Recognizing Great High Schools By What They Actually Do

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For many years now, we have defined great schools as those in which scores on the state-required achievement tests are high. And the competition has been very rigorous. Schools and school districts, knowing that the overall scores on those tests will be published all over the place, do not want the embarrassment of being a lower-performing school. And so teachers are instructed to “teach to the test.” And they do.

Other Factors in Test Scores

Research across the country has shown the following:

  • Students in more affluent school districts do remarkably better on these state-mandated tests
  • Minority students, especially those in poor neighborhoods, do poorly

No surprise here. Nothing has changed since 1960 when the famous Coleman report was published, saying exactly the same thing. Only then, the test scores were based upon nationally-normed achievement tests. And the reasons for this disparity in achievement are still the same:

  • Schools in poor neighborhoods do not have the funding that schools in more affluent neighborhoods do.
  • Schools in affluent neighborhoods can attract far better teachers because salaries are higher.
  • Community resources are not as available to poor children as they are to middle-class and above children.

Seeking a New Definition of Greatness

Last year, the conversation about greatness began to change. The National Education Policy Center decided to look at schools differently, by launching a pilot program termed “Schools of Opportunity.” They took the best research on closing achievement gaps between rich and poor and found schools in Colorado and New York that were actually using the research to create their teaching and learning environments. They found the schools by asking for them to apply. Over 100 did, and 17 of them were names Schools of Opportunity, a recognition that results in money awards. “Winning” this competition was not based on current test scores, but, rather, on the schools demonstrating that students who were under-performing were improving in performance based upon research-based programs that the school had put into place.

The concept is a lot like the oft-told story of the physics teacher who continues to receive recognition because of the great performance of his students on tests. That teacher’s kids will always do well. In fact, if he had a heart attack in the middle of class, they would carry on with their learning. And yet the basic math teacher, who has the under-performing kids and who manages to raise their test scores by a healthy percentage remains unrecognized, because they are still not performing like the physics students.

Kids who have lots of opportunities by virtue of their birth have traditionally done better in school. If they struggle, they get tutors; if their composition skills are not great, they find a writing service for professional help. Poor kids must rely only on their schools and teachers for their educations. And if they improve in their composition skills because of that teacher and that school, no one notices.

The measure of a great teacher and a great school, then, is not based upon the fact that performing kids continue to perform; it is based upon under-performing kids who continue to improve. And that is what the “Schools of Opportunity” initiative is all about.

Schools of Opportunity, 2015-2016

Now that the pilot program has finished, school all over the country are invited to apply, and applications will be accepted through January 20, 2016. School can find the information for applying on the project’s website,

The Conversation is Changing

The goal of this project is clear. Schools that are closing the gap between achievers and non-achievers, that are providing true equity of education for all students, and are doing so through practices that research says are the best – developing community resources, student support systems, fair discipline practices, little-to-no tracking, and high quality professional development for teachers. In all there are 11 “best practices” that the organization wants to see in place. It is these practices that result in the highest levels of improvement of student performance.