By Megan Quaile
In the education world, we use a lot of buzzwords like “personalized learning” or “student success” or “accountability and transparency” when describing a seemingly simple concept: what makes a good public school. For more than a decade I have been working in public education, serving as a school leader and advocate for students across the country. But it really didn’t take long for me to figure out which qualities best qualify a school as “high-quality.”
By embracing the powerful values of equity and service, high-quality schools are advancing the notion that public schools are America’s great equalizers — they uplift every child equally so that she or he can overcome any inherited obstacle to achieve their dreams.
That might sound lofty, and it is. But it’s also very doable. We’ve experienced our fair share of failures along the way, but we’ve committed to learn from each failure, and have picked up some valuable lessons along the way. The truth is, there is no secret sauce to operating a high-quality public school. Rather, there are a handful of ingredients that can be replicated in any public school setting.
1. Achievement matters, but growth matters most.
Student achievement isn’t a destination — it’s a journey. Public schools need to embrace the idea that their primary job is not to get their students past a certain benchmark. Instead, their job is to encourage as much growth and learning in a student as possible. This is particularly true when it comes to serving diverse student populations. Not all students come from the same backgrounds that afford them the same opportunities to learn and succeed. Therefore, schools need to meet students where they are and measure them by how far they advance in their learning. A high-quality public school gives a student performing two grade levels behind the same attention and resources that they need to succeed as a student performing at their own grade level. This is educational equity. This is what makes a school high-quality.
2. Focus, even when innovation calls.
It’s easy to be attracted to the newest education technology or technique promising a fast track to student achievement. Some innovative classrooms have shown promising results, but just as many haven’t, which is why high-quality schools master the basics — just like we ask our students to do. This could translate into making sure every teacher receives relevant and effective professional development, that curriculum is rigorously aligned to standards, and that students receive enrichment opportunities to supplement their core courses. It also means providing services that support students’ social and emotional needs, partnering with the community, and teaching behavioral expectations, especially to adults. Most importantly, high-quality schools remain focused by tracking data on multiple fronts and listening to what it says.
3. Be honest. Be bold. Be joyful.
In any school setting, students are always watching adults as a reflection of how they should behave. If we want students to see massive gains, then we have to model an attitude that helps them achieve those gains. The first way we can grow is by admitting where we are, and being honest with our data, even if we don’t like what it says. A sober look at data is the first step at improvement. The next step requires making bold decisions. School leaders and teachers must ask themselves: “Would I put my own child in this school?” If the answer is no (again, be honest), then it’s time to make bold moves toward creating the kind of school that carves pathways to opportunity for all students. This can be a anxiety-inducing endeavor, which is why school systems and leaders need to celebrate each small win along the way. Students will reflect the joy, or the pessimism, of the adults around them.
4. Write your story, or someone else will.
In an education environment focused on absolute outcomes, as opposed to measuring how much a student has grown within a school year, it’s easy to be labeled ineffective. But high-quality schools have markers for success and are able to articulate their progress against those markers. They define leading indicators of growth in academic outcomes and school culture, both formative and summative. Then they teach the school community — staff, students, parents, community members — why these indicators are important.
5. Remember your why and remember it often.
Making a school high quality for all students, particularly in communities with diverse populations, requires discipline, focus, and relentless pursuit of what’s best for students. Such an endeavor might entail some tough conversations and long nights, which can take a toll on even the most seasoned educators. This is why collecting a portfolio of stories that bring a team’s focus back to the heart of this work is so important. Strong leaders and strong teams keep sight of why they show up to work every day, fully present and ready to give students the type of attention and excellence we expect from them.
At the end of the day, buzzwords cannot distract from the undeniable need for better understanding around how we can best serve our kids in school. Learning the elements of a high-quality public school is a great first step, but ultimately, we need a continuous dialogue that seeks to honestly address how we can improve our system of public education across the board. It is no longer enough to accept status quo thinking — buzzwords and all. The conversation starts now.
The author is the Chief Growth officer of Green Dot Public Schools.