How good are our schools? One way to answer this question appears in this month’s cover story. The method that we use, which was developed by a nonprofit organization known as Just for the Kids, is to gather data, analyze it, and establish a basis for an objective comparison. These rankings provide more information about the performance of individual schools than has ever been available before.
But there is another way to look at schools: not objectively but subjectively. This is the way most parents look at them. Do you have the feeling that your school is a place where your children can get what they need, whatever that might be? Does it care about their success? Are they learning what they need to know? Or are they falling through the cracks? If the answers to these questions are unacceptable, then it doesn’t matter to you where your school shows up in the rankings. Far too many families have been getting the wrong answers, not just in Texas but all across America.
The idea that schools fail us is not a new one. Plato lamented it. So did Leo Tolstoy: “The need of education lies in every man,” the novelist wrote in the 1860’s about his experiences as a teacher. “The people love and seek education, as they love and seek the air for breathing; the government and society burn with the desire to educate the masses, and yet, notwithstanding all the force of cunning and the persistency of governments and societies, the masses constantly manifest their dissatisfaction with the education which is offered to them… .”
I have spent enough time around public schools for the past thirteen years to know that what Tolstoy says is still true. The eldest of my three children graduated from high school earlier this year; a senior and a sophomore remain. I have been a PTA co-president with my wife and have served on the campus advisory council ( CAC) at two schools. As my kids were getting an education, so was I, of a different sort. I was learning about how schools really work.
It will take both the objective, data-based approach and the subjective approach to fix what is wrong with our schools. The objective way is critical because it provides a benchmark that indicates how much students at a particular school are learning—and because it points the way to improvement. Any principal whose school doesn’t measure up knows where to look for guidance. Somewhere in Texas there is a school with similar student demographics that is achieving a higher level of performance.
But what if the principal is part of the problem? I saw my daughter’s magnet high school go through so many principals, permanent and interim, in four years that I lost track of the number (and I was on the CAC for a year and a half). I think it was six. My daughter thinks it was eight.
Fortunately, I have also seen, from the vantage of a PTA co-president, the difference that a great principal can make. Her name is Patti Lyle, and she heads Lamar Middle School in north central Austin. I can cite how TAAS scores have improved: from 44 percent passing for all students in 1995, her first year, to 80 percent in 2001 (the improvement does not carry over to TAAS proficiency, which is why Lamar gets only one star in our rankings). But that doesn’t begin to explain the impact she has had on the school. Safety, discipline, the cleanliness and appearance of the hallways and grounds, curriculum, teacher morale, student morale—all of these were hopeless when the first of my children arrived at the school, and all were completely turned around by the time the last of my children moved on to high school.
How did she do it? First she restored safety and discipline. Then she acceded to parents’ requests to upgrade the academic offerings. Lamar began to teach seventh-grade algebra and eighth-grade geometry and added academic-oriented electives. These improvements kept some of the top students from defecting to magnet programs or private schools. But her biggest contribution was to change the atmosphere. Lamar had its share of skilled but burned-out teachers when she arrived, and within a couple of years I noticed that most of them had realized that they didn’t fit in anymore and had moved on. The teachers who remained and the new recruits were comfortable with enthusiasm. “We don’t handle negativism,” Lyle told me when I went back to visit Lamar this fall.
Lyle does not present an imposing picture. She is short and slender, wears her brown hair in enormous bangs, and has a countenance that is professional rather than stern. As we took a tour of new physical additions to the fifties-vintage school—classrooms, courtyards, lighting, a lot of fresh paint—I noticed that she knew the name of every student we encountered. Whenever she saw a stray piece of paper in the hall or on the grounds, she bent over to pick it up. “I never ask a teacher to do something I can’t do,” she said. “If I want them to monitor the hallways, then I’m going to be out monitoring the hallways.” Indeed, she was, and is, always visible—outside before and after school, in the cafeteria during lunch, in classes or hallways the rest of the day. When we sat down to talk in her office, she said, “I think that’s the first time I’ve had my door closed since school started.”
Last year Lyle was named the Texas middle school principal of the year. (The local newspaper did not find that worthy of a news story. If she had hugged the wrong kid, it would have been front-page news.) In October Lamar became one of 37 Texas middle schools nominated to be a federal Blue Ribbon School.
The story of Patti Lyle shows the importance of subjective determinations in improving our schools. Good principals are as important as good test scores—probably more so. Scores tell you a lot, but they also