Schools As Watershed Systems

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.

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1 Response to Schools As Watershed Systems

  1. MCWittmann says:


    If I think about all the non-teaching work that happens at school, the watershed concept makes sense to me. School is a complicated ecosystem: serving meals to those most in need, after-school care so parents can work, busing and community organization, socialization into a common set of norms, clubs and sports that embed kids in the larger community… Notably, those tasks aren’t about teaching and learning at all.

    So, when you write:

    “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,”

    my response is complicated. I am not “sure” that measures of student learning across many dimensions are the functions most people care about, when it comes to schools. Yes, I’m taking a very broad social-change-driven perspective here and I don’t in any way mean to be cynical. I mean that schools are THE place where children leave home and join society; learning is just one part of that. Now, class time is obviously the most important element of where students spend their time, but even there, learning is not always the primary activity. Is learning to spell in kindergarten and first grade REALLY the primary activity of those grades? Not at all.

    So, yes, the metaphor of schools as watersheds makes sense to me. But only within the larger perspective (schools within society = watersheds within ecosystems, perhaps). At the smaller level, looking at measures of student learning or teacher growth (as leaders or in their knowledge of teaching or their knowledge of content), that’s like studying mechanisms within the watershed. How does a system respond to huge increases in rainfall? How does a system respond to new and seemingly arbitrary mandates about standards and graduation? Our answers depend on the scale we’re looking at. Obviously, we have to study schools within their larger system; but, studying change in schools and trying to affect the system they’re in is as meaningful as studying a local watershed and asking it to change the rainfall its responding to. Well, schools can actually do more than that. But it’s hard, obviously. Nearly impossible.

    I guess that’s why most of my work happens at the lower systems level, looking at interactions on a smaller scale, things that occur regardless of rainfall in a watershed.

    Just my thoughts on a very interesting essay. Thanks for sharing.


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