Great Schools has done a fantastic job providing a user friendly experience for parents to rate their local schools. It’s even started integrating with websites like Zillow to help home buyers avoid bad schools. However, can a school’s worth be boiled down to just one number?
Parents want to know their child’s school is going to provide a “great” education. As a teacher, I have often been asked, “How can you tell if a school is good?” As I parent, I often hear, “That school has such bad ratings!” But what does that actually mean?
Currently I am living in Winston-Salem, so I am going to use some schools in my own city. Let’s look at an elementary school that ranks right in the middle.
Watch me interact with their website here:
What Does My School Rating Mean?
Sherwood Forest Elementary is ranked a 5/10. That means it’s a decent school to attend. If you notice, parents typically have reviewed this school positively, and their test scores receive a 10/10! At an initial glance, this school looks like it’s kicking butt!
Now let’s look at the equity score. that’s ranked 1/10… how did they get so low there? Let’s look into the demographics next.
This map of Winston Salem shows all of the schools in the area. Sherwood elementary is labeled with the red location marker. If you notice they are located near Wake Forest University, located outside of downtown, and are touching some other highly ranked schools (we’ll look at those later).
This screen shot shows that Sherwood elementary has a majority of white students. Winston-Salem still sees a large disparity between white and asian ethnicities making more money than black or latino ethnicities. Review the data here.
By looking at these two graphics, we can assume that most of the white students at this school are in a middle class or wealthy class. There are gobs of data that prove that student achievement is most tied to family socioeconomic status, rather than any other educational factor. Read some research from Stanford here, or an article that addresses these facts here.
Unfortunately the blanket assumption we can make here is: There are more middle class (and white) students at this school, so their scores are way better. Plain and simple.
I can even prove it further.
Their equity rating is 1/10. This means that there is a huge gap between the white achievement and the minority ethnicity/poverty achievement. And this does not mean that Sherwood Elementary school is racist. In fact, they are actually having the same struggle every classroom in the United States is having: How do we increase achievement for students who have fallen behind due to environmental factors (economic status, number of parents in the household, race, etc.)?
This image shows their absences. You can see here that their minority students have a much more difficult time attending school than their white or asian peers.
The image below shows that there are a lot of professionals in the building and all of the teachers are veterans to the field (a huge predictor for success).
In conclusion, this school is definitely solid. But is it more solid than schools with lower ratings? Is it less than the schools with ratings in the 8 or 9 out of 10s?
What Does A Rating Of Less Than 5 Mean On Great Schools?
I am going to use Griffith Elementary as my next example because I was able to teach there for a short period of time.
Griffith Elementary has a 1/10 great school’s ranking. Their reviews are small but mostly positive.
Griffith Elementary school is located in an area of town where land is much cheaper, you’re farther away from many of the “green spaces” and parks, and there are a lot of affordable housing options.
Unlike Sherwood elementary school, Griffith Elementary school is almost entirely families from poverty. Additionally, a majority of the students at this school are from minority ethnicities (this is important to mention since a higher percentage of minorities are in poverty than people who are white in Winston-Salem). Since poverty is the greatest predictor of educational achievement (refer to research mentioned in Sherwood’s text), this school has almost no chance to be highly ranked.
Now let’s look at the teachers. These teachers are just as qualified as the one’s who are working at Sherwood. The ratio between students and teachers is actually LOWER at Griffith Elementary. This school has qualified and experienced staff.
A lot of parents may be saying to themselves, “These facts are all good about Griffith, but what about the crime in that area? Won’t the kids at that school be wild or aggressive? I need my child to be safe at school.” Great let’s look at that too.
Here’s the percent of suspensions for Griffith:
If you look at the numbers, all of Griffith’s suspensions are LESS than the state average. So they have a high concentration of minority students, but LESS behavior issues than the average. That means that this school running well and using preventative measures to ensure that students are safe. (Also PS, this school has less suspensions and absences than schools with far higher rankings)
So if there are all these fantastic numbers for Griffith, why are they only ranked 1/10? Because their students have a lot more educational needs than other schools. Period.
What Does It Mean If A School Is Rated Greater Than 5 On Great Schools?
Last let’s take a quick look at a school that is ranked 9/10. Jefferson Elementary.
Awesome scores right? Look at their test scores, 9/10! And their equity overview, 7/10!! Woah! That means that they are closing the achievement gap between white students and minorities right? Well let’s see if that’s really happening.
A large percentage of students in Jefferson Elementary are white, but not by much. This school is fairly diverse. However, look at the percentage of students from low-income families. Only 29% of the students are going to have significant environmental factors that will inhibit their educational achievement.
Jefferson Elementary does have test scores that are higher than the state average, but we know from earlier data, a lower percentage of their minority students are actually in poverty. That means closing the achievement gap is an easier task for teachers. That doesn’t negate the fact that these teachers are probably fantastic, it just means they have a slightly easier job closing the achievement gap.
Jefferson Elementary has slightly less experienced teachers, but they still have great ratios and community ratings. Parents have good things to say about this school.
To save space, I am just going to skip the picture, however, this school has some struggles reaching their “hispanic” population. These students have a slightly higher than national average for suspensions and chronic absenteeism. This was a higher rate than Griffith, who was ranked much lower on GreatSchools.com.
So Does The Great Schools Ranking Even Matter?
Yes and no. I don’t want to play down the fact that Griffith has some serious educational struggles. They are constantly trying to play catch up with all the gaps. However, they are a great school that is run well. They are simply trying to accomplish the near impossible: out weigh the effects of poverty on student achievement. And Griffith (1/10) technically had less behavioral problems than Jefferson Elementary (8/10).
I would definitely still use greatschools.org to help screen a new area and help you get to know the populations. However, hanging your school choice decisions based on the overall Great Schools score is going to scare you away from a potentially good school.
Here Are A Few Things You Do Need Consider In Choosing A “Great” School:
- Find out how long the principal has been there. A principal that has changed several times can create disorganization within a school. Consistency is a huge factor in school programs finding success.
- Look at teacher retention. Do teachers leave that school quickly? That could be a sign of a tough administration.
- What kind of programs and funding does the school offer? Check to see if the teachers are involved in after school programs, clubs, tutoring, etc.
- Look at the discipline statistics on GreatSchools.com. Schools that have higher than average suspensions and attendance issues, probably do not have a successful school wide behavioral system in place.
- Talk to teachers. Teachers know which schools actually have good administrators and have teachers that go the extra mile.
Hope this was helpful! Ask a question below!