Vail Daily column: How do you define greatness?
On the eve of the beginning of this school year, the teaching staff at one of our community elementary schools took an unusual approach to kicking things off. While there was plenty to do in terms of planning and last minute set-up of places like classrooms and libraries, the staff at Gypsum Elementary School took to the streets of their town asking the question, “What makes a good school?”
Notably absent from the over 100 responses to this question was anything to do with test scores. As I reflected on this outcome, it presented a sort of cognitive dissonance that I’ve been wrestling with for the past few days. How is it that practically every measure of quality of “success” our state and nation has created to gauge school quality is built on test scores; yet this measure was absent from the opinions expressed by one of our communities.
Perhaps the answer to this educational paradox lies in how we translate an abstract concept into something more concrete.
For example, while no one mentioned test scores as an attribute of a good school, I bet we would also be hard pressed to find a single person who didn’t feel that gaining skill in literacy, numeracy and the sciences (both “hard” and social) wasn’t an incredibly important outcome for student achievement.
More directly, it may be that we value the learning; but have less value for the measure (or test).
Eagle County Schools has a detailed and quite elaborate strategic plan that drives our work on a daily basis. For many organizations, the strategic plan is something that executives and perhaps the board of directors fool with, but which has relatively minor meaning to everyone else.
By contrast, our strategic plan focuses our organizational energy on the relationship between the learner, the educator and what is being learned. This central relationship forms the nexus of the learning experience and our energies are continuously directed (and redirected) at having an impact in this space.
Part of our work with the strategic plan is focused on the development of a set of key measures of our progress and success. The scale of these measures ranges from the aggregate (we call them system indicators) to the intermediate (which we call strategy or tactic indicators) to the very fine grain (formative indicators).
While the development of these indicators is painstaking work, there are some core tenets underlying our efforts. These include:
• Measuring what matters most: We ask ourselves how we would know if we were making progress and then find some way to turn that concept into something we can track.
• Checking the key transitions: Trying to keep track of everything all of the time is a fool’s errand. Most of our educator’s time and attention needs to be spent on the doing, not hovering over a spreadsheet. So, we measure at the key change points, or developmental milestones in student progress, to keep it simple and straightforward.
• Having a trajectory: We make estimations of how much impact our efforts will have over the short and long term. When things start to lag, it’s time to re-examine the effectiveness of our efforts.
• Having a benchmark: We look to the best performing education systems and measure our progress against theirs. Our aspiration is to be a globally-competitive school system; targeting results like we see in notable high-performing systems sets a north star for us to aim toward.
• Leaning toward inclusivity on the measures: In education, there is a tendency to define success as results on a standardized test. We agree, these tests are important and have value — but they are too narrow and miss too much of a child’s developmental world. Instead, our measures include both quantitative and qualitative elements. And, we look at things like levels of student hope (how optimistic is a student about their future) and engagement (how tuned in are they to learning) to help more broadly define success.
We’ve got some work to do in designing a comprehensive “dashboard” of measures for success. While we accept that test scores are part of that picture, we reject them as the end-all determinant of the success of our district, our schools or our community’s children.
Greatness is a concept that eludes capture in a test score.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at email@example.com.