I recently had a conversation with a gentleman whose name I didn’t catch, but he certainly stimulated thoughts. He has spent his career as a specialist in Education Leadership and Policy. We were both old enough to chuckle over the current deja vu in education policy discussions. It feels like the early 80s again. He recalled Reagan’s denunciation of our educators as possibly criminal because of our students’ low scores on international tests, while I remembered the fear of an engineering-driven Asian giant that was about to surpass us (Japan then, China now). Of course, what the hand-wringers didn’t know was that we were at the dawn of one of America’s greatest growth eras, spurred by the very skills which our education system excels at fostering, like creativity and innovation.
American education remains one of our economic treasures, a net exporter of services as foreign students flock to our schools. Yet we have this sense of failure. Why?
Let me argue that we have not found the right metrics for success. Unfortunately, since “what gets measured gets managed,” we risk hurting our system by measuring the wrong things. If in doubt, watch Season 4 of The Wire for a brilliant and heartbreaking exploration of the distortions caused by the metric-driven No Child Left Behind program.
It’s easy to measure math and science scores, but I’m not sure they are accurate predictors of future economic success. I don’t know how to measure the following, but if I were in education policy, these are what I’d be advocating that we teach for the good of our country – and trying to find ways to measure:
- Asking the right questions
- Persuasive argumentation
- Clear communication
- Creative problem solving
- Coloring outside the lines and imagining the impossible
- Social leadership
- Discomfort with the status quo
- Seeing what’s coming next, and what’s coming after that
- Deciding how to address the opportunities that will emerge from what’s coming next
Heck, you can always hire some engineer to solve the necessary equations if you can figure out what he or she should be trying to solve. America’s strength has always been developing young people with the capability to know what that what is. How do we quantify and track progress against these admittedly squishy abilities? I don’t know, but I do know our educators have been excelling for decades at what really matters.