I sat with some very smart people today, talking about some really important topics. Things like the well being, the hope, and the engagement of our students. It was in that conversation, though, that I could not help but shake my head at just how wrong we've gotten education as a country.
We collect data on kids -- lots of data. So do most districts, I suspect. With really important, but often far less practically employed, buzzwords like "data-based decision making," we need to. However, the most commonly noted and published data is the data tied to standardized test scores. There is something meaty and important sounding in the name of tests, and the data is presented in such a way that the average on-looker (and headline writer) can make some sense out of the data these standardized tests can demonstrate. And for that reason, this data is the stuff that critical measures, such as the effectiveness of an educator, are based upon. While it makes perfect sense to those who only marginally understand what these tests are really effective at measuring, for those who understand the ins and outs of our existing formalized tests (not speaking about the next generation of tests, which look to improve upon some of the failings of our existing standardized tests), we know that these tests do not measure what truly matters in preparing young people for a successful, meaningful, hopeful, bright future.
See, and that is where the irony of this comes in. Today, as we explored the data that we have gathered in our district related to student hope, student well being, and student engagement, I think most people in the room could pretty tangibly understand that this is the data that truly matters most. Without getting into a discussion about the effectiveness or quality of the measurement, the reality is that our students need to be hopeful to succeed academically. They need to have their needs met, to be well physically, socially, emotionally, and mentally in order to even be available for learning. They need to engage with the instruction, with the content, and with the teachers to learn. We understand this inherently...it is the same stuff that we argue for each time a politician or a bureaucrat gets on their misguided soapbox and suggests that standardized test scores are what matter and are what set the mark for the lousy and the great teachers. It is in these moments that educators say things like, "Education is about more than content or test scores. It is about more than what is taught in a textbook. It is about relationships. It is about providing hope. It is about teachable moments." Educators get that, most of the time.
However, today, as we sat and looked at this data, it was clear that many of us had not really engaged with the concept of making meaningful steps to ensure that hope was instilled in our students every day in a wide variety of ways. It was clear that the well being of students wasn't necessarily a part of the school improvement plan. And where engagement is lacking (one of the greatest measures to indicate the potential academic success of any student), it was clear that we have not meaningfully engaged in mandating changes in instructional planning, practice, and delivery that would universally encourage greater engagement for more of our students.
This is NOT a slam of the people I sat with today. In fact, if anything, I offer my highest regards to those who brought this data to light for discussion and exploration. Additionally, I commend our leaders who are already doing things to make marked improvements in these areas within their schools, and to our leaders who, in light of the unveiling of this data, are going to take steps to focus on these areas to improve the personal and academic opportunities and potential for their students.
This IS, though, a commentary on the power of the press -- specifically on the headlines so many educators fear that suggest that a school is underperforming on standardized test scores. Whether we philosophically believe that what is tested in those standardized tests matters, we spend a LOT of time focusing upon them. This is particularly true at our secondary level, where the focus is less on the learner, and far more on the learning that needs to happen.
This IS is a commentary on our inability to focus first on the personal growth and overall improvement of the people that sit in our classrooms each day. We challenge them to grow academically, as students, but tend to forget just how important it is that we focus first on their needs as human beings. Not because we don't value them as such, but because we tend to be blinded by what everybody else tells us is important. This is additionally illustrated in our lacking emphasis on iimmediately focusing our curriculum in what are now being called 21st Century Skills. These are skills that our employers have told us are necessary in the work force. These are skills that we know are valuable for individuals to grow and prosper and respond appropriately throughout their lives in almost every aspect of their lives. Yet, I struggle to find many examples of schools that are meaningfully providing opportunities for students to experiment with these skills, to grow in them in a systematic way, or to receive regular, immediate, and valuable feedback on these skills. It is just another example of how we, as educational leaders, allow others to influence our focus and aim it in the wrong direction.
Perhaps the saving grace will be when we realize that an intentional emphasis on things like hope, well being, and engagement in our schools will be valuable parts of the formula that will ultimately result in an improvement in those test scores that tend to make the front page.