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Evidence-Based Joy:
Is Your School or College "On Mission?"

A Report from the Grauer School Office of Research and Evaluation — by Tricia Valeski, Ph.D. and Stuart Grauer, Ed.D.

A school "mission" normally expresses aspirations towards the achievement of core values and whole-person developments. Most schools espouse such idealistic purposes ... and then report on their school's progress with a series of test scores, college rankings, and donation reports. The things schools and colleges report on to demonstrate their success, oddly, rarely have much to do with their stated mission.

We are not exaggerating when we say that alumni donations are weighted more heavily than student teacher relationships in school quality ratings (2018 US News and World Report). In fact, students' perceptions of teachers and teacher quality do not even enter into the equation. Furthermore, the focus on test scores and student ranks that we see so commonly can lead a school in the opposite direction of typical mission statements. Disconnect.

In this week's column, we are reporting on the achievement of the actual mission of The Grauer School. It is our hope that this model of reporting on school success and achievement is somehow catching. If you are a Grauer School parent, this data will be immediately relevant to you. If you are a leader from another school, we'd love to learn how your school evaluates its own success and quality.

So: What is our mission?

Mission: To teach and encourage students to become resourceful and intrinsically motivated in a compassionate, college preparatory environment.

Method: We balance Socratic and experiential education with rigorous college and life preparation.

Are we achieving these purposes?

Last week we received a beautiful, unsolicited letter which noted a sentiment we hear quite often in letters we receive and conversations we have: "My husband and I appreciate everything you and your staff do to 'walk the talk' about creating a balanced educational environment." But to what extent does this parent testimonial reflect our whole program? Please read on to see.

First: student-teacher relationships. For the past two years, Grauer students rated their teachers 3.5 out of 4 in their achievement of the school's core values. We'd love to compare this very high score to national norms, but of course cannot, since we are measuring the achievement of our own values—great schools reach for their own, distinctive, espoused goals.

Grauer Music teacher Tom Hopper connecting through music with Max B. '23 on a field trip to the Museum of Making Music

Research has long supported the notion that engagement leads to academic success, whereas disengagement can lead to academic failure and dropout. We believe that one of the best ways to foster engagement is to develop a school community where students feel safe, supported and connected. At Grauer, for instance, our focus on relationships between students and teachers, and between students and each other, has created a culture of connectedness that is unparalleled. We believe this emphasis contributes to students' happiness, levels of engagement, and their academic success. Happily, we can provide evidence of all of the above.

The benefits of this philosophy are reflected in our students' responses throughout a nationwide survey of student engagement. [1] First and foremost, Grauer students surpass their public and private school peers in almost every dimension of academic and emotional/participatory engagement, as measured by the HSSSE. Furthermore, Grauer students feel safe, supported, and connected. Specifically,

  • Grauer students feel good about school: 95% of Grauer students agree or strongly agree that they feel good about being in their school, 12% higher than public high school students and 4% higher than their private school peers.
  • They also care more about their school (95%), than public (72%) and private school (89%) students.
  • 99% of Grauer students feel supported by their teachers, compared to 83% of their public school peers.
  • 96% of Grauer students feel supported by other students, a full 21% more than students from public schools.
  • Grauer students feel they can be creative in their academic work: (99%), 16% higher than public school students.
  • 95% of Grauer students feel comfortable being themselves at school, as opposed to 77% of public school students.
  • 99% of Grauer students feel safe at school, compared to 82% of public school students.
  • 96% of Grauer students feel their opinions are respected, compared to 79% of their private school counterparts, and just 60% of their public school peers.
  • 79% of Grauer students feel they are an important part of the school community, as opposed to 53% of public school students.

In recent columns, we have focused on a nationwide epidemic of student anxiety and suggested remedies. How are we doing? Last month Grauer students responded to items on the Spence Anxiety scale. [2] As concerns about teenage anxiety and depression continue to rise, we are thrilled to announce that at Grauer, our students are happy and they feel good about themselves!

At Grauer, we are trying to cultivate compassion, self-understanding, as well as the notion that students are part of a global community, and that school has a relevance and meaning beyond the classroom. For example, Grauer Students feel the school has contributed to:

  • Learning what life is like for other people in your community: Grauer 71%, Private 65%, Public 50%
  • Understanding why what you learn will be important after high school: Grauer 77%, Private 61%, Public 57%
  • Understanding yourself: Grauer 81%, Private 70%, Public 57%
  • Treating people with respect: Grauer 94%, Private 87%, Public 53%
  • Developing personal beliefs and values: Grauer 88%, Private 77%, Public 60%
  • Applying knowledge to everyday life: Grauer 85%, Private 69%, Public 60%
  • Building relationships with students of different backgrounds: Grauer 95%, Private 82%, Public 61%

Another important area in which Grauer excels is student perceptions of the value of our school. Grauer students can trust that our programs are rigorous and of high quality. Specifically, Grauer students feel that the school has contributed to:

  • Writing effectively: Grauer 99%, Private 93%; Public 79%
  • Speaking effectively: Grauer 95%, Private 87%, Public 72%
  • Thinking critically: Grauer 97%, Private 91%, Public 76%
  • Developing creative ideas and solutions: Grauer 99%, 89%, 72%
  • Reading and understanding challenging materials: Grauer 93%, Private 91%, Public 75%
  • Using technology to gather and communicate information: Grauer 94%, Private 90%, Public 74%

One important area in which we fall short: We spend vastly less time memorizing facts and figures, and preparing for standardized tests.

One theme that runs through all of this data is the notion of trust. Our students trust us to value and support them, to give them a voice and ownership over their learning, and to deliver a quality education that will serve them throughout high school and beyond.

The Grauer School's High School Robotics team with their Coach Morgan Brown and mentors Liam Murphy and Daren Gardner

We do not necessarily agree with the maxim, "you are what you measure," at all. Nevertheless, any movement to gather and report on data that reflects the practice of what any schools or colleges preach could have a profound and positive impact on the experiences our children are having and on the future of our nation. I hope all readers feel fully equipped to answer the question, "Are we achieving our purposes?" whatever school or college your family is associated with.

[1] In the spring of 2017, 10,694 students from 50 NAIS-member schools completed the High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE), with students from all regions of the US and one international school. Participating schools ranged in size from 50 to 2,200 students. Boys and girls were equally represented, and Grauer students closely matched demographics of NAIS schools in race/ethnicity.

[2] The Spence Children's Anxiety Scale is a 45-item questionnaire designed to identify symptoms of anxiety in children and adolescents.

Fearless Teaching Book

Fearless Teaching is a stirring and audacious jaunt around the world that peeks—with the eyes of one of America’s most seasoned educators–into places you will surely never see on your own. Some are disappearing. It is a bit like playing hooky from school. You will travel to the Swiss Alps, Korea, Navajo, an abandoned factory in Missouri, the Holy Land, the Great Rift Valley, the schools of Cuba, the ocean waves, and the human subconscious—oh, and Disneyland.

There you will find colorful stories for the encouragement, inspiration, and courage needed by educators and parents. Fearless Teaching is not a fix-it book—it is more a way of seeing the world and the school so that you can stay in your work and focus on what matters most to you.

Grauer’s writing reminds us that
"Great Teaching, singular, rare, unusual, is something that should be sought after and found. Thank you.”
Richard Dreyfuss, Actor, Oxford scholar, founder of The Dreyfuss Initiative

Click here to order Fearless Teaching today

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