Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Measuring schools
April 14, 2006

The Fraser Institute and I often differ in our views, but I can’t argue with the think tank’s comments this week that the institute’s annual “best of show” ranking measures only academic performance at B.C. secondary schools, not overall school success.
“The rankings certainly don’t tell the whole story of a school, no question,” said Peter Cowley, who helped put together this week’s report and is director of school performance studies at the Fraser Institute.
The academic performance of a school’s students is obviously an important measure of a successful school, said Cowley, but just one part. And it’s even less of a meaningful measure in terms of knowing whether we’re teaching our students to be good citizens. Scoring well on tests is all well and good, but it takes a lot more than that to build a healthy community.
Are our students growing into good human beings? Are they voting? Healthy? Earning a decent income and sharing their good fortune through fair taxation? Raising their kids to be peaceful, responsible citizens? Connected to community? Surely those are the questions that we need to ask.
But as Cowley pointed out, nobody is measuring for such outcomes. The challenge, then, is to rethink this mild obsession we’ve developed with high-school marks and figure out other ways to gauge whether our schools are successful.
Many of the schools topping the Fraser Institute’s list would probably top a number of other lists, too; they’re just excellent schools, on all fronts. But others would surge ahead in different ways - perhaps as bastions of tolerance and diversity, or of critical thinking and engagement.
Such ideals sound somewhat la-la even to my own ear, but why should that be? Such successes are much more relevant to the ongoing progress of our world than test scores and sports prowess among teenagers, but we cling to those measurements in our schools as if they tell us everything we need to know.
A kid who gets straight As and a scholarship to McMaster’s clearly knows how to perform in school, it’s true. But how are we doing at preparing young people for the world? Are they going to be able to rise to the challenges of their adult years with grace, strength, goodwill and wisdom? Those are big questions to leave to chance. Societies change quickly when their citizens forget to keep an eye on things.
Yes, high-school test scores are part of that, but really quite a small part. Nobody asks you about your high-school grades once you’re out of school. We work ourselves into a lather over the ability of our schools to churn out kids who do well on tests, even though tests of the kind you do at high school are probably never going to be a factor in your life again in adulthood.
Perhaps parents are assumed to be managing the big job of raising good people single-handedly. But schools are powerful socializing forces - our children attend them daily for 13 or more years. A family’s role in raising good human beings can’t be overstated, but we still learn the shape of the world through the schools we attend.
For better or worse, our schools have a powerful influence on the shape of tomorrow’s citizens. Their halls are the incubator for coming generations of leaders, thinkers, criminal minds and immensely troubled people. The lessons we learn in our school years inform us in how we shape our communities, and very little of that will be revealed through our schools’ test scores alone.
Cowley issues an interesting challenge: If B.C. really wants to know which of its schools are successful on fronts beyond test scores, then somebody needs to be asking different questions. I didn’t get the impression it was going to be him - the Fraser Institute has a distinct point of view, and that limits the kinds of statistics it gathers. But other groups and agencies can gather what we need to know. We just need to come up with the questions.
Some of the work is already underway, through community-mapping projects that pair up health and social indicators to measure the overall “wellness” of a particular neighbourhood. To properly gauge school success, we’d need census-style follow-ups of B.C. secondary students that went on for years - school by school, even class by class. We’d end up with a genuinely broad understanding of the impact our schools are having on our young people, in far more detail than the “good grades” model allows for.
Schools that know how to push kids to the top of their academic game deserve recognition for their accomplishments. Excelling academically takes a great deal of effort and focus.
But great schools don’t always have high test scores. Good human beings don’t always get good grades. Academic performance counts, but not for everything.

No comments: