A New Vocabulary: Why the Phrase "High Performing School" Must Simply Go (Part 3 of 4)

By , August 16, 2011 3:18 pm

Tal Bachman – She’s So High

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imageThus far, I’ve contended that the phrase "high performing school" must be extricated from the current educational debate because there is inconsistency regarding whether it refers to student achievement or student growth.

Continuing this series, today, I’ll argue that our traditional metric of student growth is still a wildly inaccurate way of measuring performance.

Unfortunately, the way that most pundits who talk about student growth as the measure of "high performance" usually winds up something like this:

In 2009, 60% of Central High School’s (CHS) 9th grade Algebra students passed the state test. In 2010, 75% of the CHS 9th grade Algebra students passed the state test. Therefore, CHS improved their student growth significantly, and thus, is a "high performing school".

The issue lies not in the fact that their year-to-year outcome data is better (it is). The issue lies in the fact that this means of measuring student growth does not account for the reality that the 2010 9th grade students are a completely different group than the 2009 9th grade students. Simply put, a metric like this one may be measuring a school’s growth in performance, but it may also be measuring a school’s changing population.

It’s a move in the right direction to talk about measuring student growth when evaluating schools, but unfortunately, the methodology mentioned above may not actually do that. A more nuanced metric is needed.

That being said, what is needed is a metric that actually measures a school’s ability to do what it sets out to do, namely to “educate youth”. Fortunately, we are actually beginning to have a conversation about a metric that may actually capture a school’s ability to do just that, “educate youth”. And for we who, as public educators, are committed to educating any and all youth that walk through our doors.

As some have no doubt, guessed already, the metric I am alluding to is “value-added” modeling (VAM). Unfortunately, the concept of VAM had only been talked about with respect to individual teachers.

Now let’s be clear. I, like many in education circles, have some issues and hesitancies with the VAM methodology, its application to teacher evaluation, and the side-effects it may cause in the now super-high-stakes testing world. I definitely think more thought, conversation, and study is needed here as we move forward. Simply put, the method is far from perfected at this point.

Yet, one piece of this VAM debate that goes un-talked about is how it could actually serve as one means to talk about what is honestly going on in schools. By framing the conversation with an attempt to gauge the “value a school adds” (which is what we’re in the business of doing), we can actually start to measure the very thing we’ve been talking about for the last decade – “school performance”.

Unfortunately, the notion of a “high performing school” being based on a school’s actual impact on student learning is far from being the standard case. The sad fact is that we have a metric (albeit imperfect), but we don’t actually mean it when we refer to “high performing schools”.

Hopefully now, it’s clear why the term “high ‘performing school” is detrimental to the conversation. Simply put,  the vast majority of the time you hear someone talking about “high performing schools”, there is no sound thought about either what they’re measuring, or how to measure it. Until this is remedied, the phrase must simply be banned.

In my next post, I’ll explore exactly what the consequences of this mis-terminology are.

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