Thursday, January 11, 2018

Extending Social Capital – a primer for those who wish to do good in higher education

In the past two decades, as post-secondary education became more efficient and responsive to mandated regulations or competitive pressures, we narrowed our thinking about what education should be.  That narrowness pushed us into emphasizing college and university education for occupational purposes.  The same hyper-emphasis has also affected many K-12 schools which are being asked to be accountable for not just students’ graduations, but to ensure that students are on track for vocational futures.  That’s not entirely wrong.  Occupational readiness can and should be one of an educational system’s aims.  After all, the nation has a right to ask our schools to fill the society’s economic need by preparing students for careers and economic stability.  And it’s certainly important to know that education will lead to something. 

Let me accede that ONE purpose for education is employment and that developing needed skills is important.  To provide those skills, though, skills-focused training isn’t enough.  To give someone technical training in the skills to be an engineer, doctor, plumber, or accountant is a start.  But that person, upon completing the training, will need to negotiate that profession with more than technical skills. Knowing how to build a bridge, diagnose illness, replace the pipes in a house, or maintain financial records doesn’t do people good if they can’t get a job using those skills or successfully negotiate the complexity of how those skills are applied when hired.   An educational experience that doesn’t extend beyond the techniques of the profession, regardless of what kind of profession, will create disadvantages for some while privileging others. 

Anyone who glances at the history of education in the U.S. knows that it has always been a tiered system from its onset.  Certain people have been educated for leadership by allowing them experiences that broaden their worlds.  People with power and privilege get an education that teaches them to think critically and holistically while making the professional connections they need.  Even into the first half of the 1900s that differentiation was just an expected outcome.  Some people had privilege and others didn’t.  During the past 50 years, the nation began working toward accessible education for all.  But we really didn’t interrogate the issue of the kind of education that some receive and others didn’t.  Actually, as we made education more available, we also started creating more narrowly available educational experiences for the new populations who hadn’t been previously served.  This new education focused on technical skills to provide the workers we needed as we ramped up initially for an industrial and now knowledge economy.  The downside is that who receives which kinds of education falls along the same socioeconomic and racial lines that allow privilege to some and exclude others.  We still provide a broad and expansive education for some while providing technical training for others.

This isn’t about the type of job, but, rather the type of opportunity.  We can limit the kinds of experiences that a physician receives as much as we can limit a plumber’s.  Whether we’re preparing electricians or lawyers, we need to ensure that people are prepared equitably to progress into and through their profession.  Unfortunately, disparate educational experiences have historical roots that lie deep within our systems of class and race.  Race, gender, socio-economic status matter.  While focused technical training will provide people with skills, those skills need to be applied in a world where race, gender, social status, and other characteristics create barriers for some people.  Since the early civil rights era, we’ve opened more opportunities to attend school for more people.  But the type of education given to people who aren’t in education systems of privilege means that some have access to people and ideas that others do not.  And that access equates to social capital that ensures continued, generational privilege to some and continued generational exclusion to others. 

If you’ll forgive me for being professorial (a classification that I proudly accept), let me define what I mean by “social capital.”  The term gets thrown around a lot in discussions like this, and it’s often used to define an individual’s feeling of belonging that translates into access to knowledge and privilege.  It’s often used to show that non-privileged people become marginalized because they lack access to the networks and the resulting power needed for full participation in a society.  I like Robert Putnam’s more nuanced perspective on the term.  He looks at social capital in relation to groups and suggests a definition that:

 emphasizes not just warm and cuddly feelings, but a wide variety of quite specific benefits that flow from the trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation associated with social networks. Social capital creates value for the people who are connected and – at least sometimes – for bystanders as well. (

Putnam’s view is one of the collective nature of social networks, and that collective nature becomes important as we look at how students’ social capital (gained from their inclusion or exclusion in certain groups) affect their education.  It’s not just what an individual brings to an experience in relation to dominant societies.  Social capital is a description of what my group identities provide to both me, and to the others around me.  Moreover, it’s not just the person with power who holds social capital.  All of us possess the social capital of our affinity groups.  However, as I seek entry from my affinity group to another that has more power or status, I may not possess the social capital to access that other group.

