By Katharine Webster
Assoc. Prof. Jack Schneider
says test scores are a poor measure of school quality and student learning – and an even worse way of judging where a school’s strengths lie and how it can improve.
So for close to a decade, Schneider has worked as research director with a group of eight Massachusetts school districts, including high-performing Winchester, to develop a more comprehensive way of assessing schools.
Now, Schneider and Visiting Asst. Prof. Elizabeth Zumpe
have an opportunity to dig deep in partnership with one of the eight districts in the consortium: Lowell.
“We want to empower people with data instead of using data against them,” says Schneider, the author of “Beyond Test Scores: A Better Way to Measure School Quality”
and four other books, including one coming out this fall. “We’re trying to measure more holistic issues of school quality that actually align with the things that schools and parents want children to learn.”
Schneider and Zumpe have a $250,000 grant from the Lowell Public Schools
to partner with them on customizing the data dashboard and training school principals in how to use that data to improve their schools, Schneider says. There is also money in the legislature’s budget to share the dashboard with other schools in Massachusetts.
“Anything they care about could be in the dashboard,” Schneider says. “Examples would be, how safe do students feel? How much access to musical performance and creative arts do students have?”
Zumpe, a former teacher with a Ph.D. in education from the University of California at Berkeley, has experience in design-based school improvement – making progress on issues facing individual schools by using improvement science in a researcher-educator partnership.
She engaged in a similar seven-year partnership with a high-poverty, medium-sized urban school district in California where the majority of students were children of color. She is excited to do the same in Lowell with the additional advantage of the dashboard, a tool that makes it easier for everyone – district leaders, principals, teachers, students and families – to see where things stand and measure progress.
“We work together to diagnose an issue that educators have identified, understand its root causes and understand the local resources available to help address it,” she says. “Then we collaborate on designing a plan for improvement, and as researchers, we measure outcomes to see if the plan is working.”
She says input from students, teachers and administrators should drive such partnerships, because they are the ones who will have to implement the changes. Yet too often, that’s not what happens.
“Urban districts are complex – governance, who’s making decisions – and you can end up having this fragmented system where every school is its own little island,” she says. “That can make it very hard to make systemwide change.”
As a result, principals and administrators tend to reach for pre-packaged “solutions” – often a new curriculum that doesn’t address deep-seated inequities among students based in racism, poverty, language barriers, gender stereotypes and special needs, Zumpe and Schneider say.
When the pre-packaged fix doesn’t yield the desired results because of a lack of time and resources, including professional development and support for teachers to implement changes in a way that benefits all students, administrators reach for a new solution, starting the process all over again, they say.
Zumpe says that she encourages principals and district leaders to tackle problems of equity – because when those issues are addressed, everything else tends to improve.
“When schools can make our system more just and equalize the opportunities we offer all of our students, then more of our citizens are informed and educated and prepared to enter the workforce, able to access college and able to participate in civic life,” Zumpe says. “Education is the linchpin of our democratic system, and if we don’t improve that, we can’t improve the system.”
In the first year of the grant, Schneider and Zumpe, along with two Ph.D. students
, will work with a team from Lowell schools to customize the dashboard.
The researchers and the team will hold a special training for principals and assistant principals in August in how to use the dashboard. After principals have had a year to figure it out, the researchers and leadership team expect them to start using it for school improvements.
“We’re taking into consideration the people in the organization: What do they value, what do they experience, and what do they need?” Zumpe says. “This dashboard, even though it’s about data, is about data that’s trying to humanize the view that we have of schools and the system.”