Schools Need a Success Blueprint?

You can hardly pick up a newspaper today without reading a heated debate about “teaching to the test” or the need for new academic standards.{{more}} But what really defines school success? Is it just about a school district’s performance on standardized tests? Is that the only measure of success that is important? Or maybe it is the only success metric that is easily measurable.

There are certainly other measurable success metrics available, among these are percentage of students taking AP courses, cost-per-student, attendance, and student-to-teacher ratio among them. All of these metrics might be valued differently depending on an individual school district.

There is an oft-quoted saying in management parlance along the lines of “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” This goes to the heart of the “teaching to the test” debate. Take a seemingly straightforward measurement like CMT scores. The CMT, standing for Connecticut Mastery Test, is given to students in grades 3 through 8 and measures the three Rs, reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic.

However, exactly what should constitute success for the CMT test? Should a school district compare itself to nearby school districts? What if nearby districts have significant differences in socioeconomic makeup. Should scores be compared across time to measure longitudinal improvement. Shouldn’t any measurement of improvement be compared to other districts’ improvement. For example, if CMT scores improve 10 points statewide, did a school district that improves by “only” 8 points actually improve? Finally, CMT measures a narrow, albeit important, aspect of curriculum. It doesn’t measure science, citizenship, geography, or a host of other areas.

Even broadly-accepted tests like SAT and ACT measure pure academic success. Usually nowhere to be found are “softer” metrics such as maintaining a safe school environment, community involvement, or volunteerism. Similarly, it is easy to see how teacher satisfaction and employee esprit de corps are an essential ingredient in any school’s success.

All of this is not designed to throw a “wet blanket” on school success measurement. Quite the contrary. To be certain, success measurement is a messy process. Management wisdom again tells us that one of the deadly sins of management is running a company on measurable metrics only.

Does this leave us a problem that is unsolvable? Difficult certainly, but not impossible. The process should start with a robust public dialogue involving parents, educators and the like. This discussion should lead to a public declaration of the intended desired educational outcomes—a Success Blueprint.

Like a coherent business plan, an educational success blueprint should have an overarching purpose—a raison d’etre. This purpose should lead to logical building block strategies, which themselves trickle down to tactics, including budgetary decisions. Finally, there should be a periodic and public accounting of how well a school is meeting its publicized outcomes.

A School Success Blueprint will, by its very nature, lead to an engaged community and student population and more enthused teacher population. Moreover, its transparency, will enable periodic “course corrections” as needs change over time.

Mark Ahrens is Center Director of Mathnasium, a math-only learning center. He can be reached at 203-783-1490 or