I see this regularly when someone gets referred to me for counsel about finding work in higher education.  One person will come after spending months unsuccessfully trying to find work.  That person will have a degree that qualifies her for the work, yet she isn’t being interviewed or offered opportunities when she submits her resume.  As I ask that person what kinds of experiences she had in college, she generally speaks of the courses and requirements of the degree.  When I ask if she has any contacts in higher education within her network, the answer is typically something like, “No – I just graduated.  This is all new to me.”

Contrast that to many people I know who got hired into their first higher education job as they were finishing a graduate degree or soon afterward.  They typically hear about the job through their networks – networks that often begin to form in their degree program as faculty and peers connect students to past graduates and professional associates.  Who typically gets those experiences?  Generally, it’s students who have develop a bond with the people they encounter, and most often those are faculty and peers with similar backgrounds as they have.  They connect through internships or opportunities to participate in the faculty’s research.  In order to have that first job, it’s often about those networks.  Then when these folks finally get hired, they have that same network to call for advice on how to manage the complexities of the job beyond technical skills.  In contrast, this all becomes moot if a degree program doesn’t make those connections for you, and you find yourself relying on your resume to shine among the dozens (hundreds?) of other resumes sitting in a hiring manager’s inbox.  I see this as we hire people in education, but I know that this extends to other occupations, too. 

Seems to me that all this calls for looking at education as a place for the connections of social capital as much as it’s a place for knowledge.  Elite schools and elite groups in universities already know this.  The formal and informal alumni networks from places like Stanford or Wharton form the root system of this country’s political and business elites.  It’s no accident that Facebook sprouted from a Harvard tradition that was intended to connect students to each other.  And it’s no accident that Paul Allen and Bill Gates learned computer programming on mainframe computers in high school as their private Seattle high school exposed them to the people who gave them that access.


We’ve sold students on the idea that if they get an education, the power of that education will be enough to ensure their future.  In other words, the technical skills they gain will serve them well.  The maxim to “study hard, get good grades, and you’ll have your pick of jobs” is rooted in the Calvinist ideals of the rewards of work and the importance of individual effort.  It assumes that the rewards of success attach to the follower of that axiom.  On the face of it, this platitude sounds right:  meritorious reward, based on effort.  The flaw is that it assumes a fair process where all effort receives equal, or at least equivalent, reward.  But the student with the requisite social capital has more potential to make that true.  If I have connections and insider knowledge of how things work, I’m more likely to get hired and to progress in my profession.


So that’s the problem.  The solution requires a different kind of education system – one that relies on people who are willing to share their social capital – not as missionaries or messiahs who want to “help” marginalized communities, but as co-explorers of the world.  If I have power and privilege, and if I make connections with people who aren’t like me, I’m more likely to learn more about the larger world and be better equipped to navigate it.  That means being able to learn from others and to walk alongside others – not to be their helper or savior.  And once I’m in real and honest relationship with them, then I can share my social capital as they extend theirs to me. The critical learning would be that people including me into their worlds is as important and valuable as me including them in mine.  Social capital is not just what the powerful and privileged possess.  It is what allows us access into the multiple cultures and societies that we navigate.  Think of it like a foreign currency that allows people to negotiate different worlds.


All this means an education system that, instead of rewarding certain types of social capital, provides opportunities for people of differences to meet and interact and learn together.  It means looking at education differently than a pseudo-meritocracy that rewards only those with the privilege and access with which they were born.  It means allowing people’s difference to have as much value as their accomplishments.  It means that schools would educate for collaboration and cooperation as much as competition (or maybe instead of competition).  It would be healthy for the society, after all, for those with privilege to learn that their status isn’t the result of a modern manifest destiny that confers favor to them. 


Please don’t leave this article thinking that I’m proposing another technical solution where education needs to provide more exposure opportunities.  Internships, externships, service learning, cooperative education opportunities, and the like have been around for a long time.  They work well, but they’re clearly not enough to bridge the social capital chasm.  Many of the people who come to me for help in finding work in higher education have had those experiences, yet they are still stymied about finding work.  What I propose requires more personal investment – a way for people to share their social capital outside of their affinity groups – as a significant purpose of the educational system.  We who are professionals know how to do that within our existing affinity groups as we write reference letters, make phone calls on people’s behalf, or bring people with us when we attend gatherings.  That’s all built into the norms of our social groups. 


