What do you think of SchoolSparrow? Part 2

In part 1 of this post, I looked at SchoolSparrow.com, an equity-oriented school ratings site that is positioned as an alternative to GreatSchools.org. In the lead up to its national launch, I had an email conversation with the founder, Tom Brown, where I outlined some mixed feelings about the site. As I say in part 1 of that post, my main concern is that, although it is an improvement, SchoolSparrow still uses an approach that replicates problems with GreatSchools, especially its reliance on test scores and its effort to boil down school complexity into a single rating. This kind of thing – even in well-intentioned systems – can lead to white parent colonization and a narrow overemphasis on testable skills (to the exclusion of things like appreciation for diversity, which obviously can’t be measured on a test) and can obscure much-needed direct conversations about race in American public education. All of this was originally outlined in an email to Tom last spring.

The remainder of this post is Tom’s reply to me, shared with permission and slightly edited with links added. As I say in part 1, this is just a snippet of a longer debate. As someone who works on school quality measurement in my day job and a parent of a soon-to-be-kindergartener, I’d love to know how you see it. Feel free to use comments here or reach out to me and Tom/SchoolSparrow on twitter. 

Here’s Tom’s reply:

I agree that assigning one number to a school is not a good practice. One number can’t possibly encapsulate all that makes a child love her school. Still, there is a system doing just that, but in a biased and discriminatory way. In order to shift focus from those ratings to ratings that are more fair, they have to feel similar to see widespread adoptions, and after this is achieved, my vision is to slowly over time step away from a single number rating.

Parents will one day be able to select which metrics they think are important and assign appropriate weights, for example one parent might think growth should be 100% weighted, while another thinks growth is 40%, attendance 30%, and suspensions 30%. And if a parent wants to rate by test scores, the test scores will always be adjusted for parent income.

In addition, parents will one day be able to use SchoolSparrow to create their own customized ratings based on the unique needs, interests and strengths of their kids. For example, one family might look for a location that has a good high school football team, a middle school with an orchestra because their daughter plays violin, and a district with a strong special needs program that’s 100% inclusive. 

I like your point that all schools should have an opportunity to be considered “good.” I think what might help frame our ratings is that we aren’t saying some schools are good or bad, we are simply reporting that some good schools seem to rise above others when it comes to test scores. 

Right now schools are being evaluated in a discriminatory way that pushes families to schools where parents have high incomes, and away from schools where parents have diverse or low incomes. This obscures two things: 

  1. Out-performing schools in urban areas, and 
  2. How schools where parents have high incomes compare to one another.  

If a family has decided: we are moving to an elite suburb, wouldn’t they like to know that school A is in the bottom 10% of schools where parents have high incomes, and school B is in the top 10%? These comparisons are obscured because both school A and B have high ratings today. 

And for a low-income family, where schools all around them have low ratings, wouldn’t they like to know that the school 4 blocks over has a high rating on our system?

SchoolSparrow has taken step 1 of many by reporting scores in the context of parent income, and in the process, we’ve illuminated thousands of schools across the nation that are unfairly underrated. To the other, related points from your email:

  • White Parent Colonization

Really good schools in urban areas are completely obscured by the system in place today. Boston is the perfect example. Take a look at GreatSchools ratings for Boston, there are maybe 3 or 4 schools in the city that rate above a 7/10 (the threshold for parents, particularly relocators, or they’ll skip over the school), and these schools are located in very expensive neighborhoods. In this scenario where the perception persists that good schools are scarce, affluent families will band together and send their kids to a school, and when they have a good experience, the word spreads, and the school can quickly get inundated as you described. 

But what if the veil were lifted, and it became common knowledge that there are literally over 2 dozen public elementary schools in Boston that rate above a 7/10? Our system identifies over 24 elementary schools all over the City of Boston that should be rated above a 7 (a C+/B- on my system). I think this knowledge could alleviate intense, focused gentrification on one school, and allow the performance of all of Boston’s awesome schools to set the narrative, instead of the rumor mill setting the narrative. This knowledge that dozens of Boston’s schools are high quality could help spread out gentrification and give Boston’s schools a better chance at achieving demographic stability. 

