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.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

What are teachers supposed to be like?

Seems to me that everyone has an answer to this question.  Throughout my career, I’ve gone to block parties, family gatherings, and other social events where people all have an opinion on the topic.  As soon as a stranger hears I’m in education, I hear their ideas.  “Good teachers are born, not taught,” someone will opine.  Or, “What we need in classrooms are people who are really dedicated,” another person will offer.  Everyone has gone through some kind of formal school experience, and everyone forms an opinion on the topic.  I suppose it must be like that for people who work at Boeing or Microsoft.  Lots of us use their products, and we all have ideas on how to make them better.  When I fly up and down the west coast, most often I fly on a Boeing 737.  It’s one of the most cramped planes I’ve experienced.  The seats are so close together that I can’t open my laptop, even when the seats sit upright.   “Why can’t they just take the bulkhead space in a 737, distribute it evenly, and create more space for all of us,” I muse.  There must be reasons why engineers create floor plans for planes in the way that they do, so I don’t imagine that my musings are going to influence the way that planes are built.

The difference in education is that there are some not-fully-informed opinions that actually matter.  Over the past 30 years, we’ve seen increased pressures at all levels of how education gets conducted because of the opinions of people who use either their experience or the perceived experiences of others to make policies, legislation, or investments into education without fully understanding the implications of their actions.  Well intentioned foundations have poured millions into shaping educational practice into a specific direction, while they ignore decades of research and experience that suggest other directions.  Federal and state legislators pass laws which follow flawed assumptions with even more flawed assumptions that drive schools far away from what they should be doing to be effective.  We have policy makers and enforcers at every level who understand little beyond the policies that they create and mandate.  And I’m convinced that it’s because people who believe that they know (as consumers of the experience) how best to shape education.  However, as is the case of my knowledge of jets, participating doesn’t equate to understanding how to build.

That problem extends throughout all facets of education, and it really extends into whom we think teachers should be.  I’ve written more formally on the dangers of over-standardization of teacher preparation.  But the problem goes deeper than that.  Through popular media, we have a sense that teachers need to be some combination of kindly Mr. Chips and magically wise Dumbledore.  Go online and search for best TV and movie teachers and you’ll find lists of them that offer an interest glimpse into our expectations.  As you’ll discover, though, the “best” teachers in our popular mythology are rated on character traits and not skill.  When skill gets explored, it’s a sense of magical quality that comes from the capacity to enthrall students.  In our popular mass awareness, this endowed skill is a “gift” that some have and others don’t.

It would be impossible to argue that teachers shouldn’t be wise or kind, or possess any of the characteristics that comprise the popular notion of teaching.  Teaching is hard work and it requires significant mental agility, constant creativity, a kindness of spirit, and wisdom to make decisions in every minute that can help or harm learners.  But it’s much more than that.  If you haven’t seen beyond your own experience or the popular sense of what teaching is, you won’t see what a teacher should be.  When I see the extra space in the bulkhead of a 737, I see what seems to be an obvious need to redistribute that space.  And when people who haven’t been trained in education see a classroom, they see external manifestations that can be incorrectly identified as magically gifted attributes.  However, as anyone who has been in education for a few years can explain, what you’re actually seeing are learned and practiced skills that can be defined.

This distinction is important when looking at what teachers are supposed to be like.  If I don’t know any better, I’ll most likely identify a good teacher as the person who is personable and charismatic and can present well.  In contrast, if I understand that teaching is a learned and practiced set of skills, I’ll look for other, more critical factors.  I’ll make certain that the teacher understands how to conduct activities like assessment of learning, classroom management, the sequencing of skills and knowledge, and the development of lessons that address a broad range of learners’ needs.  I’ll look for evidence that the person wants to work in a profession where she/he will have to learn and grow and adapt every year.  Our popular myths suggest that teaching requires extraordinary abilities.  I actually agree with that perception.  The difference is that my experiences as a teacher, my research, and my reading of others’ research all suggest to me that these extraordinary abilities are significantly formed through training and practice, just like any profession.

So what are teachers supposed to be like?  First, as you might infer from what you just read, they need to be skilled professionals.  They need to walk into a classroom on the first day prepared to perform one of the hardest jobs I know (I think of it as air traffic controlling while piloting the plane).  They need to begin their career with a set of skills that helps them know how to meet every student’s needs while ensuring that every student performs to high standards.  Secondly, like a physician who cannot practice from the knowledge gained solely in medical school, teachers need to remain current in both their methods and content knowledge.  Finally, teachers do need to be like kindly Mr. Chips and wise wizard Dumbledore.  They need to care deeply for each student’s success and provide that student with the guidance and support that the student needs. 

