Looking back 150 years, just as Horace Mann’s common school movement was gaining ground in Massachusetts- what is now known as public schools- education had nothing to do with numbers. It was about access and philosophy, growth and democracy. Our country went from a place where only a select few had access to a special track that led to a professional career to a place where any citizen, in any town, could potentially be the President of the United States. Public funding for education changed everything.
We take this for granted now. The premise behind the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is that every child in America should have an equal opportunity to thrive in our schools. Just a short time ago, however, we operated under Thomas Jefferson’s model of an education triangle, where only those who demonstrated great success got through the special gates to the next level of schooling. This often came down to finances more than talent. This is still the model used in many countries around the world, where far fewer students than we see in the U.S. get through to college and, in many cases, even through to traditional high schools.
In a very short time, the U.S. has moved to a highly data driven mindset around education, where we firmly espouse that, in an ideal world, all children would thrive and have access to top level programs. Numbers drive our funding around education and our notions around success in the classroom. We are now constantly seeking measures of success and competitive edge, looking for ways to quantify educational gain and to rank the best schools and teachers.
Our fixation on numbers started with the launch of Russia’s Sputnik in 1957. Emerging from a state of shock at the perceived outperformance by the Russians, the U.S. quickly initiated funding of math and science programs in schools, with a slew of ways to track progress. We have rapidly become a country desperately seeking ways to show how our children are doing. The Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) scores, which compare our students to others around the globe, repeatedly portray our students as less prepared and less capable. NCLB goes further to track students across a multitude of disciplines, holding key stakeholders accountable along the way, creating a culture of angst and blame.
What our obsession with data really reveals is our insecurity around how to measure education. The ever-elusive question in schooling is what we are trying to accomplish. Congress, and subsequently the Department of Education, has chased the tail of student performance data, hoping they could find some way to put their hands around how well our schools are preparing our kids. But preparing them for what? This is the key question we have really failed to answer well.
If you go back to Sputnik, you can see that the origins of federal funding for education speak to national security and economic competitiveness. If you look at current research, however, the focus has shifted dramatically to support a focus on students’ complex skills, their grit and resilience, and their ability to use information and resources to their advantage, rather than to digest and repeat content. Our focus on test scores is, in many ways, in direct contrast with what we know best about how adults are successful, productive members of society.
So how do we gauge performance and measure educational effectiveness if the goals all feel “soft” and less quantitative? I do not think these goals are mutually exclusive. The trick is to use the data well and to be willing to look beyond the data for greatness.
College Board’s Advanced Placement program is a great example. On the surface of it, it looks like you just cram information into students, hope they remember it well enough, then cross fingers for a strong test performance in the Spring. Those who critique the AP program see it as limiting critical thinking, obsessing over facts rather than skills, and putting too much pressure on test performance.
When done well, however, the AP program can go well beyond regurgitating content. It is not about the rigidity of the curriculum- it is about the flexibility and innovation of the teacher. The content is just the basis of the course. There is tremendous opportunity for a teacher to infuse skills and perspectives that get to the best types of teaching and learning. It is easy to see the AP program as antithetical to best practices; but, in fact, it is a great teacher who can see the potential in any course to incorporate engaging methods and tools to push students to a new level of thinking and learning.
How do we free up teachers to look beyond the high stakes environment of test performance and students’ content knowledge? It needs to start with educational leaders who can see data in context. Key data benchmarks- SAT’s, ACT’s, AP’s, and other standardized tests- are useful in their ability to show us a snapshot of a student’s performance. It is imperative that we hold this data up within the context of the softer side of schooling- those less tangible markers of performance that certainly share at least an equal role in determining a student’s future. A student’s attitude about their learning- what some may call grit or resilience- certainly plays a critical role alongside their aptitude, and there are other more soft markers that are equally important to consider.
The best schools encourage teachers to use this data to their advantage, to learn the most about their students’ learning patterns and to develop teaching methods and plans that best serve students’ needs. Independent schools certainly have an advantage in their ability to use data to its fullest without the stress of penalties, leaving teachers to their best devices to structure ideal learning spaces. We have a tremendous opportunity nationally, however, to turn our anxiety and fixation around data results into a broader conversation about the types of outcomes we really want to see in our students.
When we can get our hands around our overarching goals in education, we will better be able to use data to push teaching and learning forward.