New Year, Same Call for Perspective on Public School Success

Green Dot student raises his hand in class at Ánimo Leadership Charter High School

It’s a new year and I’m still holding onto the same resolution I had last year — and the year before that, and the year before that. As a public education leader, it is my privilege and duty to commit every year to the service and advancement of all students. In that vein, I feel it’s imperative that I use this commemoration of the new year to pause and consider an aspect of our education system that has long troubled me: The way we currently measure student performance hurts students, teachers, even you and me.

This week, The74 published an op-ed of mine in which I explain why it’s so problematic that we don’t consider growth in the way we measure student success and school effectiveness. Right now, we decide if a school is doing a good job by testing whether students are meeting grade-level standards imposed by the state.

Although this might sound straightforward, or even reasonable, it doesn’t tell the whole story and the effect is dangerous: we end up ignoring student ability and shortchange the very kids we are looking to help. Because when you stop to consider the thousands of students across America who live in historically under-resourced communities, and sometimes enter their schools two, three, four grade levels behind, nothing feels straightforward or reasonable about a system of measurement built by and for folks who have never known what it means to play catch-up.

Let’s not forget that there are systemic factors that impact a student’s success, some of which have nothing to do with what happens inside the classroom. And still we are treating all students the same. And still we use a test score, a snapshot in time, to tell us if a school is effectively teaching its students. We ask if a student is on par with where he or she should be, without ever questioning whether our imposed conditions for success can be fairly applied to such an unfair playing field.

The consequences of this oversight are detrimental to all and cannot be overstated. Schools lose funding even when their students show sizable growth in their learning. This means those schools can’t afford effective teachers in the communities that need them the most. It means less programs for students to broaden their education in the arts, music, culture. Students lose in this system, to say nothing of the teachers who worked their butts off to achieve the kind of growth in their students’ outcomes that any educator should be proud of.

Green Dot’s Ánimo Phillis Wheatley Charter Middle School

Imagine a student who enters the fifth grade three reading levels behind. Then, in just one year, the student tests at a fourth-grade reading level. This means in just one year that student jumped up two grades. It also means that because she failed to test at or above her fifth-grade level’s expected performance standard, the school is failing her. How can a school or its teachers who helped the student jump up two grade levels in one year be failing? Moreover, how can a student who achieved that jump be considered failing?

Although these might feel like rhetorical questions, sadly they are not. Of course that school is not failing that student, and of course that student is not failing. Both the institution and the user are making the most of a challenging situation. In fact, one could argue that they embody the power public education can have in a person’s life. If you get a kid in a good school, he or she can grow by leaps and bounds — no matter the student’s point of origin.

When we overlook student growth, we are nullifying the hard work of teachers and educators who get kids back on the path to success. What’s worse, we are nullifying the hard work of students who are beating the odds and, in many ways, setting the standard for what it means to be successful.

Right now, how we talk about and understand student and school performance poses an existential threat to our public school system writ large because it undermines the very premise of public schools: to educate and empower all children freely and fairly. We should be focusing all our attention — in 2018 and beyond — on student growth. How far a student advances in her learning — relative to where she started — says much more about her performance and her school’s success than our current system allows.

I got into public education because I whole-heartedly believe in its credo. Public schools make our country more democratic, more powerful when they operate as great equalizers — when they serve all students equitably and fairly. But that cannot happen when we operate in a system that disadvantages any student that falls behind.

Stay tuned for more dialogue and discussion about how we can start embracing a growth-focused culture in public education and start fulfilling our promise as public school leaders and educators. I’ll be here beating the drums for change — will you join me?

Marco Petruzzi is President and CEO of Green Dot Public Schools