We’ve found that our outperforming schools tend to have really strong principals that have created an inclusive culture of excellence. Consider Mendell elementary, a school we identified as an out-performer, which is rated a 4/10 on greatschools, but a 10/10 on our system. After we id’d Mendell as a SchoolSparrow outperformer, the principal was awarded principal of the year in Massachusetts by the NAESP.

  • Reliance on Test Scores

I agree. Eventually we will include all the data available, including school climate surveys and whatever else is produced at the state level. Right now we just don’t have the manpower to find and incorporate everything that is out there. However, adjusting for parent income and for CWD test takers does a pretty good job of uncovering schools that are obscured by unfair ratings. Parents will continue to want to see data on test scores, and if they are going to use test scores as a metric, then they should see them in the context of parent income. After we hammer this point home, and have more national presence, then we can start importing additional metrics and turn our ratings into something more nuanced and in line with the awesome research being done in the educational equity ecosphere. 

But the academic research community seems to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. SchoolSparrow is not perfect, not by a long shot, but it IS better than what’s out there and it would be a big step in the right direction if our ratings were well known.

  • Lack of Attention to Race/Racism.

When discussing socio-economic status and the impact on test scores, I’ve heard some revealing comments that are disheartening to say the least.

For example, I posted a note recently in a private Facebook group for real estate agents, calling attention to SchoolSparrow as an alternative resource for real estate agents and their clients.  One person, a licensed real estate professional, vehemently posted his opposing view, that test score inequities are not due to socio-economic status. Then this person posted a graph showing test scores among White students and Black students. In the graph, the lowest income White students had higher scores than the highest income Black students. His conclusion was sickening: it’s genetic.

I wanted to reply that if he understood the underlying cause of these test score discrepancies, he might take one step away from being a white supremacist, but the post was taken down before I could respond.

The really awful part is his post received a few likes from other professional realtors who make a living representing buyers and sellers in real estate transactions. I fear a very high percentage of white people in the US share this prejudice.

The prevalence of white supremacy in our country is ugly. Disgraceful.

That said, SchoolSparrow is simply trying to deliver a more equitable rating system than GreatSchools. We have positioned ourselves as an alternative rating system that will identify schools that parents might otherwise overlook. The school down the street with a low GreatSchools rating might have a high SchoolSparrow rating. This could result in a school tour where parents meet an exceptional principal or superb music teacher. If we only rely on GreatSchools, these tours and meetings  might never happen. At the moment, we are not positioned as civil rights activists. 

We have a tiny audience of people that have become aware of our system primarily through our blog and social media. Our hope is to organically build a larger audience until SchoolSparrow is widely adopted. 

However, I do understand this important critique, which Peter articulates so well: we aren’t addressing the bigger issue. Racism, systemic and individual, prevalent throughout our schools, school districts, and the real estate sector, is a major issue when it comes to school ratings and school comparison. I get that.

Right now, SchoolSparrow has a strategy to pursue high quality educational equity for all children and families. If we determine that strategy is failing, or if we realize that we need to be clearer about our stance on the role of racism in these questions in order to achieve our goals, we will happily and energetically be more outspoken on civil rights, race, racism, and white supremacy.

____________

As Tom says, SchoolSparrow is better than GreatSchools. And, I agree. It considers family income and test score growth more heavily, as emphasized in media coverage of this issue. If the real estate websites switched to SchoolSparrow, that would be better. Should that be the core of the issue, the message that school integration advocates should emphasize? 

Regardless of your perspective on that question or any of the other points raised in my conversation with Tom, feel free to share your thoughts/suggestions/questions. One thing I’ve learned about Tom is that he is very genuinely open to feedback and committed to learning/growing himself in order to build SchoolSparrow into the vision that he’s outlined here. Along those lines, what questions do you have about SchoolSparrow? How might this site help or hinder the conversation about school integration in your community? As Tom works to improve the site, what changes would you recommend?

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