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School Report Card

Excellent Schools Detroit’s School Report Card provides parents of Detroit children with an easy-to-understand annual evaluation that looks at hard numbers such as test scores, as well as softer targets such as how nurturing, creative, and safe a school is for students. 
Michigan Nightlight: In your view, what makes your program innovative, effective or remarkable? 
President and CEO Excellent Schools Detroit Dan Varner: Nationally, what makes this innovative and remarkable and effective is that community voice is such an important part of the generation of the report card. A lot of communities do report cards based just on quantitative data and student test scores, whether it’s growth or proficiency or what have you. We are one of only two communities in the country, Washington, D.C. being the other, that are engaged in significant efforts to incorporate non-quantitative measures into reports on school quality. It derives ultimately from what we as a community
...the appetite among folks who work and live in Detroit to engage in helping the schools get better was overwhelming.
value from our schools.
You can capture proficiency and growth through student test scores but a lot of things can’t be captured that way -- whether or not a school is nurturing and safe, which is something most folks would value in a school, is something that can only be captured by going to visit to determine whether or not a school is good. Parents have told us those things are important in making the decision about where they send their kids to school.
What was the best lesson learned in the past year?
There were two equally wonderful lessons. One is that the appetite among folks who work and live in Detroit to engage in helping the schools get better was overwhelming. I mean it was tremendous, much deeper than I think folks realize. People want ways to meaningfully engage with their schools. It was a wonderful lesson to learn.
The second was that schools are craving more comprehensive evaluation. They want you to look at those qualitative things, not just judge them on the basis of test scores. Test scores are important -- I don’t want anyone for a moment to think that they are not important. That is one of the primary purposes of school: to make sure that kids learn new material. But it was nice to have community members’ and school administrators’ needs and desires overlap in such a significant way.
What was the hardest lesson learned in the past year?
Once again, that would be two really difficult lessons. One of the other qualitative measures that we use is a survey of teachers and students. The Chicago Consortium on School Research has been running these surveys in Chicago for about 18 years to capture school performance on these five domains that CCSR calls the five essentials. We paid for all Detroit schools to participate in that this year. One of the hard lessons for us was that it was much more difficult than we anticipated it would be, in part because of the suspicions teachers and students have around that kind of work. It is understandable, but I think it is regrettable in this case because we’re really trying to incorporate their voice into an analysis of their school. We
...I think the key to success here is for this to be viewed as credible enough that parents and members of the Detroit community start making decisions on enrollment based on it.
really hope that will become much more effective this year, and we hope will have much higher numbers of students and teachers who participate.
The second really hard lesson is around the appropriate weighting of these various qualitative factors we use to measure schools…how much should proficiency measures weigh in the overall measure of school performance versus growth versus other things. Figuring that out and getting that right will be an ongoing process. The challenges around doing that really were revealed this year as we dug into it.
What really differentiates this program?
First of all, the things up front I spoke about with community engagement. Our hope and goal -- and we’re really just at the tip of the iceberg on this -- is that this is a not a report card that grows stale. We will update it in real time this year as we do the site visits and so the grades will change. Our willingness to go door to door with this information, and the ability of groups like the Detroit Parent Network to actually sit with parents and walk them through not only what the score was of a school, but why that was the score, provides a much more sophisticated level of analysis that’s available to parents, because their neighbors are the ones doing this work. So that level of community engagement and empowerment is what differentiates us.
What are the keys to success for your program?
Assuming we do our part well, which is to say we actually measure school performance well, I think the key to success here is for this to be viewed as credible enough that parents and members of the Detroit community start making decisions on enrollment based on it. There are plenty of good schools options available for kids; not enough, but there are plenty. Frankly, we need members of the Detroit community to send their kids there -- to those good schools -- and stop settling for mediocrity where that is the case in a school. That single decision has such an important impact on a child’s life and ultimately puts a lot of pressure on the system to improve.
What are people who evaluate the schools at Excellent Schools Detroit most inspired by? 
It was the levels of innovation and creativity of a school, of the school administrators and teachers. These volunteers wanted to go back and spend time at schools, personal time, helping those schools get better when they saw a school that was willing to do something a little bit different. One story I heard a volunteer talk about was a school that played classical music during transition time between classes. This volunteer was so inspired by that they she wanted to go back and volunteer at that school because she just thought that was really a small, but valuable, indicator about that school’s willingness to do things differently. 
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Person Profile

  • Dan Varner
    Aligning community in the fight for better education



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