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How to Improve Schools?

June 30, 2012

How do we Improve Schools?

I am reading Dylan Wiliam’s book, Embedded Formative Assessment.  Wiliam is one of the foremost experts on Formative Assessment and someone who writes extensively about educational reform.  In his new book, he starts out with an overview on Why Educational Achievement Matters.  In the section entitled, Three Generations of School Effectiveness Research, Wiliam writes about the connection between education, graduating from school and pursuing further education, economic growth.  This connection has spawned countless research studies that try to identify what it means to be an effective school.

Wiliam answers the question in a somewhat tongue-and-check way:

Trying to emulate the characteristics of today’s most effective schools would lead to the following measures:

  1. Get rid of boys.  Girls outperform boys, even in traditionally male-dominated subjects such as math and science. The more girls you have in your school, the better you are going to look.
  2. Become a parochial school (private school as well).  Again, all over the world, parochial schools tend to get better results than other schools, although this appears to be more due to the fact that parochial schools tend to be more socially selective than public schools. (private schools give admissions test which select out many students)
  3. Move your school to a nice, leafy, suburban area.  This will produce three immediate benefits.  It will bring you much higher-achieving students.  The students will be better supported by their parents.  the school will have more money–potentially lots more.  (private schools will spend upwards of $30,000 per student while public schools tend to spend less than $10,000 per student, sometimes much less.)

While Wiliam might have been over-reaching somewhat with his three characteristics, he isn’t far off.  The third characteristic, that many high-performing private schools spend 3-6 times more per student to educate them, is the most significant barrier to the improvement of public schools.

He doesn’t really define “effective schools” in an objective way, but we all know what he is referring to.  Case in point, public schools in Washington DC are not the most effective in the country.  So President Obama, like most Presidents whose children grow up in Washington, sent his two children to Sidwell Friends School, an exclusive private school in DC.  This is quite common for our politicians who hold the purse strings for our public school systems.

If you could spend almost twice as much to educate a child (Sidwell vs DC schools), then you have the potential to bring to those children a wider array of resources to enrich their education.

What do you think?

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