There is increasing talk these days about making every school in the district a "quality" school. The New Student Assignment Plan has increased the frequency, volume, and urgency for this bumper sticker talk. But despite those increases, there has not been much increase in action or even understanding of the goal.
Everytime I hear someone spout this talk about "every school a quality school" I stop them immediately and ask them what they mean by that. What is a "quality school"? How will we know one? I pretty much tell them that if they cannot accurately define a quality school then they should just shut the hell up about it. I hate it when people use words without knowing what they mean.
So, for the record, I have my own idea about what is a quality school. It is a school where the students are taught - at a minimum - the core set of knowledge and skills that they should be taught at their grade level and they learn it. It's a school in which students working beyond grade level are appropriately challenged with more rigor, meaning accelerated lessons, more ambiguous ideas, more complex ideas, a wider range of contexts, or a deeper understanding of the ideas. It's a school were the students who are working below grade level are given the early and effective interventions they need to get to grade level. In short, students are taught at the frontier of the knowledge and skills and are brought at least to grade level. There are plenty of examples of such schools here in Seattle.
So beyond the bumper sticker talk, what is the District doing to make every school a quality school? I would say five primary efforts fall under this umbrella.
First, the curriculum alignment effort is an attempt to assure that every student is at least being taught the core curricular content (knowledge and skills). There are, of course, some serious problems with this effort. The first is that it is totally unenforcable and totally unenforced. Gee, after that do we have to mention any other problems with it? We do. Their enforcement efforts are completely back-asswards. Despite their claims to the contrary it comes down to someone poking their head into a classroom for twenty seconds to confirm that the teacher is on the right page of the textbook for that day. Real enforcement would require a sincere effort to determine what the teacher is teaching and what the students are learning. Let's remember that just because the teacher is teaching something doesn't mean that the students are learning it.
Second, the promise of an Advanced Learning Opportunity in every attendance area elementary school. The problems here are all well known. First, although 80% of neighborhood schools north of downtown have some advanced learning program, only about 25% of the schools south of downtown have one. So there's a little problem with equitable access and that problem will persist for years to come. Second, just because a school SAYS that they have an ALO doesn't mean anything. There is absolutely no quality assurance or accountability of any kind whatsoever. This is the ALO (and Spectrum and APP) version of expectations set at the district level that go unenforced and unfulfilled at the school or classroom level. Third, I don't really understand how and why the students no longer need those accelerated academic opportunities when they get to middle school, but there are no middle school ALOs.
Third, Response to Intervention is supposed to assure, from the district level, the early and effective intervention that students need. Again, lots of problems here starting with the usual one: unenforcable and unenforced. Second, nothing has been done to alter the reasons why students have not been getting these sorts of interventions until now. This is one of those weird disconnects in which the District leadership says something like "Okay, everybody, as of today we're going to start doing things the right way!" without ever taking a moment to learn why things haven't been done the right way all along. Are they living on an alternative dimension?
Fourth, the MAP tests are supposed to identify the gaps in instruction, the students who are ready for more challenge, and the students who need the interventions. The problem, and chant it along with me if you have learned the chorus, is that it is unenforcable and unenforced. There is no one who has to respond to the MAP test results as we would hope they (ideally) would, and there is no one who has to make sure that anyone responds to the MAP test results at all.
Fifth, the District presents the school score card. What a disaster. It is supposed to offer families some sort of report on the quality of the school but it doesn't speak to ANY of the items listed above. It doesn't speak to school quality at all. One of the main reasons that it doesn't is because the District has no working definition of school quality, let alone metrics, assessments or benchmarks. Although this school score card is supposed to be part of some sort of accountability or performance management system it contributes nothing to either the ability to enforce nor to the process of enforcement. It's a total waste - as is all of the rest of the performance management tripe - in the absence of any actual accountability - meaning objectively measurable outcomes, benchmarks, and CONSEQUENCES.
So, it's not as if the district is doing nothing about making every school a quality school. I want you all to know that they are paying this idea a tremendous amount of very detailed lip service. They have thrown a lot of money at ineffectual and disingenuous efforts which they can describe in great detail.
Take a lesson from my high school football coach. When you're going to tackle the man with the ball don't look at his feet or his shoulders or his head. He can use all of them to fake you out. Look at his belly button and tackle that. He isn't going anywhere without it.
When the District tells you that they are going to do something, don't look at the budgets, or the presentations, or listen to the happy talk. They can use all of them to fake you out. Look for the elements that are enforceable and are enforced and look at how the enforcement is done. That will tell you what is really going to happen. If the district enforces the curricular alignment by checking page numbers, then that's how it is going to happen. If the district doesn't enforce quality in advanced learning, or responses to interventions, or MAP testing, then they aren't going to happen. If the score cards don't tell anything and don't matter then they will be meaningless.
So I'm here with both the good news and the bad news. The good news is that the District knows exactly what they have to do in order to make every school a quality school. The good news is that they have identified all of the initiatives and programs to make it happen. The bad news is that it is all a fake because there is no real muscle behind any of it. If they don't alter any of the reasons that these things don't happen everywhere already, then they won't alter the outcome that these things don't happen everywhere. Right now, their entire enforcement consists exclusively of empty threats that everyone knows are empty. It's kind of pathetic, like a parent who threatens to punish their incorrigible children but never does. As parents we all know that you'll never get away with that.