To extend our social capital truly, though, requires that we discover how to develop and sustain relationships outside of what we typically do.  And that begins with discussions where we learn from people outside our own bubble as we share our knowledge.  I don’t include a formula for how to do that in this statement because effective and genuine relationships are never about a formula.  The closest I can offer is that you need to be honest and open to listening to what others tell you.  And you need to advocate for systems of education that encourage and value and promote complementarity among diverse groups and people.  If there is a skill to this work, it’s the skill of listening, learning, and living in each other’s worlds.  This model of crossing borders requires a systemic change that allows cooperation and dialogue to occur. 


These are lofty ideas and some might argue completely fanciful.  But, as with any change, we begin with a vision of what can and should be.  Then we live into it.  There are already organizations at all levels of education that practice these ideals.  For example, Highlander has been doing this work for decades as it provides support to groups ranging from the early Civil Rights movement to indigenous groups in Central America to Appalachian folk artists.  There are also people who live this way.  Some educational consultants no longer parachute into a setting and offer a one-sized-fits-all solution – and prefer to commit to longer-term relationships where they can embed into institutions and become part of the institutional community. 


These people and organizations should be our models, the people and groups we seek out when we look to new ways of operating.  We make choices when we decide what should be.  If we inform those choices with a clear vision, soon elements of that vision start to emerge.  What I propose, then, is that this starting vision – where we begin with the idea to create opportunities for people to meet and cooperate to share each other’s social capital – can help us to make the small decisions now that will give everyone an equitable opportunity for the future. 


And maybe that will mean that someday the person who comes for career advice to me will come to ask about how to decide among the multiple opportunities before her.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

He's not childish - let’s not disparage our children by comparing them to the president

I spent nine years in junior high school.  I admit that I was a late bloomer, but not that late.  Seven of those years were teaching junior high school 30 years ago.  In other words, I’ve spent a fair amount of time being and then teaching those ages.  I’ve also seen who these children become, as some of my earliest students are now in their early 50s.  And based on those experiences, I believe that it’s insulting to children to compare the current president’s behavior to theirs.

Yes, pre-teens/teens can be petulant, petty, emotional, rash.  Yes, they can speak without the benefit of prior thought.  Yes, they can make up names for people and denigrate people without forethought for what that means for those people or to their own humanity.  They can lie incessantly and almost without knowing they are lying.  They can play one friend off of another to gain advantage over both.   And, yes, those are all traits of the current president. 

But children of that age are also incredibly inquisitive, deeply loyal, willing to work hard and commit, idealistic, and above else able to learn and evolve as humans – not characteristics that anyone would ascribe to the president.  They will “hate” one minute and “love” the next minute in their march toward adulthood.  But that’s part of the malleability of their growth.  As they cope with life changes, new-found responsibilities, and challenges, they adapt.  They become talented musicians and plumbers and scientists and bus drivers.  They become us, the adults of the society.  And that transformation isn’t something that somehow magically occurs at some age or stage.  It’s a slow process of maturation that begins in childhood and gets tempered with time and life. 

Contrast that to a fully formed adult who exhibits the destructive behaviors of a 13-year-old child.  When a child is petulant, rash, and hurtful toward others, we help the child modify those behaviors.  That way, the behaviors don’t hinder that child’s long-term emotional and social growth.  Eventually, most children learn the difference between ineffective and effective ways to engage the world.  So it’s unfair to compare a fully formed adult like the president to children because, as an adult, he had opportunities to change.  An adult who doesn’t change those behaviors reifies the behaviors into how he experiences the world and expresses himself in it.  That’s very different than what children do as they learn from mistakes and mature beyond ineffective and destructive mannerisms.

So let’s stop the unfair comparisons to our children.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Should we care…?

