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Measuring Our Education System's Success: Looking at the Patient Instead of the Thermometer

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"The theories we construct, the hypotheses we test and the beliefs we have are all shaped by our system of metrics," so say Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi in "Mismeasuring Our Lives." Well, I might quibble with the "all." But they have a point: "Social scientists often blithely use easily accessible numbers, like GDP... without inquiring sufficiently into the limitations and biases in the metrics." The book explores the consequences of having rested so much of our thinking on GDP, thus confusing ends with means -- a measure of well-being for well-being itself.

We've done this in spades in education. Rare indeed do we hear from those who work inside schools and are thus paying attention not only to "indicators" but to what they are intended stand-ins for. Looking only at a thermometer instead of a patient.

It helps explain how overnight -- upon learning that there was a mistake in the tests used last year -- the majority of NYC kids went from being good to bad readers! This isn't a "measurement" error, it's an indication of a failure to know what we're talking about!

What a pleasure, then, to read a book by someone with 30 years of experience in elementary school describing the oft-clichéd issue of "parent involvement." I hate that term by now since, like GDP, it's without content. We count the number of contacts, hire "coordinators," and in short engage in PR. Inviting Families Into the Classroom by Lynn Yermanock Strieb is the real thing. Warts and all. It's just recently published, so go buy it.

I too often speak in shorthand about the importance of "mutual respect" between home and school, but Lynn gives us the details, her struggles over what this means, her successes and failures through the actual letters, notes and tales from her work with young children and their families.

It's not easy to avoid ugly judgmental comments or quick stereotypes. Trying to hold firm to the proposition that we have to "act as if" we were all deserving of equal respect may even start as a "pretend game." But it grows into the real thing over time. Eventually it might become automatic. But that means rethinking time. If there is one thing that our schools don't think much about it's the time it takes to relate to each other respectfully.

Children labor over their homework at night (well, some do), and if we took those labors seriously we'd have to spend several hours daily reviewing them and then we'd still want to translate what we learned into respectful feedback! 30 X 5 minutes?

If we want collaborative teaching -- learning from each other -- as they do in Japan and Finland, we'd have to provide paid time for it. Hours upon hours. Renowned Stanford-educator Linda Darling-Hammond urged us to allocate 10 hours a week when we started CPESS (a secondary school in East Harlem). We almost did it, plus a week before school opened, a week at the end, and a few days mid-year to think back in order to plan ahead. What had to be given up to do this? Lots. In fact, the new "reform" crowd says, teachers should teach longer hours and summers too on the same budget -- cutting nothing (except maybe recess and the arts).

The cost of disrespectful schools is enormous -- we pay for it the rest of our lives. Young people know when the adults of importance to them are of little importance to the real powers-that-be. It's interesting that one of the first questions kids ask visiting guests (authors, politicians, etc.) is, "how much money do you make for doing that?" Are you "the boss" or do you get "bossed around"? They ask us the same questions, silently: Are your views held in high esteem, are you important, are you an expert witness or just, at best, a person with lots of patience and a big heart. In short, a sucker.

It makes me mad to realize that we haven't gotten very far from where we were when I began teaching. Everyone from my parents to the head of the elementary ed department at Temple University thought I had settled for something beneath me. I wasn't invited to anything as an expert until the Wizard of Oz (the MacArthur Foundation) anointed me a genius.

Part of why having high expectations matters is precisely the impact such expectations have on our own self-respect. We need to think together about what kind of "high expectations" we ought to have for each other -- teachers and mothers. Thanks, Lynn Strieb, for eloquently describing your work in ways that actually gets to the heart of the matter.