Suppose you are a parent in Shelby County and you want to know which school is the best for your child. The state report card has information, but it takes at least some background knowledge to weed through the sea of acronyms such as TVAAS, NAEP or ACT.  The Tri-State Defender puts out an annual guide to charter, state-run, and district schools, but its profiles only include test scores in four subjects. The district website’s “Schools” section has each school’s address and principal name. Great Schools, a nonprofit website, has parent reviews and test scores but is missing some district information.

Parents often find themselves relying on word of mouth or conducting their own research into schools, and many do not know where their school stacks up in the district or state-wide.

Shelby County officials are hoping to change that.

A committee of school choice advocates, Achievement School District and Shelby County Schools officials are working to create a “school performance framework” aimed at helping parents and students understand how their schools are doing and navigate the increasing number of choices in the district.

Shelby County charter and traditional schools and the Achievement School District would all use the same template to rate schools’ academic performance, growth and culture. Though the framework will be new to Shelby County, other large urban districts, including Nashville, Denver, and New York City, have been using similar systems for years.

The district will have the framework in place by the 2015-16 school year.

Here’s more about why the district plans to create a school performance framework and how similar tools are working in other districts.

Why does Shelby County need a school performance framework?

In Memphis, the public education landscape is growing increasingly complex: The charter sector is growing, the state-run Achievement School District is expanding, and parents can opt to transfer their children through the district’s optional schools and general choice transfer programs.

“Given the growing number of school options, including charters and the ASD, the goal is to create a common school performance framework,” said Bradley Leon, the district’s chief strategy and innovation officer. Leon said the framework would help parents and students understand how their schools are doing; help them navigate as they choose schools for their children; and help the district understand its own schools.

Schools’ academic performance is already being used in major decisions like which schools to close and which should become part of the state-run Achievement School District, and parents can already opt to attend a charter school or can apply to transfer to various schools in the district. But that information about the schools is not compiled in one place. Officials say parents are often shocked by dramatic interventions like ASD takeovers because they do not know that their child attends a school ranked in the bottom five percent in the state. Other parents rely on word-of-mouth and reputation to determine that they should try to send their children to popular optional programs like the one at White Station Middle.

What would be included in the framework?

The framework would likely include a school’s performance on standardized tests; its growth in test scores; and measures of school culture. But just what measures will be used and how they will be weighted and presented has yet to be determined. Figuring out how to accurately assess and reflect school culture and climate is important but tricky, Leon said.

Around the country, each district’s framework looks different, and frameworks have evolved over time. New York City, for instance, includes a “peer school” component, in which schools are measured against other schools with similar student bodies. Nashville’s shares how many “high-quality seats” are in a school. Denver uses a teacher survey to evaluate school climate.

How will the framework be used?

District officials say knowing how schools rank should help parents decide where to send their students to school.

But the framework could eventually be used for higher-stakes decisions, too. Leon used a sample framework to demonstrate how the district might decide which charter schools should be approved for expansion in the district. The district is also likely to close more schools in coming years, and, given that the district is already citing low academic performance as a reason to close schools, the report card might be used to guide those decisions.

Who will be involved in creating it?

A working group of district officials and local education leaders has been involved in early meetings about what the framework should include. The district plans to involve parents, charter and district school leaders, teachers, and others over the next few months.

The initial working group includes Leon; Mary Earhart-Brown, Shelby County Schools’ manager of parent and community engagement; Sharon Griffin, Shelby County’s regional superintendent for its Innovation Zone Schools; Bill White, Shelby County’s director of planning and accountability; Achievement School District’s superintendent, Chris Barbic, and chief portfolio officer Malika Anderson; Jamal McCall, the director of KIPP Memphis; Derwin Sisnett, the director of Gestalt Community Schools; Stand For Children’s Memphis director Cardell Orrin; and Strive Mid-South director Mark Sturgis.

It’s good that the district recognizes that the ASD and charters make up part of the full range of our education landscape,” said Orrin. “Including them maximizes the value of the performance framework for everyone.” 

Most of the participants are proponents of school choice. The Center for Reinventing Public Education, or CRPE, will consult with the district to create the framework at no cost to the district, Leon said. CRPE highlighted the district’s need to provide more information to parents about school performance in a report released earlier this week.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded several districts, including Nashville, Denver, and New York City, to create school performance frameworks as part of a “district-charter collaboration” grant. The Gates Foundation has also funded CRPE and Great Schools. (Chalkbeat also receives funds from the Gates Foundation.)

What do similar frameworks look like in other districts and how are they working?

In New York City, which introduced the framework in 2007, some school leaders disapproved of the competitive dynamic introduced by the school performance framework (though high-scoring schools often celebrated their results). District officials said earlier this school year that the framework focused too heavily on test scores and could encourage schools to narrow their curricula. The district released a report on school accountability earlier this year, saying the focus should be on supporting rather than punishing schools.

Both the New York City and Denver districts also received criticism for weighting growth over achievement. In New York, parents said this could be misleading, as high-performing magnet schools could receive the same scores as schools with very low levels of proficiency if both schools showed similar growth over time.

For similar reasons, Denver is considering updating its rating system this year to shift more weight to student achievement rather than growth. It is also planning to incorporate more information about younger elementary grades.

Orrin said that in Shelby County, the weighting of various components of the system had yet to be determined. He said there had already been debate about whether growth or achievement should be more heavily weighted. He argued that for some, a school that is “growing” students could be a better fit than one that has high scores but lower growth.

What are the next steps?

The district’s planning committee will meet one more time before a more public planning process begins.