What You Don’t Know About Your School Can Hurt You

by Jeanne Bernish on August 10, 2012

I had coffee with a friend a few years ago and the subject of a local elementary school came up in conversation. “Our principal said (insert school name) is the best school in the district,” my friend claimed. Okay, I’ll bite. Best in what? I knew that the academic ranking of that particular school was the worst in its district. By every measure deemed by the state to be an important indicator of success, this particular school ranked at or near the bottom. So how was it that the building principal could make such a claim? More importantly, how is it that the rank and file of parents sending their children to that school bought the notion that they were the best – even though published building-level report cards stated otherwise?

I think the answer is that parents want to believe their neighborhood school is the best at something. Our national competitive nature demands it. In the upper grades it may be sports – but in K-6, parents want to believe that their children are getting the best possible preparation for the world that awaits them.  Not only are the futures of  dewey-eyed progeny at stake, but home values and neighborhood bragging rights are, too.

And school administrators can plant the illusion of excellence simply by creating their own definition of greatness (e.g. we are the best in: square feet per student, jump rope competitions, raising money, etc.) and parents, taxpayers, homeowners actually start to believe it – because they want to believe it. Which is why I hold little hope in the results of true academic assessment – and international comparisons – driving real change in our schools.

“If parents do not know, they will not demand, as consumers, a high quality of educational service. They will just say the school my kids are going to is as good as the school I went to.” Andreas Schleicher, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (coordinators of the PISA international assessment)

Really, who dives deeply into these topics? Although I admire and totally see the necessity of internationally normed assessments – who beyond the academics creating the studies understand the caveats and exceptions that filter in to these results? As predictable as swallows to Capistrano, PISA results are published, pols and educators wring their hands in dramatic fashion and education writers brush up on the latest and greatest innovation in the works that will solve all our competitive problems.
In execution, the rare parent who points and exclaims that the emperor has no clothes eventually goes away. Stakeholders who have the data and understand how high or low the local definition of excellence is set either advocate for change or collapse in exhaustion at the high wall of resistance to change they must climb. Sorry to sound so glum – but there you have it. And to think all of this was prompted by Thomas Friedman’s column “Average is Over, Part II.” Far from it – average is what we’ve got. But I’ve heard it is the best “average” in the world.


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