All of that suggest a preparation that is comprehensive in scope and depth.  The idea that just having the right characteristics makes a good teacher is an anachronism that has its roots in a system of education where we just expected educators to be dispensers of knowledge and students as vessels of knowledge waiting to be filled.  In truth, that dated idea was itself flawed since only a very few benefitted from that model.  For most of America’s educational history, we were satisfied with a system that served a few “smart” people while others were relegated to something less than that – something that meant schooling really wasn’t for them.  As we’ve started to live up to the promise of an egalitarian educational system, we need educators who can be more than just good communicators, or even kindly communicators.  Their preparation must help them to engage the most diverse population in the nation’s history and to ensure that every student succeeds.  A good teacher should look like the professionals I see in the schools I’m privileged to visit all the time:  possessing strong management and instructional skills, willing to learn more constantly, caring about each learner, and having an outstanding grasp of the content they teach.  If that sounds demanding, it is.  But that’s why we have preparation programs to help new teachers become ready for this.  And it’s why ongoing professional development is so important.  A good teacher has to be a master of many things and the ones I see have done that by being well trained and constantly learning more.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

What do we do with a greying profession?

Recently, the Council for the Advancement of Adult Literacy asked some people from around the country to contribute to a discussion on the greying of the leadership in adult education.  While CAAL's discussion is about the greying of the adult literacy leadership, it's a good discussion starter for all of education, as those of us in the baby boom who have held leadership roles are aging.  Both my comments and those of others are online at:


Monday, January 14, 2013

Has our public school system failed?

Seems to me that it’s time to respond to the people who keep making the point that our public education system is failing.  Quite simply, it’s not.  From the time of A Nation at Risk in 1983 forward, we’ve seen a barrage of public comments about schools’ failures.  That continued and erroneous assault on our public education system has created a picture that just isn’t true.  Even more catastrophic than a false picture are the resulting public policies based on these false premises.  We’ve passed new laws, set up entire systems or accountability, and mandated changes that are based on the perception of a failed school system.  Are some schools failing?  Without a doubt, some schools have failed to meet the needs of the students they serve.  Has the system failed?  There’s no empirical evidence to support that. 

And, actually, the opposite is true.  Our system of public education has succeeded at the tasks we’ve given it.  In the 20th century, we asked schools to get more people to complete high school and to make certain that they could perform basic reading, writing, and computational tasks.  The people who tell us schools are failing claim that didn’t happen.  They suggest that schools have become progressively worse in recent decades.  But when we look at the rate of adults 25 years and older who completed high school in 1970, we see that only 54% did so according to the Bureau of the Census.  These days, nationally, the rate is around 88%, and in greater Seattle it’s closer to 93%.  That’s a different story than often gets discussed.  People sometimes look at on-time graduation rates (which hover between 60-70%) and assume that’s the end of the story.  But if 88% of 25-year-olds have earned a high school diploma, there’s clearly more of the story to tell.  If you believe the Census Bureau data, you have to accept this increase as a significant success.   

So maybe, it is sometimes argued, the increased high school graduation rates are the result of relaxed standards.  However, the data show that’s just not the case.  Standardized scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the same test given annually to fourth, eighth, and twelfth grade students over the past 40+ years, show that basic skills and knowledge scores have remained the same or have slightly increased in some areas.  The increased numbers of graduates have about the same skills that their predecessors did.  As we disaggregate by socio-economic status and other factors like English language skills or learning disabilities, we do see that some groups have not done as well as the overall averages.  And that’s where we need to look at improving education for those populations.  But we cannot focus on those needs we have until we understand where they exist.     

We also need to understand that we have shifted the mission of schools and schooling in the 21st century.  The basic skills and high school diploma of the past aren’t sufficient for the educational needs of an information society.  We need to acknowledge that our economic and societal needs require more than reading, writing, and arithmetic from the people our schools produce.  Dr. David Prince, of the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges conducted an analysis of the requirements for an adult to be economically independent.  His found that there is a “tipping point” that determines the level of education needed for economic independence.  That point comes when they attend at least one year of post-secondary education and attain a certificate to go along with that.  Once people reach that tipping point, they earn the wage levels required for sufficiency.  The Northwest’s fishing, logging, and farming jobs of 40 years ago gave way to new occupations that demand more education and a different kind of education.  While, in the past century, we asked schools just to get people graduated, in this century, we’re asking schools to prepare them to transition into opportunities that get them to the tipping point and beyond.   

To operate in this new role, it is imperative that we move beyond the ineffective rhetoric that decries systemic school failure.  Start by looking at the data.  That’s why I’m including links to the sources I’m citing.  We need to move away from politicized rhetoric and begin with fact finding based on reliable sources of data.  What are we doing well and what do we need to improve?  Whom are we serving well and whom do we need to serve better?  Instead of accepting any argument about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of schools, start by knowing what the ample research and school data tell us.  Then let’s move beyond rhetoric into creating the solutions for those areas where schools are struggling.  Let’s advocate for the resources for those areas and let’s work diligently toward solutions in those areas.  Let’s stop looking at reforming a system and, instead, let’s start looking at evolving it from its incredible history of success into the future successes we need.