On Feb. 1, President Obama vowed to toss out the nation's current school accountability system and replace it with a more balanced scorecard of school performance that looks at student growth and school progress.
I love the idea. Mr. Obama and education secretary Arne Duncan have repeatedly criticized the No Child Left Behind Act for keeping the "goals loose but the steps tight." On their watch, both men aspire to introduce a new law that keeps the "goals tight but the steps loose."
With that more flexible standard in mind, I have a scorecard to propose: the ABC's of School Success. It provides both structure and freedom by identifying five universal measurement categories -- Achievement, Balance, Climate, Democratic Practices and Equity -- and letting individual schools chose which data points to track under each category.
If there is a bottom line in schools today, it's that educators must do whatever it takes to help close the achievement gap and improve student learning. To do so effectively and fully, schools must expand their measures for determining student achievement. After all, "achievement" isn't only about student test scores; it's also about other factors. The following are all critical to achievement:
• The school has identified aspirational "habits of mind and being" for students, and adopted assessment measures to track student development of these habits over time.
• The school uses assessments that require students to conduct research and scientific investigations, solve complex real-world problems in mathematics, and defend their ideas orally and in writing.
• The school provides learning support programs that address individual student needs and ensure that all students succeed.
If each school identified between three and 10 different data points (including, but not limited to, test scores) to assess their overall learning environment, we might start to see "achievement" as a broader set of measures, and evaluate the full extent to which we are supporting the young people we serve.
We all seek balance in our lives. The search for it is a fundamental part of the human condition. Imagine how much more enjoyable -- and effective -- our schools would be if we assessed them, in part, through this prism?
The measures in this category would probably lean heavily on attitudinal surveys, although other existing data points could be useful as well, such as staff absenteeism rates (healthy schools have high faculty attendance), time in the schedule allocated for faculty planning time, etc. The point is not to dictate the individual measures, but to observe what schools discover as they start to experiment with the scorecard.
"For almost a hundred years," explains Jonathan Cohen, director of the Center for Social & Emotional Education (CSEE), "educators have appreciated the importance of school climate -- the quality or character of school life. We can all remember childhood moments when we felt particularly safe (or unsafe) in school, when we felt particularly connected to a caring adult (or frighteningly alone), when we felt particularly engaged in meaningful learning (or not). However, school climate is larger than any one person's experience. When people work together, a group process emerges that is bigger than any one person's actions."
Clearly, a school's overall climate is an essential indicator of its overall health. So let's start insisting that all schools measure it. One possibility would be to use the Comprehensive School Climate Inventory (CSCI), a research-based needs assessment that provides immediate feedback on how students, parents and school personnel perceive their school's overall environment for learning. Other useful measures would clearly emerge over time as well. And then in this and the other categories, an ongoing role of the federal government would be to share insights about measurement and the use of the scorecard across states and communities, so information could be funneled back throughout the system and create a reciprocal flow of information that improves the quality of all schools.
4. DEMOCRATIC PRACTICES
In a school setting, cultivating democratic practices doesn't mean turning the asylum over to the inmates. To create a climate where people feel both empowered and protected, you don't start by just telling everyone that they're free. You do, however, make helping people learn how to exercise freedom responsibly a foundational goal.
Before that vision can become a reality, we must encourage educators to ensure that the central elements of our social covenant are also in place in our schools: a clear sense of structure and shared identity on one hand, and an unwavering commitment to individual freedom on the other.
To help create such environments, we should gauge the extent to which our schools are equipping young people with the understanding, motivation and skills they need to become active, visible contributors to the common good.
Schools can do so by measuring the extent to which:
• Students are routinely encouraged throughout the curriculum to agree and disagree honestly and respectfully.
• The school encourages people to model democratic principles, practices and policies in their daily work and interactions with others.
• The school's mission statement clearly addresses the democratic purposes of education.
• The community is committed to ensuring that religious liberty rights are protected for persons of all faiths and none.
• Students understand how to participate in the political process and institutions that shape public policy.
Some may say this issue is not worthy of its own category. And yet our public school system is the only institution we have that is guaranteed to reach 90 percent of every succeeding generation, that is governed by public authority, and that was founded with the explicit mission of preparing young people to be active and responsible citizens in a democracy. Isn't it time we started evaluating the extent to which our schools are fulfilling their civic mission?
To ensure greater equity - by which I mean reducing the predictive value sociocultural and economic characteristics have on student achievement - we must improve the performance of our public schools and strengthen the effectiveness of our civic activism at the same time.
These challenges are interdependent, and will remain so. Indeed, the poorest and least fortunate in our country are not just the least likely to succeed academically -- they are also the most disenfranchised from our political process.
Fifty-five years ago, the United States Supreme Court's unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education captured the most hopeful strains of the American narrative: working within a system of laws to extend the promise of freedom, more fairly and fully, to each succeeding generation. "In the field of public education," the unanimous Court wrote, "the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place," and the opportunity to learn "is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms."
I believe President Obama is sincerely committed to fulfilling the decades-old promise of the Brown decision. He can't do anything, however, until we as a nation invest in a clear, flexible and balanced system for evaluating and improving our nation's schools.
I think this scorecard would be a great place to start. What do you think?