Our nation's resources, off to school

Education in the U.S.A. – How do we measure success?

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

A friend started a conversation over on Google+ about standardized testing in education. What prompted her to do so was a Washington Post Local blog post about when an adult took the standardized tests and failed miserably. Her point is that nobody should be surprised at this – on several fronts. To me, the most important of the four points she delineated was that “Teaching methods have changed dramatically in the last decades, and it’s entirely possible he [the adult who took the test] was NEVER previously exposed to questions such as those on this test.”

Well, with some misgivings I commented, on her G+ post, that (among other things) I thought that based on my observations that the K-12 education in our country was “pretty horrible.” I also stated that, “I’ve tried to stop criticizing the education system (not very successfully) because I admit to not having a solution.” However, that didn’t deter the challenge she commented: “I’m still hoping that +Dave Kinnear will give some thoughts on how accountability in K-12 might be accomplished.”

Oy Vey! Me and my big keyboard. Will I never learn? I think she’s not really asking the right question though. I believe most people, even the most ardent supporters of the status quo, agree that there needs to be some accountability. I think the real issue is that we don’t know for sure what or how to measure in order to hold someone accountable. In other words, holding someone accountable is easy: “You will be held accountable to achieve X. If you don’t achieve X there will be negative consequences. If you do achieve X, there will be positive consequences.” What is often difficult is quantifying X, and that is the case here.

Greater minds than mine have been working on this problem, and it isn’t solved yet. Education is a highly complex problem. Consider what we ask our educators to do: teach young people from many cultures, from many socioeconomic backgrounds with widely variable learning styles. And we tend to define success here the same way we define pornography – we know it when we see it but it isn’t formulaic! So this is the height of hubris for me to think I can solve the problem or add anything new to the conversation. Still, I’ve never been one to avoid looking foolish if I have something to say. Therefore, here’s an attempt to speak to measurement and accountability; and here are the rules I set down by which we might establish some understanding of the process.

The first rule is we aren’t allowed to say “we can’t measure that.” Instead, if it is absolutely, positively necessary we can say, “We don’t know how to measure that yet.” The second rule is we must always question whether something is merely a correlation or perhaps it might be a cause – but we should not assume it’s a cause simply because data seems to indicate correlation. Third, I don’t believe educators are any different or require any special handling from other working professionals. Finally, we have to understand that we will be wrong several times before we get it right and therefore should not expect miracles. Those excoriating folks for No Child Left Behind (NCLB) might want to consider that at least someone tried to do something whether we think it’s successful or not. This is a long-term project; we WILL make mistakes and learn from them. And the school principal with whom I discuss these things believes that while not perfect, NCLB has actually moved us forward. He recommends adjusting it, not getting rid of it.

Do we really have a problem?

We're teaching to exams, but that can change with time.Depending on who you speak to on this topic (like so many controversial topics), you will hear that we are in dire straits or that things aren’t so bad or that we are the best in the world. And of course, you can find data, blog posts and videos that will support your view whatever it is. So where am I coming from on this? First, I believe in the scientific method of gaining understanding of our material world. Second, I believe we will continue to live into a global economy and will “compete” with the global community. I believe that repetitive tasks requiring low skills will move around the world to find the least costly options; and that is as it should be. So for those of you who are conservative in nature and politics, here’s an article by George Will, US Schools Get Failing Grade. For those of you who are more liberal in nature and politics, here’s an article by Nicholas Lemann, Schoolwork. For those who like statistics, the Broad Foundation has a summary here and of course you can “Google” this topic and find endless resources.

The consensus seems to me to be that we in fact do have a problem. The challenge, of course, is to define what the problem is, find the root cause, and then agree on the approach to a solution. Personally, I believe that too many of us jump directly to our favorite solution without even being willing to look at data with a fresh set of eyes (easy to say, hard to do) to see if our long held beliefs are true. Example: my conservative friends jump right to the problem being teacher unions and tenure for “bad” teachers. My liberal friends always jump to not budgeting enough for our education system driving the best and brightest into the private sector. I suspect both are right in different situations but they will not listen, really listen, to each other. Each believes what they believe, sees what they believe in the data (or assumes data to the contrary is simply wrong and ignores it) and they will not ever try to understand the opposing point of view. But I digress. In my view liberal, conservative and center folks largely agree that we have a problem in K-12 education even if we are still doing fine in secondary education. If the US is going to compete globally by providing mostly innovation, intellectual property and advancing technology, then education must be a priority. Not just for those who will go on to secondary levels, but for those who will earn their living by providing services here in our own country. We need educated voters, tradespeople, and professional people so a strong K-12 education is required.

What gets measured gets done.

