What’s ‘Achievement’?

We’ve appreciated Andy’s letting us share our puzzlements about some of the ‘givens’ in the policy discussion. There’s some risk in trying to expand what’s ‘at issue’. But sometimes this is the way to progress. We hope you’ve found it useful. We value your comments.

Perhaps our biggest puzzlement is about the definition of achievement; of what’s wanted, of what students are to “know and be able to do”. This truly is central. The outcomes sought determine what schools and teachers do. They shape financing, priorities and the use of time. They determine what’s considered success; for student and school. And they encourage or constrain change. Major innovations usually solve some different problem: If tested by the traditional concept of ‘success’ they’re likely to be rejected.

Few take time today to discuss “the aims of education”. It seems assumed we know what ‘achievement’ is, and how to measure it.

Do we? Here’re a few of our puzzlements; questions that might seem naïve but that the discussion might usefully pursue.

  • When people talk about “what (students) know and are able to do” they seem to mean: what they learn in school. Does anyone study the knowledge and skills young people actually have; look at what’s been learned outside school? Have a look at this to get a sense for how much more there is.
  • Should the definition be so narrow? Within school it’s limited to academics, and within academics it’s pretty much limited to language arts and math. Can this really be all the American public wants? Shouldn’t the outcomes-desired be much broader?
  • Is it enough to have knowledge and skills or is it important also for students to know how to apply them? Obviously this is at the center of the debate about using PISA.
  • Are there to be consequences, ‘high stakes’, for a student not meeting standards? If so, then the standards will be fairly low, won’t they? The politics of this public institution mean that K-12 realistically can’t deny success to more than a small proportion of students. (Probably this explains the interest now in ‘benchmarking’, which lets everyone see performance compared to others while imposing no sanction.)
  • Is there a concept of achievement, then, above the standards? Surely high achievement (as in the STEM areas) must be important, especially for the country’s economic success. Where and how is that assessed? Who works to encourage high achievement?
  • Beyond a ‘basic’ level is it essential that all students achieve the same thing? Why are standards set in terms of exit from high school rather than in terms of entrance into what a young person wants to do next? Would it be OK to differentiate ‘achievement’ for different groups of students; for individual students? Might that diversification better serve to produce the breadth of accomplishment the country needs?
  • Is it really important for all students to master algebra? What fraction of the occupations actually require knowledge of Algebra II? Might it be better to try to get students to understand something of statistics: probability, risk, rates, proportions and such?
  • Do schools achieve — or is it only students who achieve? Is the students’ achievement the school’s achievement? Or is Professor Raudenbush correct that one cannot properly use measures of student proficiency to draw conclusions about school performance?
  • Should achievement be treated as something adults do? That seems implied when we talk of education being ‘delivered’. But in the end who does determine what a student knows and is able to do?

One more. How much bias is there in the conventional definition of ‘achievement’? Think, for example: If success were defined as having a reasonable facility in speaking two or more languages, which young people today would be high-achieving and which would be low-achieving?

—Guestblogger Education|Evolving

7 Replies to “What’s ‘Achievement’?”

  1. Another great set of questions here. But I have two thoughts about them:

    1. We’re still framing achievement in the old paradigm of post-Sputnik schoolsing. That’s what standards do. And that why theyy’re so hard to work in this century. This is the “school as informative experience” paradigm or “school as cultural initiation” paradigm (see Core Knowledge and state standards)/

    2. Achievement as a concept outside of the old paradigms has a much broader range of answers.

    For me, subscribe as I do to a different paradigem: “Schools is TRANSformative not INformative” and “School is preparation for successful life in a modern democracy.”

    What I know just from walking around for 46 yeas is that there are many definitions of success and many definitions of achievement. But our school system still accepts only one: “The more you know, the farther you go.” Even in fields like law or medicine, I’m not sure holds up, in light what we know about social and emotional learning.