Should we care about educating students who have diagnosed disabilities? Should we care about providing equitable educational opportunities to poor children? Should we care about teacher and principal quality? How about immigrant or migrant children? Or homeless and foster youth? For the past 50 years, our nation has made a commitment to those children at the margins, and more, through legislation and regulations as a result of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which has been reauthorized every five years. Archimedes famously said that he could move the earth with a lever and a place to stand.  For education, ESEA has been that lever and footing.  If you want to see what impact that has on Washington state schools, look here:



Please. Go to that site and look at what this act funds. It's a lot, isn’t it? We have evolved as a nation to continue to support the most vulnerable while making a commitment to education as a force for equity and opportunity. While the substance of legislation has changed (Bush II's version was No Child Left Behind and Obama's was the Every Student Succeeds Act), and politicians have disagreed with what actions are best, there has been one, critical credo that all legislatures and all presidents have supported for over 50 years: Public education must be maintained for all children. Until now.


Now that the Republican Party controls two branches of the federal government (and some argue, the third), they are letting loose with a barrage of initiatives to dismantle the nation’s march to a more equitable system of education.  The current Republican actions toward education range from the inane to the insane.  With the introduction of House Bill 610, Steve King (the Iowan legislator who shares that famous name, and whose writing would produce real horror stories), requests the complete removal of the 50-year commitment to all of the nation's children. This bill, in its first line, repeals the ESEA, thus eliminating all of what you read at the site above.  King’s bill, and King, actually, aren’t taken seriously by anyone but extremists, so it has little current chance of ever getting anywhere.  In contrast, the president’s proposed budget that eliminates many of the programs funded in ESEA seems mild.  But don’t confuse its intent because it isn’t as draconian as what someone like Steve King wants.


The president’s first budget portends the directions that he wants to take public education.  As expressed in what gets eliminated and newly funded, that direction shifts the balance between the wealthy and poorest.  The result will eliminate what has taken multiple generations of legislative action to create. Under the banner of “choice,” this budget eliminates successful efforts to support education for all.  The one common thread among all of these efforts is that they eliminate requirements for serving students who are poor, who need support, who may be homeless, or who attend schools that need better trained teachers.  Instead, we would let the marketplace resolve the issues of these people. 


I’m not anti-free-market.  When I need to buy a refrigerator, I appreciate the ability to shop around and to get a good deal – as much as that is possible with the consolidation of manufacturers which have absorbed the many brands that existed a few years back. Free markets assume that the self-interests of the company and my own self-interests will reach an accommodation that achieves both of our aims.  The company gets a profit, and I get a refrigerator with features I want at a price I can afford. 


That idea breaks down in thinking about social services, and modern societies have learned that lesson over the past 100 years as we’ve found that the interests of people, especially marginalized people, are often forgotten if the powerful are left unimpeded.  I’m old enough to recall Bobby Kennedy’s reaction to what he found in Appalachia when he visited the people there who’d been completely forgotten and of whom he wrote:


In nearly every place, especially rural communities, where we found a severe unwillingness to help the poor, we also found, and not always because of ethnic differences, a pocket of feudalism in America: a local power structure committed to perpetuating itself at all costs and unwilling to countenance the slightest improvement in the lives of the excluded, for fear they would gain the confidence and the wherewithal to overturn the status quo at the ballot box. Elected officials, judges, police officers and sheriffs, and local bankers and business people were always ready to use any tool necessary to quash dissidence whenever it appeared.


Sound familiar almost 50 years later?  A society that does not hold the powerful in check gets the kind of feudal totalitarianism that Kennedy described.  Through American history, when we forget those checks against the avarice of the wealthy and powerful, we’ve had to be reminded of what happens when we let the market decide about the social well-being of all people.  Does anyone remember why we developed anti-trust laws, or labor laws, or environmental laws?  It’s because we wanted to protect the powerless.  We began the experiment of democracy in this nation over 200 years ago with most of the people in the nation disenfranchised.  With time, we have reached toward the egalitarian promise of our founding. 


A market-driven system of social services means that the powerful will remain powerful and that the poor will remain poor.  Unlike my purchase of a refrigerator, there isn’t any choice for the poor when choosing a social service like education.  In this marketplace, the poor are told that the refrigerator choices are for people with money and they should be satisfied with a melting block of ice.  After all, this logic suggests, the people with resources earned what they have, and it’s only the fault of the poor that they didn’t earn more.


