How do we measure progress as we improve schools?
In a blog post this past week week Brian Drayton noted that while you can look at the improvement in performance of a business by looking at its bottom line, this doesn’t make sense for schools. They don’t have a bottom line. He suggested that it makes more sense to think of them as watershed systems.
What an interesting idea!
Schools are expected to do many things. Yes, it’s mostly about learning, but it’s many kinds of learning. Not just reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic, but also learning about working with others, managing time, managing emotions, engaging productively in argument, and listening.
Some might argue that businesses, too, are supposed to do many things. I’d go along with that. But that would only mean that bottom line thinking isn’t sufficient for businesses, either.
I live a few miles from Acadia National Park and sit on the board of an organization called Friends of Acadia where I co-chair a committee that is working with the park in an effort to target particular watersheds, one at a time, for restoration and improvement. How do we measure watershed improvement?
Like schools, we expect watersheds to do many things — and these functions are, themselves, complicated. To be sure, watersheds “shed water,” but that oversimplifies their function. Watersheds are at the heart of a place’s ecology. They provide a home to birds, fish, plants — all of the life in Acadia. Ideally, the water moves through the watershed in a way that is supportive, rather than disruptive, of the living systems within it.
Since a watershed does so many things, the resource managers at Acadia look at “indicators” of watershed health that are related to those functions, rather than a single bottom line. Indicators include water quality, presence and growth or stability of invasive species, forest health, soil composition, population dynamics of particular species that are sensitive or important to watershed functioning, and more.
Here’s an important idea: Resource managers look at changes in these different indicators individually, but they also view them through the lens of larger conception of watershed health. For Acadia’s watersheds, that larger concept is “resilience.” Changes and interactions between individual indicators are interpreted by considering what they mean about the watershed’s ability to withstand new stresses and disruptions, such as the arrival of a new invasive pest or (as we are seeing now) increased frequency of extreme weather events that produce a lot of rain in short periods of time.
If we take Brian’s suggestion to assess the health and functioning of school systems in a way that is analogous to watersheds, what is the organizing principle, like resilience, that we would use? Individual indicators would include, to be sure, measures of student learning across its many dimensions, but also measures that might include teacher growth, the functioning of the community within the school, connections to the broader community around the school, and more. These indicators would collect evidence about the key processes and outcomes associated with a school’s functioning, but how would we tie them together?
Picking up on yesterday’s post, I suggest that the key organizing principle might be the school’s capacity to “get better at getting better.” In an organization that is all about learning, “improving the ability to improve” is akin to resilience.