    As I look at kids going through school, I ask, “What is will be that kid’s career as a reader? as a writer? as a mathematician? And so on. I want to see kids advancing themselves through early academic life as they might advance themselves through later life, academic or otherwise.

    This means, by definition, allowing for more choice, different outcomes, and different paths. I believe that standardized curriculum holds us back from this goal more than anything else. If we continue to teach to a minimum competency multiple choice world, we are destined to turn out a generation of children who have no idea how to move freely in the adult world.

    Perhaps the most promising question to ask is not what we think achievement is but what kids this it is. And perhaps we could keep asking them each year until they settled on something they felt they could give their lives, too.

    Ultimately, we have to let kids go out into the real world. Why we continue, in the guise of ed reform, to disable them in that inevitable occurence is what convinces me that we are reforming education at all — we are merely condifying into law the form of education we have been using unsucessfully for decades.

  2. I’d only rephrase one of your points. Thinking that student proficiency can be measured is NOT conventional wisdom. It is a political movement that has been very important during the last two decades. Yes, there has always been and there always will be a small minority that equate numbers with student learning. And at times they will gain political power. But they’ve never been more than a vocal minority and I expect they’d go back to that normative status even if they weren’t challenged politically.

    For instance the Wall Street Journal just called Chicago test score gains “phoney,” and wrote “Our point here isn’t to pick on Mr. Duncan, but to illuminate the ease with which tests can give the illusion of achievement”

    My point is not a narrow political point. Especially in the US with our democratic and pietistic traditions, most of us know “in our bones” that learning can’t be measured. Many or most of us feel a revulsion at the idea. Some or many are willing to subject other peoples’ children to a narrow defintion of learning.

    I can’t imagine anyone who would subject their own worth as a human being to an arbitrary for of measurement. Isn’t our learning, our imagination, our creativity, our desire to communicate a crucial essense of our humanity?

    We’ll always go through reductionistic periods like the post-Sputnick time (which is the formative period in my schooling and a reason why I’m so adverse to data-driven accountability) and the “cheaper by the dozen” time of Taylorism which is now seen as just a parody of learning, and the NCLB fad. But humans crave more.

    I’m glad that Steve brought up the Fifties. Of course, we humans were just as complex during that period that we love to ridicule. It gave birth to the wonderful metaphor of “inner directed” versus “outer directed” people. Actually it just gave us a new metaphor for discussing dichotomy that is timeless. Today, as in other interludes, some people seem to be satisfied with “other-directedness” and even revel in it. Its not surprising that in a time of digital miracles and rampant video, and irony, and ‘post -?’ distancing, that some would say, that’s all there is. But even Ronald Reagan asked, “where’s the rest of me?” OK with Reagan it may have been acting and it may have just been something physical he was missing. But EVERYONE craves more.

    OK, we are also debating politics and policy. But still, why not focus on our target (enhancing and celebrating the best of our humanity) and not some distractons?

  3. Steve says: “Ultimately, we have to let kids go out into the real world,” but I think it’s actually the converse: ultimately, we have to let the real world into our kids.” As John notes, it’s the “more” that our kids want.

    Our kids today are smart enough to see that schools are late 19th century “Taylorite” institutions offering little or no relevance to their lives. We teachers, on the other hand, quite often chose the profession because of its distinctiveness from the so-called “real world.” In a nutshell, it’s our romanticism for the classrooms of the 50s, 60s, or mid 70s–in which we were sheltered from the turmoil of the outside world-that is the problem.

    If you look at the last few decades of school reform, it’s been focused largely on making school’s safe places in which kids can achieve. We debate a lot about achievement, but not at all about safety. Now, basic safety from criminal violence and abuse make sense, but the 21st century offers a dynamic, constantly shifting–and thus threatening–reality to ALL of us. If we continue building capacity in the institutions to keep such “threats” out of the schools so that students can achieve, all we’re really doing is preventing them from developing capacity in themselves. A kid who knows her Algebra II, can recite history facts verbatim, and understands the correct way to interpret Fitzgerald, may earn an A, but is absolutely useless “outside,” EVEN in college. She’s been institutionalized, plain and simple. This is why our students create “black market” learning systems that actually work for THEM on the web. It’s not cheating, if you’re defeating a system that cheats you.

