The SchoolWorks Lab EdSpeak: Defining School Quality

How Should We Define the Future of School Quality?

When we ask each other, what makes a good school, we often talk about it in a very general way. For example, the school is good, teachers are great, building is clean, Principal is friendly. Researchers and policy makers however are working on much more precision when it comes to defining a good school. For example, a sharper definition for a good school might include: 70% of students read on grade level, and they have a 93% attendance rate. A sharper definition for teacher quality that is lacking in a bad school might include: only 40% of a school’s teachers are experienced, teaching within their field of preparation, and are effective teachers.

National Council on Teacher Quality

Taking just one example of the definition problem and looking at teacher quality across the states, the problem of definition becomes much more clear. Although there is a national legislation definition for teacher quality, states define that differently and may not even collect or correctly display that data for outsiders like parents to use in making decisions about where to send their children to school. The latest report out of the National Council on Teacher Quality shows us these definitional problems:

Few states report on all three measures of teacher quality. Only 18 states publish data addressing all three measures of teacher quality required by the law (inexperienced, out-of-field, and effective teaching). However, two states, Arkansas and Colorado, stand out as national models worthy of emulation.9

There are no consistent definitions for any of the metrics. Lacking federal definitions, states came up with their own. For example, across all states, there are five different definitions for what defines a sufficiently experienced teacher.10

Many states do not share sufficiently disaggregated data. While states had to have collected data from their school districts and most likely schools, many states don’t make this data public, choosing instead to only report summative data for the whole state. Seventeen states (including Pennsylvania, which did not report any data at all) did not publish any disaggregated data. Only 34 states report school-, district-, and state-level data. Even more states (37) fail to disaggregate their data to show the distribution of teachers in schools serving large proportions of students of color, despite the clear reference to students of color in the ESSA provision.

Shared data lacks context for meaningful comparisons. Comparisons within states are difficult to make, as many states fail to provide context, such as the relative distribution of a LEA’s or school’s teachers compared to the state average. Limited years of data also restricts the ability to understand trends in progress or regression towards the overarching goal of eliminating equitable access gaps.

(9) United States Department of Education. (2017, June 16). ESSA State Plans FAQ. Retrieved from:
(10) The remaining states have elected to collect and/or publish data on only some of these measures—though Pennsylvania has yet to report on any.

Data Definitions, Better Display of Comparison Data

So even if it doesn’t seem to be a very high priority, defining the future of school quality might include data collected by the states that was accurate, data that was up to date with the law, and data that was displayed correctly within state data systems and comparable across all states displayed in federal databases. School quality definitions that are clear and comparable would be a great start. Data that can be accessed by us, the public, would be a great goal to help us make the best decisions for our children.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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