The Whole Picture: An Authentic School Quality Report Card

by Ann O’Halloran

It’s fall in Massachusetts. MCAS scores scream out in the headlines and insinuate their way into nearly all school discussions. Lost in the past is the original intent of the 1993 Education Reform Act, calling for multiple measures of student learning.

The current era of manic reform has created too many American school systems teaching primarily to the tested subjects. For some, though thankfully not all schools, every minute of every day follows a robotic scripted teaching program, no recess, no playground, no library, no music class, no physical education. Dollars spent on test prep, not on maintaining a building safe for students and teachers. A tenuous link between school and home.

All the hoopla around testing now defines education. Rarely brought into focus is the background of what’s happening in our schools.  Socioeconomic challenges may be mentioned, but the vital school qualities which are missing or marginalized are rarely part of the discussion.

A parallel “School Quality Report Card,” should appear right next to each school’s test “data.”  Here, the commitment of our communities to the future would be revealed.

Schools were my home for my 32 years as a teacher, and I have a developed eye for those which should be labeled “Advanced” in the truest sense. They foster confidence, not fear, welcoming students and creating a safe haven. Their variety of learning opens a door for each child where personal gifts and strengths can be found and encouraged. They honor dreams, as well as achievement.

The Education Reform Act of 1993 actually requires each school system to “file a description” on many school qualities, so much of the information is just waiting to be published right next to the MCAS scores.  Let’s be honest and paint the whole picture of education in the Commonwealth. Here’s my test for schools.

Physical Qualities: Adequate classroom space – appropriate to the ages of the children? Enough chairs, desks or tables for all students? Well-maintained restrooms? Water fountains kept working and hygienic, not taped up and nonfunctional? Appropriate playgrounds, not just a rectangle of black top, crowded to the hilt, with no climbing or play equipment? Supervised in a meaningful way? Clean lunch areas for students and staff? Building up-to-code? No peeling paint, cracked, discolored windows? No toxic substances or mold? Adequate numbers and training of custodians to maintain the building? Frequent checkups and fix-ups on ventilation, heat and water systems? Temperatures of all the spaces in the school appropriate to the season–not freezing in the winter so children must wear coats and hats inside, nor roasting in the warmer seasons with everyone wilting in the heat? Functional chair lifts or elevators?

School Culture/Resources/Programs: Is there a well-staffed after-school program, offering art, music, drama, gym and playground activities, as well as tutoring? Do class sizes and teacher/student ratio match established standards? Full-time school nurse?  Functioning and professionally staffed school library? Classroom books up to date? Enough for each child? Do music, art and P.E. programs enhance the school? Are there student plays, musicals, dance performances? An art program that opens the door to its amazing possibilities? A meaningful physical education program that will lead to lifelong enjoyment, including school sports and fitness programs? Ready access to computers?

Home and School: Do children feel safe at home? Getting to school? At school? Are they well-nourished in both places with sound medical, mental health and dental care? Do they come to school appropriately dressed? Is there active communication between home and school? A real connection to the rich variety of communities that make up the school?

The physical conditions of too many of our schools are unhealthy and dangerous. Too many important adults who are vitally needed are missing from the school. The critical relationship between school, community and home is missing. These failures can make the difference between an “Advanced” school and one labeled “Failed,” between a student who loves school and does his/her best or one who loathes school as a place where you go to be measured and labeled.

If we do not understand the vital nature of all of these key elements, it is we—the  citizens of the Commonwealth—who  deserve a failing score, for we will have failed the future.

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