8 Words Defining What a Great Public School Really Is

Good day, CharterFolk.

It’s a conversation that can still make me cringe when I think on it 45 years later.

But, as is often the case, cringe induces memory.

So I remember it more clearly than I otherwise would.

I was ten years old at the time, maybe eleven. It was a weekend. My Dad was sitting at the table having lunch. I was across the kitchen on a barstool.

And somehow I ended up saying something about my Dad’s school, which was located in the southeastern-most part of Jefferson County, not being as “clean” as my elementary school, which was just a few blocks away from our house in the northwestern-most part of Jeffco.

The conversation flowed from there.

What do you mean by that?” Lumberg isn’t as clean as Stott?

Well, you know what I mean.

No, I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking.

Well, you know, Stott has carpeting and everything.

And carpeting makes things cleaner?

Uh …

It could be that it’s just hiding the filth. You really think our custodians at Lumberg don’t keep our school’s linoleum floors as clean as yours do your carpeting?

Well, that’s not what I’m saying.

So, then what are you saying?

Well, you know. Stott’s all … new … and everything.

Oh, now that I’ll give you. Stott is new and Lumberg isn’t. But what difference does that make?

Well, it just makes Stott … nicer.



You mean like “better?” Like’s Stott’s a better school than Lumberg is? Is that what you’re saying, Jed?

Well … I don’t know. Wouldn’t you say that?

I wouldn’t, actually. But it all comes down to what your definition of a great school is. I have a very specific one. What’s yours?

The conversation from there led down a predictable path.

We touched upon the relative skill levels of the students at the different schools, something we agreed was more a reflection of what the kids knew coming into the school, at least in the early grades, and less how well the school was performing.

We also talked about the teachers at his school, many of whom I had grown to know over the years and who I agreed seemed to be every bit as good as the teachers that I had had during my elementary school years.

At some point, I just became plain curious.

My Dad had a specific definition and he wasn’t sharing it with me. And the more I guessed and got it wrong, the more I wanted to know.

Finally, he finished his lunch and put his dishes in the dishwasher. Right before walking out to resume his yard work, he turned back and provided the eight-word definition that has stayed with me ever since:

Jed, a great public school …

(1) Positively
(2) Affects
(3) The
(4) Rate
(5) At
(6) Which
(7) Children
(8) Learn

My Dad was an elementary school principal. His use of the word “children” reflected his experience working with younger ones. I’ve modified that word to “youngsters” for schools serving slightly older ones. But aside from that, I have found my father’s eight words a definition that has served me well in every professional setting where the topic has come up since. And as we all know, it’s certainly a topic that has come up over and over again through the years.

And I think it fair to say that one of the biggest problems that we ed reformers have had across the decades is a failure to coalesce around a definition of a great public school that has been built to last, one more like my Dad’s.

Because once you become tethered to something that doesn’t stand the test of time – measures of the percentage of kids who are at or above “proficient,” for example, or measures of gaps of different students attaining that level – you now find yourself on the precipice of preposterous policy-making setting you up for an eventual painful comeuppance.

Surely, at the time of the approval of NCLB, clear-thinking was at hand about the preposterousness we were stepping toward.

While attending business school, I had a chance to meet Thomas Kane who essentially explained to me everything that was going to happen with NCLB implementation in the years ahead. I remember surfacing some of his arguments at a gathering of ed reformers at the time. I was unknown and so was immediately presumed to be in the no-accountability camp merely for having surfaced that there might be some statistical issues and psychometric challenges we might want to take into account before getting too far down an Adequate Yearly Progress road likely to prove a harshly abrupt dead end.

Ultimately, I understand why we did what we did. We used the data that was available to us and tried to make do. But it led to a painful comeuppance that turned out to be not at all that eventual.

Last week, a CharterFolk reader noted that in one of last week’s columns

… I had cited this article …

… and he alerted me to the fact that one of the authors of that article had published a new book a few months back.

I read it over the weekend. It’s a multi-faceted study taking on a range of inquiry broader than the one that my Dad and I were discussing 45 years ago.

But on many pages, the overlap in conceptual thinking is unmistakable.

If you follow the crowd and discuss test score gaps, you’re discussing an outcome that includes the differences kids bring to school on their first day in kindergarten. In other words, you’re discussing the kids’ differences as well as the differences in what happened to them in school. If, however, you examine the gap in learning rates, you’re narrowing down what you’re really measuring to emphasize the influence of the school or district on student learning …. In the end, for those who share responsibility for leading, managing and governing schools, for those who are teaching, isn’t that the measure you’re seeking?

We live at an odd moment.

Parents are all over the map about what they want schools to do.

School districts experiencing massive enrollment losses …

… are getting increasingly aggressive in their authorizing practices related to charter school renewals.

Some school leaders and authorizers are genuinely trying to make sense of the incoherence …

… while school after school says they just want to be measured on growth.

“Five of the eight years that Missouri has measured growth, Genesis has scored above the state average in growth, said Genesis School executive director Kevin Foster. “Three of those years, we’ve scored exceeding growth.”

Foster said that would put his school in the top 20 percent – in terms of taking students from where they were at the beginning of the year to their current level.

Meanwhile, against perhaps the most consequential backdrop of all, we see that we’re in an era now when some of the most respected voices in the field have ended their careers professing a loss of faith in the institutions of public education altogether …

“I do not believe in the institutional structure of public schooling anymore.”
– Richard Elmore

… saying that it is inevitable now that the locus of learning in our society will become progressively dissociated from schools over time.

It means that our historical understanding that school is the place where learning is supposed to happen is being erased from our collective consciousness. And if that process continues unabated, do we really think that support for public education more broadly will be long-maintained?

CharterFolk, I don’t present myself as one foreseeing even a fraction of the forks in the road that lie ahead. And I know, of course, that massive technical detail and psychometric expertise and policy specificity and implementation excellence are needed to help us cover any meaningful ground.

And I have a history of cringeworthy mistake-making on this topic as anyone I know.

But it seems to me that, if we are really going to remain on a common path, not just CharterFolk, but all EducatorFolk, we must maintain some shared understanding that schools are places where learning happens, or where, at least, learning is supposed to happen.

And great schools are ones that achieve the eight words my Dad shared with me in the kitchen all those years ago:

  1. Positively
  2. Affecting
  3. The
  4. Rate
  5. At
  6. Which
  7. Children
  8. Learn