Tuesday, December 18, 2007

How to Measure Schools?

It is not an easy question to ask, and yet is a question that seems to be taking up a lot of time in policy and political circles. But so far, no one can define what a school, any school should be doing. If you ask 100 people, you are likely to get 300 hundred different answers.

The Washington Post's article over the weekend included a fair amount of discussion from various groups including science/engineering groups, the NAACP, the NEA, the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund and on and on. (By the way, who assigned this hodgepodge article anyway--it doesn't really contain "news" so much as a litany of education platform planks of various groups.) Some of topics read like a line-up sheet for inside baseball, multiple measures, locally developed tests, more physical education, state tests, "gaming the system," and on and on. The problem with any debate about how to measure a successful school has skipped over the first step--define a successful school.

One approach to the critical definitional standard is advocated by Eduflack, a national standard:
If we look at the hand-ringing in the Post piece and in public and private discussions these past few years about accountability and the measurement of student, teacher, and school achievement, there is rarely discussion of national standards. It's as if it is the third rail of education reform (or maybe the 3 1/3 rail, after teacher accountability). We're afraid to talk about national standards, not knowing what might be behind the curtain if we allow that show to truly take the stage.

But isn't national standards the rhetorical solution to all of these criticisms?
  • It offers a bold solution that demonstrates that we, as a nation, are committed to strengthening our schools and ensuring our students have the skills they need to succeed in the workplace and the community
  • It provides a strong fix to the notion that some states may be lowering their standards to appear proficient
  • It states that every child, regardless of their home town or economic standing, has the right to a strong, proven effective public education
  • It brings equality to our expectations and measurement of classroom teachers, whether they be in urban, suburban or rural settings
  • It may just be the only "fair" approach to measuring our schools - with one common yardstick
I am supportive of a set of stringent national standards. I also think that from a separation of powers viewpoint, a national standard with state based sanctions for failing schools would be a better model than the current NCLB model of state testing and national sanctions. However, even with a national standard, we will still not have addressed the real question--what is a successful school. Only then can we development measurements to see if a school is achieving that benchmark.

Without a doubt, a successful school must be able to provide strong teaching in the core subjects. I think there is unanimity on reading and math as core subjects. Certainly writing, science, and history would make the cut, with strong consensus if not unanimity. But then we start losing things, literature, art, music, physical education, languages, civics/government, world history, etc. These are just the big subjects, and it shouldn't take too much of an effort to see that discussions about what should be included in a literature curriculum or a music curriculum. Then we have questions about an appropriate age level or educational level to introduce subjects.

The debate in education reform circles right now is centered on the wrong question. Yes, measurement is an important function of any program. But we still don't know what we should be measuring against. Even more fundamentally, we have difficulty in answering the question of why we educate our young people. But how to define a successful school is a fundamental question that we need to answer before moving on to make sure we are measuring properly.

I would submit that a successful elementary school would achieve, at minimum, the following items for all students:
  1. All students capable of reading at a fifth grade level.
  2. All students capable of basic "pre-algebra" mathematics, to include functions, complex multiplication/division, "word problems" and the like.
  3. All students possessing knowledge of physical science and biological sciences fundamentals; versed in the scientific process of experimentation and observation.
  4. All students possessing knowledge of American history, including exposure to our primary documents (The Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights); exposure to key individuals in the development of our country; basic information about our system of government and the key differences between our system and the systems of other nations.
  5. All students exposed to one or more foreign languages
  6. All students knowledgeable about nutrition, exercise and general health maintenance.
  7. All students knowledgeable about the principles and basics of art, music and drama, including forms, methods, and performances.
  8. All students exposed to the various genres of literature and mythology.
Of course, this list may be too general and not exhaustive enough, but the idea is there. Of course, it remains to be developed what these principles would entail in detail, but the idea that we can begin to measure success of schools before we define, completely, what is a successful school is ludicrous.

For all the hand wringing in education reform circles, why is is that we don't or won't answer the basic questions of why and what, before we answer the how? Of course, part of the problem with the "why and what" question is that we fear the political debate. But it is time to move past the fear of the debate and actually engage. While we as a nation will no doubt continue to limp along with our currently misaligned system, do we really want to "limp along?" Is what we have now acceptable from both a political and sociological standpoint?


Roger Sweeny said...

A successful elementary school?

I would be overjoyed if my ninth grade physical science students had these skills. And I teach in a pretty good suburban high school.

Matt Johnston said...


and therein lies some of the difficulty. I will admit that some of these skills, outside of reading and math, I did not have when moving from elementary to middle school. But really, are any of these tasks really so hard that a fifth grader can't do them.

For example, my neice, who is now in the 8th grade, could research the heck out of question on the internet or in encyclopedias, books, etc. when in the fifth grade and often did, tracking down some obscure facts on astronomy or beaches or whatever struck her fancy. The fact is that she never had such an assignment from school. While my neice is smart and capable, surely she can't be the only student like that.

While I understand the need to focus on reading and math skills, I do think we neglect too much, forgetting that elementary school is the time to instill a love of learning, in and of itself. How can you get a student engaged if you don't offer multiple tracks to engage them on.