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Turning to More Than Scores to Rate Schools

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2004; Page A14

Last year's academic ratings of Rhode Island public schools showed that the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, a Providence high school, did not do very well. Its students, many from low-income families, were near the bottom of the list in math skills and writing effectiveness.

But on another page in the same book of Rhode Island statistics, the results were startlingly different. The Met, as the school is called, led the state in communicating with its students. Fifty-five percent of students said they could talk easily to staff members about personal problems, and 70 percent said that was true of academic problems, too. No other school came close.


Dennis Littky, left, co-founder of the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center in Providence, R.I., talks with learning specialist Eric Oliveras, standing, and students Jessica Brockta, Eddy Perez and Maria Garcia. Littky says many schools forget basic life skills "in their rush to cram in three sciences, three social studies, four maths and so on." (C.j. Gunther For The Washington Post)

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That feedback was a godsend to Dennis Littky, the school's director and co-founder. He has spent a tumultuous career arguing that high test scores are only part of a good school, and finally he found a state that grades schools every year on factors he considers just as important.

In his new book, "The Big Picture: Education Is Everyone's Business," the 60-year-old Littky explains what he tries to encourage at the Met: "Creativity, passion, courage and perseverence" as well as "speaking, writing and reading" through projects that engage each student's interests.

"When a kid leaves my school," he wrote in the book, "I want her to have the basic life skills that will help her get along in the adult world -- like knowing how to act in a meeting or how to keep her life and work organized." Those skills, he noted, are "basic stuff that too many schools forget in their rush to cram in three sciences, three social studies, four maths and so on."

Educators who abhor the emphasis on test scores, written into federal law by the No Child Left Behind Act, have long sought other ways to rate schools, but almost no other states have gone as far as Rhode Island. Under Peter McWalters, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education, the state surveys teachers, students and parents every year under a system known as SALT, for School Accountability for Learning and Teaching.

The survey yields ratings on factors such as parental involvement, school climate and quality of instruction, which are reported along with math and reading scores.

Many school experts praise this approach. "One of the great benefits of the SALT system is that it does go well beyond test scores," said Ron Wolk, founder of the newspaper Education Week and board chairman of the nonprofit Big Picture Co. that designed the Met.

Author and educator Deborah Meier, who created a successful public school in New York's East Harlem that de-emphasized test scores, said Rhode Island is on "the cutting edge of thinking" about building good schools. "Most approaches ignore everything we know about teaching and learning -- above all for a democratic society -- because it's inconvenient for purposes of measurement," said Meier, who is also on the Big Picture board.

But other experts say too much emphasis on parent and student opinion carries risks. "Parent satisfaction is of no interest to me," said Abigail Thernstrom, author and member of the Massachusetts state school board. "Parents are satisfied when the school has a good football team, when the principal seems 'nice,' when their kids seem to have nice friends. . . . I want to know whether the students are learning."

Willis D. Hawley, a professor emeritus of education and public affairs at the University of Maryland, said "opinion data are a useful supplement" but can hide trouble. "I studied an alternative school in New Haven [Conn.], for example, where kids loved it in no small part because they were not expected to work very hard academically," he said.

Rick Richards, the SALT project manager for Rhode Island, said the satisfaction surveys are only a small part of the assessment and improvement process. The annual reports also reveal graduation rates, instruction strength, health instruction success and absentee rates. School administrators are urged to study the results and work to improve areas where they score poorly, then check the next year's results to see how much they have improved. State-sponsored teams visit the lowest-performing schools, as well as other randomly selected schools, to make recommendations.

Richards said nearly all students complete their survey forms in a single class period. The forms sent home for parents also take less than an hour, but it has been more difficult to get them completed. Only 40.5 percent of parents of students at the Met, slightly above the state average, responded to the survey last year, said Sarah Staveley, Littky's assistant.

The 2004 edition of Quality Counts, a report on state-by-state school improvement prepared by Education Week, reported that 14 states survey teachers, parents or students on school conditions. But Erin Fox, an Education Week research associate, said only Hawaii and South Carolina come close to Rhode Island's emphasis on the annual opinion gathering.

Backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Big Picture Co. has started 18 small public schools similar to the Met around the country. The Providence school has 580 students, about 40 percent of them Hispanic, 30 percent African American and 26 percent non-Hispanic white. More than 80 percent come from low-income families and qualify for federal meal subsidies.

Littky has pursued his approach to education for more than 30 years, beginning with a project in a Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood to train parents to get involved in schools. He ran a middle school in Long Island and then moved to New Hampshire, where he became principal of a small public secondary school in the town of Winchester.

His project-oriented methods excited students, boosted attendance and increased college-going, but some community members tried, unsuccessfully, to get him fired, inspiring the 1989 book "Doc" and the 1992 TV film, "A Town Torn Apart."

He said that the math and reading scores at the Met are improving and that its attendance rate leads the state. In four years, 80 percent of Met graduates have gone to college, and 75 percent of those are still enrolled or have degrees. But he is worried about the other measures on the SALT list. For instance, even though 55 percent of his students said they felt at ease talking to a staff member about personal problems, Littky said to him the number was disappointing.

"If you had asked me, I would have said the number would be 80 percent," he said.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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