The idea that vouchers will even the playing field is an embarrassing joke on the working class and impoverished.  As the Washington Post noted, in 2013 school spending per student averaged almost $11,000 annually and the range was almost $20,000 at the top and $6,500 at the bottom.  As the information compiled by Great Schools notes, none of the voucher states and the District of Columbia come anywhere near providing funding that covers the amount paid per pupil in even the lowest cost state.  So it’s a cruel joke to say that anyone is evening the playing field because, in reality, vouchers are a subsidy for people who want to send their children to private schools.  It helps reduce their tuition costs.  This isn’t the marketplace.  It’s welfare for people who already have resources.


If you want to see where this downward spiral is headed, look at states Like Oklahoma that have been on this path for some time.  I know we’re in an age of disbelief of facts and a cynicism that pervades both our public and private discourses.  And I share some of the skepticism.  But without ESEA and the long march toward equitable participation that it encourages, the marketplace isn’t going to somehow magically change the dynamics of power and oppression that have drove us to create laws like ESEA.  So before we start dismantling a system that has evolved in order to be more inclusive and equitable, let’s take a pause and ask why we would change the trajectory of inclusion that has driven us to create the laws and regulations that have taken a half century to develop. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

To my teacher friends and others (thoughts as I near retirement):

Ever want to see how far you’ve come as a teacher?  Wait a few years and then go back and look at your planning documents from your first year.  In my case “a few years” is almost 38, and I just spent a few moments looking through a lesson plan book from my first full year of teaching high school during the 1979-’80 school year.  My memory hasn’t been so faded at any point that I thought I was a good teacher in that first year.  I even use some stories from that first year to highlight how not to train and prepare teachers these days.  Almost from the start, I recognized my inadequacies and worked hard to gain the skills I missed prior to starting as classroom teacher.  Although I was as proficient as the more experienced teachers with whom I worked, I was wholly inadequate.  Looking at that document from so long ago highlights how far I’ve come in my skills, as well as my perceptions of learners, the relationships among learner, teacher and content, the ways to engage all learners, and a host of other issues.  My learning over the past 38 years has shaped not only my thinking about the craft and artistry of teaching, but my thinking about the world overall.  To be successful in the classroom means that you have to think expansively and see the potential of every learner’s success.  You have to believe alongside learners and sometimes have to believe in them when they don’t believe in themselves.  And you need a lot of skills to pull that off authentically while helping learners explore and gain the knowledge they need to build their lives.  It’s an incredible gift to spend part of your life doing that, and an incredible responsibility to do it well.  In my case, my growth as a teacher has helped me see the world as an intricately connected web where each of us has an opportunity to participate in each other’s lives.  What a wonderful profession this has been to allow me such a journey.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Are we in a post-racial world? In a word, NO! Make that, Hell No!

So my colleague and I were catching up after not seeing each other for a while.  She’s just accepted a new position as an administrator at the community college up the street from where I work.  I wanted to welcome her to the neighborhood and welcome her to her new job.  We arranged to meet at a Starbucks in between our two institutions.  We talked for maybe 30 or 40 minutes.  It’s the kind of innocuous catch-up talk that two college administrators do when we’re trying to figure out what we’ve been up to since we last talked.

My awareness of the incident, as I later explained it to the officer who took my statement, started with me realizing that my right hand was wet.  We were in a Starbucks and there was lots of liquid around.  My cortical brain told me that most likely someone spilled something.  But then, I heard someone behind me say something that sounded like, “fucking nigger bitch.”  My brain needed a new explanation.  I turned and realized that a young White man in his early 20s behind me, neatly dressed with short-cropped hair with a dark-colored backpack, was directing this statement to my colleague. As I turned further to face him, he said, “That’s right fucking nigger bitch” again.  He walked to the door and walked out.  The incident didn’t really register with me, even as he walked out.  What had happened?  I turned to my colleague and asked if she knew the young man.  She had never seen him.  He went outside and stood at the window yelling more comments that we could not hear and finally walked away down the street.  It was as he stood at the window that my brain started to make sense of things, as I realized that the liquid I initially felt on my hand was his spit.  He had spit at my colleague, as it turned out, twice.  This young man looked like a thousand other young college students I’ve seen over the years.  Clean cut, well dressed.  He was also visibly angry.  He did not present as mentally disturbed or under the influence of any substances.  He directed his anger at my colleague, having never met either of us.  He saw two African Americans sitting in a Starbucks and decided that it was okay to assault us. 

