16 January 2012

I have a dream

I'm home from school today as the United States celebrates one of only two days dedicated to individuals, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. (The other, incidentally, honors Christopher Columbus. Ah, the power of politics and special interests!) As I was spending my morning doing some reading about Dr. King and his legacy, I was struck by one of his most famous quotes
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I'm sure that the vast majority of you are familiar with these words from Dr. King. How could you have gotten through a high school history without at least being exposed to the famous "I have a dream" speech? He was of course talking about racial equality. However, as I look at it, I am (in my own special conspiratorial way) driven to thoughts about how we judge not people; but schools.

As I've talked about before, schools are living in a new reality. This new reality is one where parents, armed with the ability to shop between schools control where their children go for education. Many states, especially those where charter schools and school choice legislation has made it exceptionally easy for kids to move from school to school (I'm looking at you Colorado), have taken to issuing "school report cards" which give grades based primarily on test results and growth.

While I tend to be of the opinion that more information is better for everybody involved, I view these cards with trepidation. You see, they can go one of two ways. The first way, which seems to be more and more common, is to present every possible tidbit of data, and allow parents and community members to decide for themselves what it means and what is important. This is dangerous because even as a person who's been working in public schools for the entirety of No Child Left Behind, I still don't know what some of the numbers mean. Additionally, other numbers may seem skewed to the non-educator. The second path for these report cards is to have an outside company evaluate all of the data and issue letter grades. (This is a classic example. Look how pensive the kids in the pictures are! Drama!)

This second path is obviously more dangerous. What weight is given to what scores? How is the letter grade determined? Is there any value given to improvement? Are parents consulted? In short, what does that letter mean?

To be honest, I don't care for either of these forms of reporting. I think there must be some middle ground. Additionally, I think that reports in general are far too data-dependent. I realize that in the modern era of all-data-all-the-time this makes me a Luddite and a heretic. Bear with me. I will be more than willing to agree that using data to drive instruction is a key to improving test scores. I'll even grant that data can be used very effectively to shape instruction and actually help students to learn (which is not the same thing as improving test scores).

However, most of the data that schools have is only tangentially related to what a good job they are doing. For example, most school reports have information like attendance and expulsion rates, and how many teachers are "highly-qualified". They also are full of test scores from mandatory tests. However, most don't (for reasons of privacy and difficulty of obtaining) offer average SAT/ACT or AP test scores. Rarely will you see numbers of students engaged in extra-curicular events listed on a school report. I have yet to see one that measures school spirit or number of hours students spend in community service each year. Just like standardized testing these reports spell out those things which are easy to measure and quantify.

And that, to me, is the problem. Schools aren't like other businesses. There is more to what we make than those things which hard and fast numbers show. What data shows that a kid feels better about themselves? What data measures that a student learned to love science, and cured a disease? What number in a report tells us that more kids actually thought, or drew, or learned how to interact with an adult?

I feel like we, as a society, need to figure out what we want schools to produce, and then we need to measure that. Right now the way we evaluate schools indicates that we want schools to produce good multiple choice test takers, but I refuse to believe that this is the truth. I know that parents, teachers and the nation as a whole want us to keep producing that which has made America preeminent in the world; hard-working, creative, well-rounded young people. Also, they should probably be good citizens who believe that they can make a difference.

And that, my friends readers brings us back to Dr. King's quote. He wanted his children not to be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of the character. He wanted them to be judged based on what they did, not what they looked like. And so I'll take a risk and spell out my dream that we would do the same thing for schools.

I have a dream that one day, schools will be judged not on the content of their standardized test results, but on the content of the minds of their graduates.

I have a dream that one day, we won't focus on rote memorization of facts for a test, but we'll focus on learning skills like analytical thought.

I have a dream that one day, we won't dread the release of a report of numbers from a small sample size, but will celebrate the release of an accurate picture of what we're doing

I have a dream that one day, reports won't be created by faceless number crunchers, but by the experiences of students and parents.

I have a dream that one day, schools will be stop being judged on the test results of their freshmen and sophomores and will start being judged based on the critical thinking skills and work ethic of their graduates.

That one day schools will be recognized as the most important key to the future success of the nation.

That one day schools will do what is best to serve students, not the interests of testing companies.

That one day, we as a society can stop doing what is easy, and start doing what is right.
I'm not saying it will happen. But on a day when we remember a man who led a movement that dared to dream that hate could end, that the races could live side by side, that America could change; I'll hold out hope.

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