Author Archives: Bonnie O'Keefe

GreatSchools Ratings Have a Lot in Common with State and Local Ratings — for Better or Worse

Last Thursday the education world was all a-twitter about an article and analysis on GreatSchools, a widely used nonprofit school rating organization whose 1-10 ratings often show up at the top of search results and on popular real estate websites. Their ratings are known to sway families’ decisions on where to live and send their kids to school.

Photo via Justine Warrington on Flickr

The main thrust of Matt Barnum and Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee’s piece in Chalkbeat is that GreatSchools’ substantial reliance on test score proficiency as a measure of school quality favors schools whose students enter already performing at a higher level. Since these students are more likely to be white and high-income, they argue the GreatSchools ratings may end up exacerbating segregation by influencing families’ housing and school decisions. 

These very same criticisms often come up in debates about local or state school ratings and how best to use test scores in general. In the conversation below, the authors of Bellwether’s recent report and website on school performance frameworks (SPFs) discuss the findings of the GreatSchools report, and how the strengths and weaknesses of GreatSchools’ approach compares to state and local school ratings.

Bonnie O’Keefe:

GreatSchools’ data comes from states, and their metrics and methods aren’t too dissimilar from what we see in many local school performance frameworks, state ESSA ratings, and the No Child Left Behind ratings that came before. Much like many states and districts, GreatSchools has changed their rating system over time as more, better data became available. So the idea that ratings based even in part on proficiency disadvantage schools serving higher-need students isn’t unique to GreatSchools. In fact, a nearly identical critique sunk Los Angeles’ proposed school ratings before they were even created. What is unique is how widely used, influential, and maybe misunderstood GreatSchools’ ratings are among families. 

Brandon Lewis:

The biggest difference I see between the GreatSchools’ school rating system and the local school performance frameworks (SPFs) we profiled for our project is that they have different goals and purposes. GreatSchools is a widely viewed public-facing tool designed to communicate that organization’s particular perspective on school quality. Unlike local SPFs, GreatSchools’ ratings are not tied to any specific goals for students or schools and cannot be used to make any district-level decisions. 

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A School Performance Framework Could Be Huge for Los Angeles. Why Is the District Backtracking?

This week, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) could miss a big opportunity for students, families, and district leaders.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states must create a report card for every single one of their schools. Unfortunately, California’s approach to reporting school data under ESSA is both overly complex and lacking in key information. That’s why the LAUSD board took the first steps last year to create its own school performance framework (SPF), which could provide families, educators, and taxpayers more and better information about how well schools are serving students. Unfortunately the board now appears to be backtracking on that commitment.

An SPF is an action-oriented tool that gathers multiple metrics related to school quality and can be used by system leaders, principals, and/or parents to inform important decisions like how to intervene in a low-performing school, where to invest in improvements, and which school to choose for a child.

As my colleagues wrote in their 2017 review of ESSA plans, California’s complicated system relies on “a color-coded, 25-square performance grid for each indicator” and “lacks a method of measuring individual student growth over time.” In 2018, LAUSD board members tried to improve upon the state’s approach by passing a resolution to create their own SPF. In a statement from the board at that time, members intended that LAUSD’s SPF would serve as “an internal tool to help ensure all schools are continuously improving,” and “share key information with families as to how their schools are performing.”

A local SPF could provide a common framework for district leaders and families to understand performance trends across the district’s 1,100 plus schools in a rigorous, holistic way. Without usable information on school quality, families are left to make sense of complex state websites, third party school ratings, and word of mouth. And unlike the state’s current report card, a local report card could include student growth data, one of the most powerful ways to understand a school’s impact on its students. Student-level growth data tells us how individual students are progressing over time, and can control for demographic changes or differences among students. Continue reading

Building a School Performance Framework for School Improvement? Lessons From New York City.

Dr. Melissa Morris, Principal of Shaw Heights Elementary School.

Dr. Melissa Morris, Principal of Shaw Heights Elementary School. Photo Source: Shaw Air Force Base.

It’s easy to say a school performance framework (SPF) will be useful to school leaders, but it’s another thing entirely to actually design an SPF with school continuous improvement as the primary purpose. In fact, some of the design features that might make an SPF more useful to principals on a day-to-day basis might mean the SPF is less useful for families and system leaders. 

In our recent project available at SchoolPerformanceFrameworks.org, my co-authors and I identified school-level continuous improvement as one of three primary “use cases” that could shape SPF design decisions. A “use case” is a concept borrowed from the world of technology and design meant to help designers (in this case, local education leaders) think through their users’ needs. The other two use cases for SPFs are “system management and accountability” and “family and community information.” We found that too many SPFs try to fulfill multiple uses at once, without clearly thinking through priorities and potential tradeoffs.

An SPF designed for school continuous improvement is meant for principals, school academic leaders, and the front-line district staff supporting them to shape school operations, culture, staffing, and student experience — all in service of better student outcomes. An SPF built primarily for this purpose should allow principals to understand how they are performing relative to district goals, diagnose key strengths and weaknesses, and flag any potential problems. What would an SPF for this purpose include in terms of design? Continue reading

Three Lessons From Our New Briefs on School Transportation and Safety, Choice, and the Environment

Safe, reliable, and equitable school transportation is essential for a strong education system. But too often transportation is sidelined in education policy discussions.

yellow sign reading "SCHOOL BUS STOP AHEAD"

This is a major oversight. Here’s why:

  1. Strong school transportation systems are absolutely essential for equitable access to schools. The average distance between students and schools has grown since the days of walking uphill both ways to school, and we know that low-income families are less likely to have access to a car or the scheduling flexibility to accompany students to and from school every day. Without safe, reliable school transportation solutions — whether that’s the bus, walking, biking, public transit, or something else — low-income students are more likely to be absent or late from school, spend more time on school commutes, or be put in unsafe situations.
  2. Building strong school transportation systems will require new kinds of collaboration that go outside of schools’ typical partners. For example, the success of electric school bus pilots so far has depended on extensive collaboration among willing schools and districts, bus vendors, transportation operators, and public utilities. And for safe walking and biking routes to school to thrive, infrastructure investments from local leaders and public works agencies are essential. Forging these new partnerships will extend school transportation opportunities, but might also add more to schools’ plates.
  3. New technologies and methods, like alternatively fueled buses and data-driven methods for mapping school commutes, show a great deal of potential. However, some of the most effective solutions are also costly, and the resources available for school transportation in many states and communities are simply insufficient to bring promising innovations to scale without compromising on educational essentials. Ultimately, substantial, focused investment will be necessary to bring about real innovations in the world of school transportation.

This week, Bellwether releases three new policy briefs to make sure school transportation gets the attention it deserves in wider education policy conversations: Continue reading

Media: “Why, and How, Kids Should Walk or Bike to School” in Next City

For the past 20 years, only about 10% of students walked or biked to school. Back in 1969, that number was over 40%.

I have an op-ed today in Next City making the case for dedicated infrastructure and investment to help more students walk or bike to school and reap environmental, safety, and health benefits. But it will take real work for communities:

In order for more students and families to choose active forms of school transportation safely and confidently, they need support and dedicated infrastructure investments in and around schools. There are a few relatively low-cost solutions communities can implement to get started.

[…] More comprehensive solutions involve wider infrastructure changes like protected bike lanes, traffic-calming measures, and curb extensions to make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists of all ages. Success can start at the school level, but local and state governments need to partner in this effort to really shift the walking and biking environment for students.

Read the full piece at Next City and learn more about how school transportation impacts the environment and student safety in our new policy briefs out today.