Monday’s News Today: Capturing Interest

Have a few beers with education reformers and you’re pretty likely to hear complaints about how difficult it is to get the public to focus on, let alone act on, a school reform agenda.   Part of this stems from the heterogeneity of our school “system” and its decentralized nature.   But, the root problem is that it’s hard to move most issues in our political system, it was designed that way. 

That said though, it could be better.  The lack of a common grammar or framework for thinking about educational progress has long been one barrier to greater understanding, consensus, and a more sophisticated politics around education.  Most people are surprised to learn, for example, that the nation is only now adopting a common definition for high school graduation rates — and even that is a pretty muddy one.

On Monday, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is going to try to use the platform of the Aspen Institute’s National Education Summit to put forward her own set of five indicators around achievement, gaps, completion, and post-secondary readiness and attainment.   Spellings told me today that she wants these indicators to be viewed with the same seriousness that we look on leading economic indicators.  For a variety of reasons I don’t see that happening with these.  But, she’s on the right track with at least launching this conversation.   The financial industry might be in some trouble right now, but at least they’re not arguing over exactly what a bond or a stock is and have some measures by which to gauge what is happening across a diverse landscape.  We need to get there as an industry.

Update:  Here are specifics on this.

6 Replies to “Monday’s News Today: Capturing Interest”

  1. Thanks for bringing this up. Any time someone tries to diminish the need for some sort of agreed upon “measures of success” in education I ask the following question:

    Has anyone been to a corporate board meeting during which anyone debated “metrics?”

    The answer is “of course not,” because folks in business have an agreed upon unit of progress, that being dollars. Consequently, nobody bothers discussing “inputs” or “qualitative analyses,” because the objective, quantitative data is pretty hard to disagree with.

    Now, I in no way mean to suggest that measuring student achievement – more importantly, educational attainment – is as cut-and-dry as measures of capital gains. My point is that a lot of hot air gets expended even discussing measures in education, and that represents valuable time during which we could actually be solving the real structural problems in education.

  2. Justin,

    In my opinion, you missed the point. Economic indicators would be worthless if everyone with a dog in the fight could create and manipulate their own numbers designed to make their side win. Someday, education will have metrics that are better than throwing an accused witch in the pond to see if she sinks. But the process of creating valid metrics is a human and political process. It has to evolve. (in some isolated instances with enlightened leadership we may already be able to employ both data-driven decision-making and data-driven accountability, but systemically we are still at the point in the people-process where you have to choose between those contradictory alternatives.)

    You have made me rethink metaphors. Mostly, EEP true believers want a leap “back to the future” to the “piece work” and “Taylorism” of the early 1900s. Perhaps we should compare today’s educational metrics to Jacksonian Democracy when we had not yet agreed whether we should have a stanadardized definition of a dollar bill. The good news is that we have a lot of room to improve, and it won’t take two centuries to meet our goals. Since the “X Factor” is interpersonal dynamics, not technolgy, we ought to be able to get it done in a couple of decades or generations. The big question is how much time we waste on the blame and shame game.

  3. I was trying to illustrate the fact that the act of discussing metrics inevitably consumes time that could otherwise be spent. Of course it is an important debate to have … but anyone who actually works in education knows that the debate is actually dozens of different debates, happening in isolation. That, in my opinion, is not productive.

    So, I am agreeing with the necessity elevating the conversation to one of standardization. Not sure how that’s missing the point ….

  4. Then I missed the point. Sorry. I agree with your second post, and I must have incorrectly read between the lines of the first.

    I’ll admit that I’m fearful of the attempt to chop up knowledge in measurable pieces like it was money. That probably explains my mistake.

    I’d like to discuss metrics for the thing that I believe should be the real goal – creating the best possible learning culture. Whether you agree or disagree, the discussion should be a part of developing standards and a common vocabulary. I suspect the discussion would be more beneficial than the final product. At least if don’t don’t repeat my mistaker of prejudging.

    To paraphrase Churchill, in education we are two peoples divided by a common language.

  5. The charter school community has already taken the lead on this. The Charter School Quality Consortium and Consensus Panel spent much time debating issues such as data availability, data quality, administrative feasibility, costs of implementation, and applicability across a wide diversity of schools. As a result of that work, they developed A Framework for Academic Quality that spells out indicators, measures, metrics and targets. The real trick now is to get education stateholders across the country to start using them. A copy of the framework can be found here: I believe the Consensus Panel is also going to develop frameworks for school governance and operations.

  6. Spellings presentation was confusing, her goal unintelligible, and her reasoning faulty. Looking at her 5 indicators, summing them up to one measure, is the essence of dumbing down our education discourse. Instead of perpetuating the ‘crisis’ mentality, and thus alienating the vast middle class that doesn’t believe that their kids schools are as bad as they probably are because what would that say about them as parents that sent their kid to a bad school, we need to find a new way to engage that deosn’t rely on gimmicks or incomprehensible metrics that no one can understand.

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