As my colleague noted as we waited to file a police report, we both know that we can’t dress ourselves out of the perception of who were are in the dominant society.  She and I, dressed in the kind of professional attire anyone would expect a college administrator to be wearing in the middle of a work day, are still targets for hate.  The young man didn’t see educated college administrators sitting at the table.  He saw two Black people and, in his twisted sense of the rules of life, our socio-economic status, educational accomplishments, or our age required no respect or deference.  In fact, he seemed only to see a woman of color whom he could brazenly assault in an open space with others watching.  It reminded me of my childhood growing up in the 1950’s and 1960s in an all-White community where my family endured these kinds of threats daily.  That was then, right?  We all seem to perceive that we’ve changed now.  After all, as that thinking goes, we’re in a post-racial world where what really matters is status and access to resources and power. 

The access and status that both my colleague and I have obtained didn’t stop this incident.  While the society has created hate crime laws and has professed an expectation that this kind of behavior shouldn’t be tolerated, clearly for this young man those weren’t enough discouragements to overcome whatever misogynistic and racial hatred and ignorance fuel him.  And, on reflection a few hours after the incident, more than that young man’s actions were disturbing to me.  This was a very public act in a very small space.  Everyone at that café heard the incident and many saw it.  However, only one patron came up after the incident.  That woman apologized to us, saying that this should never happen to anyone, and she offered to be a witness.  Also, the manager came to assist us to clean ourselves and to help file the police report.  Everyone else at the café sat silently or went on with their business.  In a truly post-racial world, that would not be how things work.  In a post-racial world, that kind of violation would mobilize every person in that space to actively resist an assault on two people – an assault that only happened because of our race, and because of the gender of my colleague.  In a post-racial world, there’s no silence.  Even if you can’t directly act, you take a stand to support those who are assaulted, like the woman who volunteered to be a witness, or the manager who took action.  That personal action is the only way that we stop gender-based and racially motivated hate crimes.  And it’s the only way to ensure that people like this young man get the message that we as a society won’t accept any assault on any person.  My guess is that the next time, this young man will be more violent and his next incident will be more brash.  Unstopped, antisocial behavior like this escalates.  And he lives in a world right now where he felt safe taking these actions.  But when incidents like this stop, or people who witness these incidents involve themselves as actors against such acts, then maybe we’ll be moving toward a post-racial world.

Note Added 6/5/16:
Until this date, I encouraged people to post replies and I would moderate and allow those replies to appear here.  When Seattle NPR station KUOW re-posted this three days ago, I'm told they received 33,000 hits in the first day, and that drove a significant number of readers to this site.  And many of those readers sent replies -- more responses than I can keep up with.  So I've kept the replies that were online before the deluge of messages, and I have turned off the reply feature to this posting.  I apologize to people who have sent messages; however, it's impossible for me to moderate and post all of them.  I encourage those of you who've sent replies that weren't posted to engage in this discussion in other forums.  BH

Note Added 6/11/16
In the past week, KUOW interviewed my colleague, Yoshiko Harden, and me about this incident.  KUOW's Web editor also posted a follow up article where others tell their stories.  The interview and the posting of others' stories are at this link:  BH

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The measurement of success

Throughout my career, I’ve seen major changes in what “success” should be in education.  When I started as a high school English teacher, my colleagues and I were told that we needed to make certain that every child completed high school with the basic skills they needed.  In the 1970s and 1980s, the media of the day carried daily messages about children who graduated from high school while being “functionally illiterate.”  Newspaper story after TV news report after movie-of-the-week all denounced the failed system that allowed such a terrible wastes of children’s potential and of tax payers’ money.  Success became defined with not being that teacher who allowed children to be marked for life by not being able to read, write, and compute.  And if we could take things even further by teaching beyond basic skills, that was even better evidence that we were successful teachers.  The 70s and 80s push to “go back to the basics” (a popular phrase of the period) provided a clear definition of what success should look like:  Students should be able to read, write, and compute; teachers should be able to make certain that they do.  As with any simplistic reduction, however, the basics push and its more recent progeny, the hyper-focus on standards, takes half of a truth and weaves a whole plan around it.

