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.