An Opportunity to Promote Real Quality in Schools

This is a critical time for everyone interested in quality in schools. For some years now, the Federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has been heavily focused on “egg candling” schools by comparing school-wide absolute scores on tests. Experienced educators predicted that this would fail because, as W. Edwards Deming showed in his practical and applied research, real quality is represented by continuous improvement in learning by individual students rather than by school-wide test scores. As we have marched toward more and more schools being labeled as “failing” based on absolute test scores not meeting annual yearly progress (AYP) targets, some legislative leaders have finally proposed changing the focus to continuous improvement by individual students rather than using AYP targets. Depending upon the details that evolve from a proposal now released by the Senate Committee on Education, this could lead to a very constructive improvement in learning in most schools. This article encourages everyone, educators and parents and business leaders who understand the great work of Deming, to get involved in shaping the details of the change.

First, everyone needs to understand the fundamental flaw in the current ESEA law. It focuses on numbers or scores that are not even comparable rather than on individual learning progress. Students in a specific grade (3, 8, or 10) are pushed or “used” to achieve test scores that will exceed an arbitrary score range on a grade level test. Many individual students are discouraged by a category label applied to them at this point, especially if they have been learning and progressing. Then, different students often with different learning backgrounds, learning rates and styles, and learning problems who enter the grade in the following year are expected to achieve an even higher score range on the test. Higher scores are then often interpreted by the media or the public as “improvement” even though the tests were applied to completely different students apparently on the assumption that one group of students is just like another (like identical widgets passing by on an assembly line). While school scores can certainly profit from individual student growth, the year to year school-wide grade comparisons are completely invalid as a measure of the true purpose of a school – – continuous improvement in the learning of each individual student. The right comparisons are not being made by the public even though scores can and in many cases are being used properly by schools.

As the AYP labeling is abolished, schools can be encouraged instead to concentrate even more on individual growth like this:

  1. What percentage and which common core curriculum standards does Johnny X achieve in grade 3? Based on that data, how do we now help Johnny to improve his learning?
  2. What percentage and which correlated common core standards does Johnny X (not some different student) achieve in grade 8 (or an in between grade based on local tests)? How successful were we in helping Johnny X improve? What will our new plan be for him between now and the next assessment?

In this way, we would be measuring “value added” and giving parents the best information without distraction of a misleading focus on school AYP. What counts is how much we are helping an individual student grow against common standards. If the Federal law emphasizes this and initially points out the fallacy of the different student AYP approach, misleading comparisons will be reduced. Some of the most responsible and sophisticated media folks would even work with individual schools to show the quality of the value added continuous improvement programs. For example, I worked with an optional high school that accepted between 30% and 50% of students with previous learning problems based primarily on low reading skills; some local school districts sending enrollees to us retained only 15% to 17% with learning problems for their own ninth grade programs. In our school, a continuous improvement focus and individualized instruction helped those with low reading skills grow the equivalent of 3 to 4 grade levels per year on standardized tests; most of students were then ready for a 10th grade state test. If someone in a sending school district area with slightly higher 10th grade test scores inadvertently misinformed interested and successful local students about not electing the option of my school on the basis of those scores, local newspaper reporters were quite willing to publish the truth underlying the misleading comparison. The truth gave a very talented faculty full credit for their teaching success and allowed us to enroll a full spectrum of learners to provide a quality environment to everyone.

If the details of a new ESEA law abolish AYP, focus on valued added to individual students under common core standards, encourage the type of continuous improvement systems proven successful by W. Edwards Deming, and ensure that states and local districts rather than a far removed local government control evaluation standards, real quality can blossom in more schools. ACT NOW to ask your U.S. Senators and Representative to support these changes with strong bipartisan support in the coming months and to resist other directions that special interest groups will propose.