How Should the Success of Schools Be Measured?

December 20, 2011 by  
Filed under Success, Technology, The System

This entry first appeared on TOPed.org in answer to the question “How should we measure our schools?”

The success of schools, per se, must not be our primary concern. Schools, after all, are only a means to an end. The center of the proverbial target is simpler, but even more difficult: prepare EACH child for adulthood.

The effort to provide opportunity for each student is a costly undertaking, and public education is its biggest component. Spending on universal K-12 education in California adds up to about $65 billion annually when all the sources (state, local and federal) are counted. To put this number in human context, taxpayers in California invest on the order of $140,000 in each student’s thirteen years of K-12 education – roughly equivalent to paying about two dollars above minimum wage for every hour a student spends in class.

This investment is important in lots of ways that have little to do with money. As with any sustained investment, however, success must also be measured in terms of Return on Investment (ROI). Measuring success on these terms requires long-term data about each student’s long-term success, viewed broadly and over a time frame spanning decades, not just school years.

What is the long-term economic payback on that $140,000 investment for each student? Today, we don’t really know. Evaluating the return requires estimating both value produced and costs avoided. Education produces value by helping each student find his or her place in the world, including work that earns enough to pay taxes. Education avoids costs by helping students grow into self-supporting, resilient and law-abiding adults. Our system is set up to track neither.

For the last decade, the Academic Performance Index (API) has been the dominant tool for summarizing a school’s performance in California. This score, distilled annually from a changing assortment of annual tests, serves as a shorthand metric of academic achievement at the school and district levels by grade level. Unfortunately, the API only measures the academic success of those who show up. If every struggling student in a school were to drop out, the API score for that school would, perversely, rise.

The state’s system of measurement for education should be built online, in a manner that allows students to show what they know regardless of their nominal grade level. If this seems like whimsy, take a look at the coaching module of Khan Academy for an early example of what the future of measurement may look like, at least in math.

The public has grown accustomed to the idea that products and services should be evaluated, rather frequently, and that evaluation should lead to action. In order to sustain public support for investing in education, California needs to make a set of serious investments to systematically provide everyone involved with better, more personally useful information over a more meaningful arc of time. We rely too much on summary numbers partly because that is all we have at present. California should do better.

For starters, California should invest in modern data systems to track and support investments in human development including education. In the age of Facebook, it is no longer OK for California’s education system to operate with outmoded data systems. California needs a platform that usefully connects parents, students and teachers, including accurate data to inform the work they do together. This is not an investment that each district can or should pursue on its own; it is far too difficult, much too important, and frankly its implications extend beyond education.

To place this article in context, see the following topic primers on Ed100.org:

1.3 Knowledge Work

1.4 High Social Costs of Educational Failure

9.1 Can Tests Tell If Schools Are Working?

9.5 Multiple Measures