If the federal, state, and local governments continue to place so much weight on standardized test scores as indicators of education progress and success at the national, state, and local levels, then they should be forced to publish any data associated with academic outcomes alongside other indicators of a child’s wellbeing. We know, and have known for a long time, that academic achievement is highly dependent on other indicators of well-being, such as socioeconomic status. There are other indicators as well. The OECD, the organization that brought us PISA scores which for critics of public schools act as the bellwether for school success, recognizes that the well being of children encompasses more than test scores and, therefore, publishes rankings on material well-being, housing and environment, health and safety, risk behavior, educational well-being, and quality of school life. Of course, systemic educational reformers in the U.S. only want to focus on data from standardized test scores.
We know the ramifications of poverty on the well-being of children. However, we’ve adopted a “no excuses” mentality for teachers, and like to assert that teachers can overcome any and all of the challenges a child brings with him/her to the classroom. But teachers cannot. Teachers can make a noble effort, but they simply cannot overcome poverty and the structural challenges that impede the academic growth of so many children. Any amount of disaggregating data for student subgroups does not tell the whole story and does not provide a complete picture of a teacher’s worth.
The publication of school, district, and state education report cards may be well intentioned as a means of providing data and information about how well schools and teachers are doing. However, we need to ensure that report cards about a school district, individual school, or individual teacher include all relevant information that truly reflects the lives of their students in order to meet the needs of those students Therefore, I suggest that we expand the report card to include the following dimensions on the well-being of the children served by schools and teachers. In many cases, this data already exists and is used by businesses to make decisions about where to build factories, relocate offices, or open stores. Let’s use this data meaningfully to affect real change in the lives of our children:
- What is the average income of the families living in the community served by the school?
- What is the employment rate for the families living in the community served by the school? Are there jobs available that pay a living wage?
- What are the crime statistics for the community? I’ve worked in high crime neighborhoods. I know how impactful it can be for children who witness or experience crime and are traumatized. Is it safe for children to play outside in the community? Do they have to navigate drug dealers, gangs, and criminal activity once they leave the front door of their homes?
- What is the availability of high-quality affordable healthcare for children and families in the community?
- What types of high quality affordable childcare are available for working families in the community?
- What types of preschools are available and what percentage of families send their children to preschool?
- Is there a public library in the community, is it open on weekends, and how many books do they have available?
- What kind of programs are available for children on weekends and after school?
- How many parents attend functions at the school, in particular, parent-teacher conferences? This is information teachers could make available and is highly relevant in light of teacher accountability. For each class, what percentage of parents attend parent-teacher conferences? This is a fair point if you’re intent on holding teachers accountable for student performance on test scores.
- What types of grocery stores are available within the community? Are fresh fruits and vegetables and fresh meats readily available at a price families in the community can afford?
- Are the homes children live in safe? If their families rent homes and apartments, are they well-maintained?
- How do children get to school? If they walk to school, what does the community look like through their eyes? Do they feel safe? Do they have to navigate through crime ridden streets, afraid of being assaulted or bullied? Do they have to cross busy streets on their own? If they ride buses, how long is the ride? Are they already tired by the time they get to school? Do they feel safe at the bus stop while waiting for the bus?
- What is the governance structure of the school/school district? Are school board members elected by the community to reflect the needs and wishes of the community? Or is the school board appointed to reflect the needs and wishes of people in positions of power far removed from the community — like governors, mayors, or private for-profit or nonprofit charter school organizations?
That’s my list. Maybe you have other suggestions. I watched the ESEA reauthorization hearings last week. I am unconvinced that we’re going to be released from the hyper-focus on standardized test scores. Lawmakers are intent on making them the mainstay of education policy and we may have to live with that for at least the next generation of school children. However, we should insist that test score data is balanced with data that reflects the lives of children and the communities in which they live. Systemic education reformers love data; but let’s make the data meaningful. Let’s acknowledge that the life of a child doesn’t begin on the first day they enter school, nor does it end the minute the bell rings at the end of the school day.