What is quality education?

We are increasingly inundated with rankings of k-12 schools. The question I always ask is “would the report’s authors send their kids or grandkids to the top ranked schools?” And in most of the rankings that I have seen the answer is almost certainly not. That, of course, raises the question “why should anyone else rely on the rankings in making decisions about which school to enroll their children or grandchildren in but also for public accountability?”

Almost all these rankings use standardized test scores as the basic measure. But it is highly likely that the authors of these rankings –– as well as most highly educated and/or affluent parents and grandparents –– shop for something more that test scores when they choose a school for their children or grandchildren. My guess is for them test scores are a minor factor in comparison shopping for a school.

Also almost certainly not on their list is whether a school is preparing students to meet the immediate employment demands of Michigan employers. The standard that Governor Snyder –– and many other policy makers from both parties –– are increasingly advocating for.

For these rankings to be meaningful either as a guide for parents in shopping for a school or for accountability for the taxpayers money they spend we need first to agree on what is a quality education. What are the attributes we want our children to possess when they graduate from high school?

Seems to me the best place to begin to answer these question is with the schools where the affluent send their children and grandchildren.

In Ann Arbor ––where I live –– one of the schools of choice for affluent parents is Greenhills. Here is how it describes its mission:  Greenhills School is a student-centered community that helps young people realize their full intellectual, ethical, artistic and athletic potential in preparation for college – and beyond – as curious, creative, and responsible citizens who respect all individuals and their differences, and whose meaningful and balanced lives will better the world.

Similarly the renouned Cranbrook Schools mission statement is: Cranbrook Schools are independent day and boarding schools that provide students with a challenging and comprehensive college preparatory education. We motivate students from diverse backgrounds to strive for intellectual, creative, and physical excellence, to develop a deep appreciation for the arts and different cultures, and to employ the technological tools of our modern age. Our schools seek to instill in students a strong sense of personal and social responsibility, the ability to think critically, and the competence to communicate and contribute in an increasingly global community.

One of the traditional public school districts where residents pay a housing price premium so their kids can attend the schools is West Bloomfield. Their mission and vision statementThe West Bloomfield School District educates students to be their best in and for the world. …  We will develop socially responsible citizens empowered to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing global society, and who are characterized by curiosity, creativity, critical thinking and the ability to effectively communicate and collaborate.

But its not just elite private schools and affluent suburban public school districts who describe their mission this way. So do the best of the schools that are the result of the bipartisan urban education reform movement of the past two decades. That movement believes that all students deserve the highest quality education. That education is the most important vehicle for providing every child with an equal opportunity to realize the American Dream.

Clark Durant –– recent Republican candidate for U.S. Senate –– is the founder of the Cornerstone Schools. Its initial school is a private religious school that describes its mission, in part, as: Our broad and beloved community of friends will make possible an excellent education for children to prepare them for life and leadership. … We believe an excellent education is furthered by good teachers, administrators, staff, and partners within a learning community which makes it possible for a student to realize his or her fullest potential in life. An excellent education encourages a student to seek truth, to know love, to develop a disciplined mind and a wise, kind, courageous, joyful, and discerning heart; to serve humbly, to respect and work with others; to pursue excellence, to develop good judgment, to seek what is good, to do what is right, and to accept responsibility for one’s actions.  

Similarly the Detroit Edison Public Schools Academy (DEPSA) –– the first high school Michigan Futute Schools invested in –– mission statement reads: Detroit Edison Public School Academy exists to prepare students entrusted to our care for a future as compassionate and caring global citizens and successful life long learners. Academic development is achieved in a dignified and supportive environment that incorporates diversity, family, staff, and community partnerships, in pursuit of educational excellence. The mission is achieved by providing an academic program that incorporates the growth and development of the whole child.  Parents, communities and staff are committed to serving and providing a world-class education for tomorrow’s leaders. The mission is obtained with a sense of commitment to excellence and the results that this commitment engenders.

All of these schools are about far more than students getting good tests scores (although academic achievement matters to them all) and these schools reject the notion that schooling should be about preparing students for today’s jobs or about meeting today’s job demand of Michigan employers. Increasingly the two standard we are asking of our schools.

The common characteristics of these five mission statements seem to me to be a far better description of the kind of education that we should want not just for our kids and grandkids but all Michigan kids. An education that prepares students for adult life in all its dimensions, not just for a job or even a career. An education that prepares students to pursue their dreams any place on the planet, not just here in Michigan. An education that is about being a lifelong learner, not just someone that scores well on a standardized test today.

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