I've attended a couple conferences the last month and there have been two things that really have been emphasized multiple times:
- Culture eats structure for breakfast.
- Measure what matters.
I'll save the topic of culture for another day. Today, I would like to talk about measuring what matters. Seth Godin recently discussed measuring on his blog.
It's not always easy to measure what matters. Sometimes, the thing that matters doesn't make it easy for you to measure it.
In education, we often spend a lot of time measuring test scores, attendance data, behavior data, etc. The real question is "What really matters in education?" Sammie Cervantez (@principalnheels) recently attended a conference where she was asked to dream big about what an ideal school would look like.
And this is where I became disheartened. Educator after educator focused on the “things” and the “structures” they wanted. Fluid movement between classes, more student voice, service learning projects, more teacher collaboration time, on and on and on. Now, don’t get me wrong. All of those are great ideas. Really, there is merit in each of them. But are those really are “What ifs”? That’s as good as we get?
My “What if” was markedly different. Mine was, “What if we created a place no one ever wanted to leave?” I second-guessed myself in a world full off a hundred or so educators who all thought so differently from me. I stayed quiet because I thought maybe I was the crazy one or the one who really didn’t understand the question.
So, if our goal in education is to create a place where nobody ever wants to leave, how do we measure that? What indicator measures that great goal? What if we want to create students who are creative thinkers, who are problem solvers, who are fearless? How do we measure that? Anyone in education knows that we don't want to create students who are good test takers, but rather students who have an ability to share what they have learned. If we want to create students who are life-long learners, how do we measure this?
We measure the things we really care about by using stand-ins. In schools, that looks like test scores, mostly.
Seth Godin continues:
The problem with stand-ins is that they're almost always not quite right. The stand-in looks good at first, but then employees figure out how to game the system to make the stand-in number go up instead of the thing you're actually trying to change.
A good way to find out: If you had to choose between increasing the stand-in stat and increasing the thing you actually care about, which would you invest in?
Roses, chocolates and greeting cards are a stand-in for actual human emotions, a stand-in for caring and respect and love. But of course, it's way easier to make the expense on chocolate go up than it is to actually care more.
One of my teachers this week showed me a letter from a student that read something like this:
Dear teacher, you are a wonderful teacher that has changed my life and helped me love your subject area content.
That is the kind of thing that teachers usually need to wait years to experience. This teacher got that recognition in this student's first year at our school. That letter is not a stand-in.
In the absence of those types of letters, there are only stand-ins. Our go-to stand-ins typically are test scores.
But test scores are not always beneficial.
More than 500 school boards in Texas have passed resolutions demanding a reduced focus on high-stakes standardized tests. So have several big school districts in Florida, including Broward County, the sixth-largest district in the United States. Parents in northwest Washington state organized a boycott this spring and kept hundreds of children out of state exams.
And in New York City last week, several hundred parents and children rallied outside the offices of Pearson Education, a division of Pearson Plc, the nation's largest testing company. To the jaunty accompaniment of a marching band, the protesters chanted, "More teaching, less testing" and "One, two, three, four ... Kids are not a test score."
I'm all for assessing our students. Test scores are a stand-in for the real assessment that happens every single day in our classrooms. Teachers and principals see kids growing and learning every single day.
We are focused on measuring a stand-in for learning in education. We need to move away from that and measure the things that really matter.
I'll end with what Seth Godin asked:
If you had to choose between increasing the [test scores] and increasing [creativity, innovation, life-long learning, etc.], which would you invest in?
What would you invest in?