    Getting kids to know all the standards we’ve set for them is hard, and that’s why that’s about all we often do. That’s the problem. We need fewer standards, FAR FEWER, and then we need to make sure our students can do something with them on the “outside.” If we can’t get our students to use and apply what they’ve learned, if we can’t say that we have developed or enhanced the student’s capacity to positively impact his community, then the best thing we could do is never let them “out” into the real world, at all. No one wants that, so we have to let the real world in. You don’t measure that capacity with an “assessment,” you measure it with an authentic project brought into the learning environment from the outside world.

    The first step to successful 21st century school reform? Every school should have a revolving door, literally and figuratively, through which the inside gets outside, and the outside gets inside.

  4. This is the question hardly anybody asks. It is also the most important question and really should be the essence of school reform. There is a piece by William Damon in the latest “Education Next” that talks about the importance of the “why” question. Unfortunately, he really doesn’t hint at an answer, perhaps because there are many answers.

    The lack of a singular answer to the “why” question is what argues for more flexibility and less regulation in schools. We need minimum standards, but these should be real minimum standards – can kids read and write when they get out of school? Can kids do arithmetic? Can kids do a _little_ algebra. Do kids know a _little_ science, history, etc.

    We have to stop looking at school as a place where we insert knowledge into kids’ heads and instead as places where we inspire and motivate them to take advantage of their abilities and the tremendous opportunities of the world. We have to end the boredom. If we do a good job, many kids WILL become interested on lots of things and will naturally want to study advanced math, chemistry, writing, history, engineering, music, etc. We have to share the excitement in the world with kids — pushing at the right times, but letting the interest of the students drive the process.

    Too many students are asking the “what now” question when the graduate both high-school and college – not because they have too many things they want to do, which would be fine – but because they have no clue or don’t want to get a 9-5 job “in their major.” We need to help turn students who see no opportunities into kids who see too many. Better SAT scores by themselves won’t do it.

    All this, of course, presupposes that we can teach kids the real basics well, which we still seem to have trouble doing for lots of reasons in too many places. We can’t look at ed reform as a single problem — we have multiple problems, and it doesn’t make sense to impose a solution appropriate for some schools on every school. Instead, the powers that be should help to provide solutions that schools can use to help themselves meet their own goals. It is more important that states and the federal government support, encourage and motivate than impose and measure. In the most general sense, what’s good for teachers working with students is also good for state boards working with their districts/schools.

  5. When we talk about “student achievement,” what students know and can do, it would be great to be able to identify those qualities in black-and-white, concrete terms and in ways that aren’t directly linked to specific assignments and assessments within a course of study.

    However, without assessments, observation and classwork, what measuring sticks do educators have to even begin to determine how a student is progressing, what he or she is achieving? How can those instruments be truly objective?

    It becomes a circular argument to say that we want to increase student achievement but we don’t want standards by which to measure their growth. How can we have one without the other? Just because we cannot come to consensus on the appropriate levels of minimum proficiency expected, it shouldn’t mean that we do away with all forms of achievement measurement.

    I don’t believe there will ever be a perfect instrument for measuring achievement; however, if an assessment is used prudently, it can help educators continue to improve instruction.

  6. Andrew took the words directly out of my mouth.
    -“We have to stop looking at school as a place where we insert knowledge into kids’ heads and instead as places where we inspire and motivate them to take advantage of their abilities and the tremendous opportunities of the world. We have to end the boredom.”
    This is absolutely true. We can not force kids to want to learn like we wanted to learn. The best we can do is motivate them and try to show them the relevance of school and hope they make the right decisions.

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