Condoning the System

Several years ago, a colleague was telling me about a recent conversation with his son. He’s a Roman Catholic, with two kids in college. His son had been home recently, and they were talking about the sexual abuse problems that the church had been dealing with. The magnitude of the abuse had been coming to light, and the reality that thousands of kids had been victimized by hundreds of priests over the course of decades was starting to set in. The son was horrified that his father had condoned such egregious acts. The father defended his position. We didn’t know anyone affected. Our priests had no allegations against them. No one in our parish was coming forward with accusations of impropriety. We didn’t know that this was a systemic problem that was more serious than the handful of isolated incidents that were being manipulated to try to bring down the church.

The son continued. You supported the system that allowed this to happen. You contributed time and money to the organization. You blindly believed that the church was inherently a good institution, and that it would do the right thing. The son’s contention was that his father was condoning the actions of the church by not revoking his support for the institution while the allegations and investigations and cover-ups continued for decades.  Dad was telling me all this because it was one of the first times he thought of his son as an adult. This was a case where the two had different opinions, and could express them eloquently and debate them on their merits. “They do grow up,” he told me. “It gets better.”

366958167_939986949c_zBut I was still stuck in the argument itself. Does our failure to speak up against the things we disagree with mean we’re complicit in their adoption? If I don’t speak out against gay marriage, that must mean that I support it, right? Or if I don’t condemn those who attack it, does that mean I’m with them? Is it even possible to stay on the sidelines anymore?

The school district in which I work was labeled “Excellent With Distinction” every year that title was available. In 1999, the school district report card system was instituted in Ohio, where each school received an annual rating based on student test scores in reading and math, attendance and graduation rates, and a few other factors. Eventually, the system expanded to include more testing and additional subjects (like science and social studies). It also added a measure of adequate yearly progress and additional criteria for socioeconomic, racial, and cognitive subgroups. We aced the test. Every year. We were among the best schools in the state. We were proud of that. We had celebrations and press releases and photo ops.

I suggested, as early as 2005, that we distance ourselves from that system. We all had agreed that the state report card was not a valid way to measure schools. There’s much more to a school than reading and math scores. How do you quantify performing arts, or student activities, or a culture of caring? How do you define excellence in teaching and learning beyond the ability of students to recall information? How do you measure the true worth of a school?

It would have been easy for us, at the time, to condemn the system. If your school is failing, everyone expects you to claim the the system is unfair. But if your school is succeeding and you claim the system is unfair, people will take you more seriously. The elite schools in Ohio should have been doing that a decade ago. But we weren’t. We blindly believed that the government had the best interests of students in mind. The goal was to help all students succeed. And we didn’t need to worry, because our students were doing great. No one is accusing us of impropriety in the way we educate students.

But as the system has developed, we have changed with it. The testing has expanded. Between Presidents’ Day and Memorial Day, more than 80% of the school days in our district have a major testing initiative, where 300 or more students are taking a mandated test. And that’s not counting the classroom tests, common assessments, and departmental exams. And we have de-valued those things that aren’t measured, structuring our goals around improving in the areas where the state tells us we’re weak. If it doesn’t count as part of our grade, then it’s not important, and we’re not going to do it.

We are now just starting to disclaim the system, using things like the Quality Profile to paint a broader picture of our schools. But those efforts have much less leverage than they would have a few years ago, when we were at the top of the game in every measure.

I don’t know how we can quantify the value of a school. Mostly, that’s because I don’t know how we can reach some consensus on what it is, exactly, that the schools should be doing. “Education” and “learning” are words without definitions in our information-rich society. Knowledge isn’t power anymore because everyone has it. Going deeper than that — figuring out what to do with the knowledge — should be our primary focus. But we have a hard time defining that, and an even harder time measuring it.

Photo Credit: Jack Hynes on Flickr.