, educational information, and either a statement about themselves or their educational philosophy. What could be more helpful or important than knowing that? I know, as a former high school student, this would have helped me when I was in high school to avoid a certain teacher who believed that rote lecturing was the best method to teach. She refused to allow discussions, was not available for extra help, and had an educational philosphy which didn't appeal to me or work for me--as a result, I ended up switching out of her class halfway through the year and entering another class (same level, same period of the day) down the hall, and saw my grades improve by one and a half letters quarter-over-quarter.

1) Create/update reviews, Wikipedia webpage,, etc.
2) Have graphic design classes update school webpage to be more comprehensive, colorful and appealing.
3) Urge all faculty and staff to have some type of online presence to bridge the technology gap
4) Create a comprehensive online presence to address needs, to display all necessary information, and create a platform for ratifications, discussions and improvements.
5) Encourage cohesiveness and camaraderie and promote discussion between the different parties.
6) Get students more involved, interested and aware of their place in the school and the world.
6) TK.

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