Evaluating the Success of High Schools

When we started the Indianapolis Metropolitan High School in 2004, our initial objective was to help increase the high school graduation rate in the city. We soon added the goal of helping increase the percentage of graduates who enroll in and complete a post-secondary course of study.

We also decided that we would not be obsessed with standardized test scores. It’s not that we didn’t think test scores are important; it’s just that we didn’t think all the emphasis should be on them. We also knew that many of our students were coming to us far behind where they should have been academically and that it could take awhile for many of them to make up lost ground. Consequently, we decided that when they passed a test or graduated was not nearly as important as that they eventually did pass the test and graduate.

Over time, we came to the conclusion that the best indicator of how well our schools perform is in how well our graduates do in the next phase of their lives. In other words, how well did we prepare them for what comes next? If we give a student a diploma and that student enrolls in college and has to take a remedial course, we have failed. We’ve failed that student; we’ve failed the taxpayers; and we’ve failed ourselves.

Similarly, if we graduate a student who goes to work, but lacks the work habits or cultural capital to succeed on the job, we have failed that student. We have also failed the student’s employer.

We take this view because we are well aware that our schools operate in a larger context. We receive inputs (e.g. students, money) from outside the school, and after a period of time we send those students out to another school, to a job, or – in a worst case situation – to the unemployment line or the streets. What happens to those students – the ones who do well and the ones who don’t – matters to us.

Character, cultural capital, social skills, problem-solving ability, academic achievement – all of these are important. We pay attention to them. We also keep track of our graduates as much as we can for as long as we can. We want to know where they are, what they are doing, and how they are doing. From time to time, our graduates tell us how well we did or did not prepare them for college. At times, their feedback has prompted us to make changes so we might do a better job going forward.

We believe schools should be held accountable for their results. We hold ourselves accountable, and we want others to evaluate us based on what really matters. We also recognize how difficult it is to design an evaluation system that does that. Current systems by which we are evaluated use measures that are readily available and that provide immediate feedback. These can be useful and meaningful to a point. But for a more complete picture of how well a school is doing its job, we need to look at student growth and success over a longer period of time.

We will continue to do the best job we can to help every student develop his or her potential and be well prepared for what comes next. As we go about our work, it helps to keep in mind Einstein’s view that “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”

What goes around comes around – a brief historical perspective

In the late 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, the small Goodwill organization in Indianapolis was offering the following services:

  • A kindergarten
  • A pre-natal clinic
  • A dental clinic for school children
  • In conjunction with the Marion County Medical Society and Methodist Hospital, a home-based health care program
  • Classes for female heads of households. Topics included childcare, food preparation and purchasing, and how to run a household when a spouse is in prison
  • A library with books that mothers could read to their children

And yes, the organization also provided jobs in Goodwill stores. While the available resources and number of people served were small, the approach Goodwill took in those days was – using current terminology – holistic and dealt with the whole family.

When the U.S. became involved in World War II, Goodwill’s primary emphasis shifted to employing people – particularly people with disabilities – who previously had few, if any employment opportunities. Following the war, an emphasis on vocational rehabilitation was added. For the next forty years, Goodwill’s primary mission could be paraphrased as helping people – primarily, but not exclusively people with disabilities – prepare for, find, and keep jobs.

By the early 1990s, major societal changes – some of which began gaining momentum in the 1960s – prompted Goodwill to become involved in several initiatives designed to address growing social problems. Eventually, we launched efforts to try to improve education outcomes for young people who had struggled or failed in other settings. Those experiences, in turn, made us increasingly aware of the need to work with students and their families in a much more holistic manner.

Simultaneously, we began seeing a great deal of dismaying data that vividly illustrated the long term negative trends of a number of significant social indicators, despite massive increases in public spending and a huge proliferation of not-for-profit organizations. We also began searching for programs that have demonstrated long term positive impact reducing social problems.

As a result of all of this, we have begun implementing Nurse-Family Partnership in Marion County. In addition to the basic, nurse-led services offered under this highly regarded, evidence-based national program, each mom or mom-to-be will be linked with a Goodwill Guide who can assist her in accessing education services (e.g. through Goodwill’s Excel Centers) and/or employment opportunities (e.g. in Goodwill’s retail system). The Guide will also advise the mom on financial matters, housing and transportation, child care, and health care. It is a holistic, whole family approach that we believe can help reduce generational poverty.

With and for parents who so desire, we intend to take a similar holistic approach with the children of Indianapolis Metropolitan High School students and graduates, Excel Center students and graduates, Goodwill employees with barriers, and families of all of these individuals. To the extent possible and desired by the parents, we intend to maintain these relationships for a long period of time – ideally, until the children are grown.

As this approach develops, it may increasingly resemble Goodwill’s approach in the late 1930s – only with much greater scale, current information and technology, and, hopefully, long lasting impact – in the lives of people and in the larger community.

Evolving to Increase Impact

In the late 1980s, most of the people we worked with were adults with disabilities. We employed several hundred and helped others become employed with other firms. Then we were asked by a state agency if we could help “welfare” recipients find jobs. We found that we could, but only low paying jobs because hardly any of them had high school diplomas. Still, we continued to provide “welfare-to-work” services for 17 years. Meanwhile, we also continued to work with people with disabilities. We had simply expanded our scope to include more people than before.

In the early 1990s, unemployment in the Indianapolis area was very low, and employers were desperate for workers. We responded by aggressively trying to find anyone who was employable, but not working, and helping them find jobs. In addition to persons with disabilities and those on public assistance, we started assisting larger numbers of people coming out of the corrections system and newly-arrived immigrants with poor English language skills.

In the mid-1990s, we became involved in the operation of the one-stop employment service centers in Indianapolis, which were serving an average of 45,000 unemployed people each year. When we started examining demographics, we found that 50% of those individuals did not have high school diplomas.

About the same time we were becoming increasingly aware of the magnitude of the dropout problem in several of the city’s high schools, and we began to wonder if, as an organization, we had anything to offer young people who weren’t headed in a positive direction. We thought that if we could help them stay in school and graduate, they would be less likely to need Goodwill’s services once they became adults. Therefore, our organization’s long term impact would be greater.

We became involved in a number of small scale initiatives with local schools, found that we did have something to offer, and started exploring ways to maximize our impact. That led to a decision to start a charter high school that has now completed its seventh year of operation. The learning from that experience and the relationships that have developed led to our designing and launching a second school, the Excel Center, to provide a diploma option for older youth and adults who had dropped out. The demand for space in the Excel Center has been overwhelming, and we will begin replicating the school this fall.

These and all other major steps we’ve taken during the past twenty-five years have been to increase the organization’s long term impact. A few years ago we articulated the following as the ways Goodwill can add the greatest value in the communities in which we operate. Those are:

  • Help young people and adults who have struggled or failed in other educational settings complete high school and attain a post-secondary degree or other recognized credential.
  • Employ people whose work options are limited by disability, criminal history, low education level, or other significant barrier to employment.
  • Help unemployed people become employed.
  • Leverage Goodwill’s resources with those of others to help develop and implement practical, effective approaches to reduce major social problems.

Of those four, only one – providing employment for people with limited options – has been part of the organization since its founding in 1930. The others are a reflection of how we have evolved over time as we’ve learned more, our external environment has changed, and our internal resources have increased.

That process continues.