Brian Donlon is a social studies teacher with 24 years in the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland and two children in a Montgomery elementary school. He thinks all educational institutions should be judged by how highly staffers, parents and students rate them.
I'm not sure he's right, but that doesn't matter. The new federal Every Student Succeeds Act encourages schools to move beyond test scores and add the measures Donlon favors, usually called school climate data. It has become our nation's hottest educational trend.
Donlon is not only a smart advocate for this change, but a brave one. He sent me the most recent climate ratings for all of his district's high schools and middle schools posted on the district website and — I cannot overemphasize how daring this is — ranked them accordingly. The website didn't do that. Many parents — including me — find rankings useful, but they are frowned on in polite educational circles.
Here is his list of high schools ranked by the percentage of staffers who this year agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, "Staff morale is positive in this school." I am providing each school's rank, name, percentage and its percent of low-income students (an interesting comparison because low morale often correlates with the difficulties of teaching disadvantaged children.)
1. Paint Branch, 77.9 percent, 34 percent
2. Walter Johnson, 73.4 percent, 7 percent
3. Whitman, 69.6 percent, 5 percent
4. Northwest, 68 percent, 25 percent
5. Poolesville, 64.6 percent, 6 percent
6. Einstein, 61 percent, 42 percent
7. Wootton, 59 percent, 5 percent
8. Blair, 55.4 percent, 36 percent
9. Watkins Mill, 54.6 percent, 53 percent
10. Wheaton, 51.1 percent, 49 percent
11. Damascus, 49.4 percent, 15 percent
12. Rockville, 48.6 percent, 36 percent
13. Richard Montgomery, 45.9 percent, 20 percent
14. Quince Orchard, 41.9 percent, 23 percent
15. Blake, 41.9 percent, 35 percent
16. Churchill, 39.7 percent, 5 percent
17. Northwood, 35.9 percent, 50 percent
18. Seneca Valley, 33.8 percent, 37 percent
19. Clarksburg, 32 percent, 27 percent
20. Kennedy, 30.4 percent, 51 percent
21. Sherwood, 25.4 percent, 17 percent
22. Bethesda-Chevy Chase, 23.9 percent, 11 percent
23. Magruder, 21.7 percent, 33 percent
24. Gaithersburg, 21.4 percent, 42 percent
25. Springbrook, 17.1 percent, 47 percent
Donlon told me he thinks there's high morale at some schools with lots of low-income kids because they have unusually good leaders. In the 2012-2013 school year, he said, Paint Branch ranked 18th. Then Principal Myriam Yarbrough arrived. The school rose to second place in 2013-2014, a tie for first in 2014-2015, and No. 1 by itself this year. (There were no surveys in 2015-2016.)
He said Einstein's good score reflects the leadership of Principal James Fernandez, whose work I have admired for more than a decade. Donlon said he also thinks Principals Jimmy D'Andrea at Northwest, Debra Mugge at Wheaton and Carol Goddard at Watkins Mill helped boost their schools' morale.
Neither Donlon nor I have explanations for what is happening at most schools. Opinions differ. I was surprised by the low rank of Bethesda-Chevy Chase, which seems to me well run. Jeanette Dixon suggested to me she deserved credit for Paint Branch's high 2013-2014 rating, based on a survey taken shortly after she was succeeded by Yarbrough as principal.
Survey data are tricky. If only a few staffers fill out the form, the numbers may not mean much. (Participation in this survey ranged from 36 percent to 71 percent.) Montgomery school board President Michael Durso, a legendary former principal, mentioned timing. "I've always said that if you want a negative survey, issue it right before spring break, where staff is frazzled and just hanging on," he said.
Ten states, including Maryland, have already added school climate data to their accountability systems, according to the nonprofit education policy organization Achieve Inc. Surveys of educators, parents and students will make up 10 percent of Maryland schools' ratings.
Montgomery schools Superintendent Jack Smith told me "climate surveys should be used as one of multiple measures" for school performance.
Until now they have had little influence. We will soon see if this new way of assessing schools leads to significant changes in quality, and the length of principals' tenures.