The success of teachers has been interwoven with the success of our students since Socrates taught Plato.  In the ideal, our students engage with what we offer them and they expand and extend what we teach them.  Pragmatically, though, we often settle for what they can restate from our ideas.  In either case, the interchange of student, teacher, and idea form the foundation of what learning is.  And measuring that learning typically drives what we value, what gets emphasized, and what we see as both the success of the teacher and of the student.  If we see the extension and deeper exploration of ideas as what we value, we will measure our success by students’ capacity to do so and the evidence that they provide of having done so.  On the other hand, if we believe that learning is more about restatement, then we will measure students’ capacity to restate.  It is within these epistemological questions on the nature of knowledge and what we value that education has wrestled throughout my career.  And it’s within this tension that the definition of “success” has shifted.

The problem, now, is that we’ve seen success confused with measurement.  The push to find metrics and standards and assessments is so pervasive that it has become an end in itself.  Over the past 30 years, I’ve participated in local, statewide, and national discussions on measurement at the pre-K-12 levels, within community colleges, and at universities.  I’ve been privileged as a professor, researcher, and administrator to see those conversations first-hand and to see their impacts as the discussions have evolved over time.  Those experiences convince me that getting stuck in accountability measures is one of the biggest flaws of this movement.  We measure, we determine what to measure, and we determine what scores mean.  But after all that work, we really don’t have much agreement on the impacts of all that measuring.

I’m not suggesting that accountability measures don’t have a connection to action.  There are major consultants in pre-K-12 education who have made millions teaching educators how to connect testing data to classroom practice.  But the question that we rarely ask is whether these actions that often show good testing results are a complete and adequate measure of what we want schools to accomplish. 

And that’s what’s missing.  At the core of the question I’m posing is the central question of what schools and schooling are supposed to be.  Once we determine that, we can then identify how our students and our teachers are successful.  We haven’t yet defined what we want our schools to be.  Are our pre-K-12 schools and our post secondary systems professional training centers that prepare students for the workforce?  Are they places that prepare students for full democratic participation within the society?  Are they engines of acculturation to a set of adult behaviors?  Are they carriers of a common culture?  As our schools have evolved, especially in the last 60 years as we’ve tried to make them more accessible to more members of the society, that purpose has been muddied. 

That’s to be expected as we’ve worked at being more responsive and inclusive, and attempted to meet the democratic ideals we profess.  These changes have been critical to move us away from serving a narrow few and into serving the needs of all.  But the result is that we no longer have simple answers about what schooling is.  And with that muddying has come a clack of clarity on what it takes for schools to be successful.  If schools are to be professional training centers, then we’ll have an easy time identifying their success because we can readily measure how many students matriculate the system and go into the workforce.  We could also create work-related benchmarks along the way that measure job readiness and skills development.  We could test children as they complete levels of the pre-K-12 system and help them make choices about the next level of education.  But if schools are to be something else than training for work, we’ll have a much more challenging task. 

The U.S. has eschewed a narrowly defined purpose for its schools.  Instead, we have given schools the full range of more complex tasks that are identified in the prior paragraphs.  And while success gets measured by whichever of these purposes is ascendant, the pressures from all of these purposes drive policies and practices, making success hard to identify.  What I find interesting, though, is that the society never has a public discussion about this fundamental tension.  It is a longstanding topic among academics; however, that conversation never happens in the public realm where funding and policy get decided.  Instead, we generate policies and laws that drive educational practices.

My challenge to academics who study education, then, is to stop having discussions among ourselves solely.  I posit that if your voice doesn’t reach beyond the constricted communities of academics, then your work misses critical audiences who need to have the information you have.  I understand that we are rewarded through a tenure and promotion process that values the insular voices within our disciplines.  However, that insularity is inadequate for the needs we now face.  To the teachers, administrators and policy makers who form our public and private educational system, I urge you to begin a dialogue about the purposes of education.  A sustained discussion that brings the multiple stakeholders of our educational system together to discuss its purposes is long overdue.  Parents, students, and community members, you are the people who are most impacted by education.  You experience it, are educated by it, and often are asked to weigh in on it. Your responsibility is to demand this discussion about purpose, and you also have a responsibility to be informed.  If we are to own this system, we must all engage in the dialogue about education’s purpose through reasoned and well-informed information.  Then we can define and measure success.