As I mentioned in a previous post, I had coffee with Marc Dangeard. He related a talk he went to at Stanford on Non-Profit management, and specifically how funders want outcomes measurements but grantees lament the bizarreness that ensues when they try to meet these accountability demands. He pointed out that the take-away was that grantors should allow grantees to decide what they need to measure in terms of business process.
So, let me just go through this for education.
What is the mission of education: to educate. What does that mean?
That means some combination of:
- Intellectual knowledge (traditional pedagogy); process (how to study); and systems (how to think)
- Social knowledge (how to behave); process (how to solve problems); and systems (how to build effective groups)
- Physical knowledge (food pyramid/health); process (how to play, what are the rules); and systems (how to train)
How we weight each of those things is and always will be under dispute. In fact, whether they're taught at all in the schools is under dispute. The only thing that's agreed upon (and even here the specifics are disputed) is that kids should learn some facts while in school.
Nevertheless, of those nine parameters, the first column is often agreed upon -- in generalities -- by the population at large, yet the most educationally sophisticated parents often evalute education based on the third column, and you can't get there without the second one.
So let's take those nine parameters, and do the whole shebang at once. I've color coded Green, Yellow, and Red to indicate how thoroughly we're measuring those metrics.
Traditional Pedagogy - Formal testing.
How to Learn - Testing process. Currently, I have heard of classes and tutors who offer process coaching, but regular classroom teachers also do binder checks, require turning in rough drafts, and other process training. It isn't standard, but apparently many teachers do this. It is certainly known that this accounts for a lot of performance disparity in older students.
How to Think - Critical Reasoning is tough to teach and tough to measure. You toss a problem to students that should be above their knowledge level, and see how they approach handling their lack of knowledge.
Science sometimes teaches this explicitly; math certainly does a little in the context of how to construct proofs. Debate (Forensics) is similar. Some excellent English teachers do; and a few kids actually take philosophy or other social sciences. But other than the context of the pedagogy, it's not often measured explicitly, even in science. In order to do that, we need to develop complex rubrics that illustrate progression along a trajectory.
In fact, one teacher I know periodically threw in a few extreme problems for her 8th grade honors Algebra students -- just to see how they handled the challenge -- and the parents would have fits, thinking that if 72% is an A, then the teacher isn't having high enough standards. The parents were unaware of curve grading, and this illustrated only one example of a failure in the ability to educate parents who are not originally from the US system or who failed in the US system but now have a more mature outlook.
How to Behave - One of the reasons Early Childhood Education works far better for lower socioeconomic families is because it teaches "school readiness." In reality, the best predictor for a child's achievement is the achievement of the primary caregiver. How to behave at least well enough for teachers to teach is a cornerstone of schools, and I'm fairly sure punishments must comprise most of school districts' manuals.
Unfortunately, beyond basic self-control, we minimally teach -- let alone measures -- positive behavior. A comprehensive approach to teaching something like project management could address this beyond the simple kindergarten rules and into the more complex junior high and high school social milieus. How to include, to facilitate, to exclude?
How to Solve Social Problems - In some excellent schools, this is taught within the context of the classroom as issues arise or abstractly in high school English and History courses. In many others, well, we all know about playground justice and how it can become fatal. Explicit conflict management instruction, and later project management instruction could help children learn outside the times when conflict arises, and practice in relatively benign conflict situations. The skills require training and intervention, though, and without staff, this is a very difficult thing to do.
Further, like the example about how critical reasoning is taught, some community education is necessary. If parents model ineffective or socially destructive methods of problem solving, they could both benefit from the instruction, and the children need to be guided in how to reconcile what they observe and what they are taught. Still this is a sensitive subject, as a recent article about revenge by Jared Diamond so eloquently described. The primary bargain is that justice will be provided by society, one way or the other.
I have long felt this area is the justification for bringing games into the school environment. Kids want to keep playing, so when conflict arises they have profound incentive discover a solution. Being able to describe the conflicts and how they were resolved during a post-mortem would be an enlightening -- and measureable -- exercise.
How to Form Groups - Collaboration is, like conflict reconciliation, a daunting educational goal. Because of that, it also needs to be addressed explicitly to some degree; and this can also be done within the context of project management by learning how to form groups and assign tasks according to skills and abilities. We admire students who have the innate ability (or parents who teach them) to form teams and clubs. There is no reason why this can't be taught, and the effectiveness measured. This was one of the primary efficacies of extracurricular programs - even children who had trouble having experience in groups could find other groups in which they had an interest in belonging. Music, art, sports - they're all known to be the most effective way to drastically reduce the drop out rate.
(You may note at this point that many teachers do not actually have project experience, and that coaches and music teachers may or may not be thinking more about group instruction than performance .)
Last, and easiest, measuring physical improvements has somehow gone out of fashion, but I wish it wouldn't. I believe socially we have gotten past the value-judgments of the 1970's and can address reasonable improvement as the goal, rather than explicit performance.
In fact, this is the easiest realm to measure. Yet we forsake it because somehow it seems more obvious to those in charge of such things that physical prowess is a talent that some lack; of course, so is intellectual prowess.
What Does that Have to Do with Outcomes?
So as we move from thinking about accountability to moving towards improvement, we get a little bit stuck with non-profits. In non-profit, we need to track how well the organization performs to its mission. Non-profits are mission driven, not profit-driven; another way of saying this is that non-profits typically build non-financial assets, whereas for-profits typically concentrate on building financial assets - hopefully as sustainably and ethically as possible, but the mission of a for-profit is to protect financial investment.
So this mechanism, of looking at non-financial asset growth, is a good way of thinking about what outcomes need to be measured in those kinds of organizations.
(Because non-financial assets generate financial assets, it's a good thing to measure in for-profits, also; but it's the primary focus in non-profits.)
Final Thoughts about Education
I have been very fortunate that learning has never been difficult for me. But I have known many people for whom school has been a daily pounding of the "reality-check" that they just weren't particularly smart. Not smart, not popular, not sporty... just plain average in a highly competitive world.
It's important to have metrics in place not only so that we can create an educational system that is itself a non-judgmental, data-driven learning environment, but because it's human nature not to remain in an environment where we feel alienated and beaten.
Instead of being helicopter parents constantly anxious that our children won't make the cut, sometimes building conflict in the classroom as we advocate that our children's needs be met even at the expense of other children's, we need to measure and identify for all students what it is that they contribute positively, how they're going to make their way in society, and where they can fit in on a team.