Is it any surprise that we had a small group – emphasize that, a SMALL GROUP – of educators actually cheating to make sure their students, themselves and their schools look good on the standardized tests? Human nature being what it is we should have expected that there would be some who would game the system. Are we really surprised that we now “teach to the exam” as opposed to working to make sure our students actually learn something. My friend is right in her post – we should not be surprised and we should question the validity of the testing we’ve set up with respect to it being goal achieving.

Our future depends on an educated, engaged citizenry.So what is the goal? I suspect not everyone agrees on this one. Again, speaking for myself, I think that we have to view K-12 education as having two goals. One is to prepare students to go on to a trade, or vocation. Not everyone can or should be expected to go on to secondary education.  So one education path has to be to prepare students to leave high school and “go to work,” and the second is, of course, to prepare students to go on to the university/college system. The end goal is productive, engaged citizens.

What does success look like? To me, the important thing our K-12 system has to provide is the foundation for students to continue learning and be productive throughout their lives. That requires some foundational education in math and science and communication skills. Success isn’t necessarily that every student gets a passing grade. But success is making sure each student is as prepared as possible to be a productive citizen; even those students with special needs. How would we measure that? We’d want to know the dropout rate for K-12. We would have to track students after high school to see if they are gainfully employed, earning a living wage. Perhaps we’d want to know about how long they stay in one position and if they are providing for dependents. I suspect social security, unemployment figures and census data would be mined for that information. We seem to have plenty of those measurements around.

What next?

What is next is hard work analyzing all the data we have in various places, looking for patterns and correlations with how our young people are educated. Once we have a sense of how to define success and how we might measure it, we can then begin looking at what causes success. It might be things like parental involvement in the education of their children (PTA, parent/teacher nights, etc.) We might measure results on the standardized tests too of course, and we would modify those tests as we gained knowledge of how effective they are in measuring progress to the end goal. We’d also want to know how expenditure per student affects the end goal. That measurement might be broken down to show how the expenditures on administration, teaching professionals, facilities and material affect the end goal so that we can adjust budgets to put scarce resources where they belong. We’d like to know how many days the students attend school. To satisfy our curiosity about questions such as whether or not unions help or hinder, we might gather statistics about the differences between results from non-union schools versus schools with unions and see what the numbers might reveal (I have no real opinion on this other than the standard complaint that it should be easier to make structural changes, reward performance and to let poor performers go.) Remember, I started out cautioning about simple correlation versus root cause for the results, and I’m aware that all of this is complex and will require a lot of time to break through our preconceived notions. I also believe we will need to try things so we can measure the effects. Making changes and seeing that the intentions are actually carried out in good faith will be a challenge.


Once we have established the metrics and understand what causes good education, then we have to be willing to pay our teaching professionals wages and benefits which will attract the best, brightest and most committed people to the profession. We would have incentive programs that reward the actions needed to achieve the goals – and we presumably now have measurements for those actions. In return for competitive compensation packages, the professionals will have to live in a meritocracy – just as in the private sector. There can be no guarantees except that all personnel are treated fairly as they perform – from the principal right on down to the first year teacher and of course staff as well.

Holding ourselves responsible and being held accountable by peers and leadership isn’t anything new to most people. When the result is unpleasant many people want to blame something or someone else rather than accept that they might not have lived up to clear expectations. Yet we have no hope of improving things if we don’t hold the professionals responsible for education of our young people accountable. If we haven’t done a good job at defining what success is and developing ways to measure it, then that needs to be corrected.

In every company I’ve worked for I’ve had some element of my pay and measurement of success which was not totally in my control. That was considered a team effort. For our teaching professionals, there will be an element of their success which is beyond their control – perhaps a student who will not or can not learn in the classroom environment. It is highly likely that such a student will be offset by one or more who are outstanding students and will make even a marginal educator look pretty good. It evens out over time and if the measurements we devise are reasonable, the teachers will fall into ranks that are pretty accurate to their actual performance. It’s the same in any meritocracy – imperfect but highly functional.

Bottom line

In my eyes there is room for hope that this isn’t an insurmountable task and I think there isn’t anything I’ve mentioned that is new. I’ve seen most of the above suggested measurements as well as others in various different places. The educators with whom I speak claim that such measurements are being made, new ones proposed and tried and that many teachers are supportive of the efforts. There may be some report or study that brings all of these concerns together, but I have not seen one. We have to define success, agree on how to measure it, agree on what actions are needed to achieve it and then treat teaching professionals the same way we treat other professionals and hold them accountable for mutually agreed upon goals and measurements. These goals are often called SMART goals in that they are Significant, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely. We can achieve such goals for our education professionals. We just have to do it and be willing to pay for the personnel that demonstrate they can make the grade.