There is a Need for Real School Reports Cards: Data that Counts in the Life of a Child

If the federal, state, and local governments continue to place so much weight on standardized test scores as indicators of education progress and success at the national, state, and local levels, then they should be forced to publish any data associated with academic outcomes alongside other indicators of a child’s wellbeing.  We know, and have known for a long time, that academic achievement is highly dependent on other indicators of well-being, such as socioeconomic status.  There are other indicators as well.  The OECD, the organization that brought us PISA scores which for critics of public schools act as the bellwether for school success, recognizes that the well being of children encompasses more than test scores and, therefore, publishes rankings on material well-being, housing and environment, health and safety, risk behavior, educational well-being, and quality of school life.  Of course, systemic educational reformers in the U.S. only want to focus on data from standardized test scores.

We know the ramifications of poverty on the well-being of children.  However, we’ve adopted a “no excuses” mentality for teachers, and like to assert that teachers can overcome any and all of the challenges a child brings with him/her to the classroom.  But teachers cannot.  Teachers can make a noble effort, but they simply cannot overcome poverty and the structural challenges that impede the academic growth of so many children.  Any amount of disaggregating data for student subgroups does not tell the whole story and does not provide a complete picture of a teacher’s worth.

The publication of school, district, and state education report cards may be well intentioned as a means of providing data and information about how well schools and teachers are doing.  However, we need to ensure that report cards about a school district, individual school, or individual teacher include all relevant information that truly reflects the lives of their students in order to meet the needs of those students  Therefore, I suggest that we expand the report card to include the following dimensions on the well-being of the children served by schools and teachers.  In many cases, this data already exists and is used by businesses to make decisions about where to build factories, relocate offices, or open stores. Let’s use this data meaningfully to affect real change in the lives of our children:

  1. What is the average income of the families living in the community served by the school?
  2. What is the employment rate for the families living in the community served by the school? Are there jobs available that pay a living wage?
  3. What are the crime statistics for the community?  I’ve worked in high crime neighborhoods. I know how impactful it can be for children who witness or experience crime and are traumatized. Is it safe for children to play outside in the community? Do they have to navigate drug dealers, gangs, and criminal activity once they leave the front door of their homes?
  4. What is the availability of high-quality affordable healthcare for children and families in the community?
  5. What types of high quality affordable childcare are available for working families in the community?
  6. What types of preschools are available and what percentage of families send their children to preschool?
  7. Is there a public library in the community, is it open on weekends, and how many books do they have available?
  8. What kind of programs are available for children on weekends and after school?
  9. How many parents attend functions at the school, in particular, parent-teacher conferences?  This is information teachers could make available and is highly relevant in light of teacher accountability.  For each class, what percentage of parents attend parent-teacher conferences?  This is a fair point if you’re intent on holding teachers accountable for student performance on test scores.
  10. What types of grocery stores are available within the community? Are fresh fruits and vegetables and fresh meats readily available at a price families in the community can afford?
  11. Are the homes children live in safe?  If their families rent homes and apartments, are they well-maintained?
  12. How do children get to school? If they walk to school, what does the community look like through their eyes? Do they feel safe? Do they have to navigate through crime ridden streets, afraid of being assaulted or bullied? Do they have to cross busy streets on their own?  If they ride buses, how long is the ride?  Are they already tired by the time they get to school? Do they feel safe at the bus stop while waiting for the bus?
  13. What is the governance structure of the school/school district? Are school board members elected by the community to reflect the needs and wishes of the community? Or is the school board appointed to reflect the needs and wishes of people in positions of power far removed from the community — like governors, mayors, or private for-profit or nonprofit charter school organizations?

That’s my list.  Maybe you have other suggestions.  I watched the ESEA reauthorization hearings last week.  I am unconvinced that we’re going to be released from the hyper-focus on standardized test scores.  Lawmakers are intent on making them the mainstay of education policy and we may have to live with that for at least the next generation of school children.  However, we should insist that test score data is balanced with data that reflects the lives of children and the communities in which they live.  Systemic education reformers love data; but let’s make the data meaningful.  Let’s acknowledge that the life of a child doesn’t begin on the first day they enter school, nor does it end the minute the bell rings at the end of the school day.



ACT, Data, and Grit: Don’t You Want to Know if Your Kindergartner has the Right Stuff?

ACT wants to ensure that teachers have access to “actionable” data to improve instruction.  Apparently, access to actionable data means longitudinal P-16 data systems to track students from preschool through college so that students are prepared for the 21st century.  Teachers, schools, and districts need to “closely monitor student performance at every stage of the learning pipeline.”  It’s not enough to follow students’ academic success, either. According to the ACT, it is equally important to monitor behavioral habits that will ensure later postsecondary success.  These behaviors include “motivation, social engagement, and self-regulation.”  And it’s not enough to begin instilling these virtues in students as they enter middle or high school; the ACT asserts that it is necessary to begin as early as possible — in preschool.  Certainly, if ACT begins collecting data in preschool, by kindergarten it can be determined if students need remediation in the areas of motivation, social engagement, and self-regulation.  There’s a growing body of research to enable schools and teachers to begin the process of making sure that children — at the same time they are learning to tie their shoes, share toys, correctly name the letters of the alphabet, make a swing go back and forth without the assistance of another person, ride a bike, and speak in complete sentences — are prepared for college and careers.

Leading the charge of developing the research base to enable schools to gather the data to be used in these endeavors has been the Duckworth Lab at the University of Pennsylvania.  This is the lab that has developed the Grit Scales celebrated by Paul Tough in his widely popular book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.  I read Tough’s book a few months ago.  The first few chapters of the book were compelling.  However, by the end of the book I realized that what he really learned from his research in the area of education, grit, and the hidden power of character was a contradiction in itself.  The reality is that children who come from money and comfort, who attend elite private schools, in fact need no grit at all to succeed.  On the other hand, children who come from poverty and insecure communities need all the grit available to overcome all the obstacles that are commonplace features in their lives.  And even then grit may not be enough to succeed academically — their grittiness may be channelled into other areas in order to make life bearable.  Tough’s book didn’t leave me so much in a state of dissonance, but with a level of discomfort at the obvious contradictions in his book.  Tough’s conclusions on one hand are so obvious — poor kids are trapped in a world not of their making and, therefore, will face extreme odds in their efforts to succeed.  The solution to disparities in academic achievement, according to Tough, is to overtly teach grit-oriented skills and behaviors to poor students.  On the other hand, it is clear that money and privilege create a world for some in which the world is full of possibilities.  These kids don’t need grit; they just need to follow their parents’ lead as they enter the world of college and careers.  So, does grit really matter?

The Duckworth Lab, under the leadership of Angela Duckworth, provides the road map for organizations like the ACT in developing a plan for measuring college and career readiness behaviors among young children.  While researchers at the lab may claim that they are simply continuing in the research already championed by psychologists for more than a century, their research agenda reveals the potential for misuse of their findings to impose on teachers, schools, and children practices that may very well be problematic and even harmful.

First, there is the very real potential for students to not only be labeled deficient based on their academic record, but also labeled as deficient for not being sufficiently motivated to learn and unable to persevere in tasks.  This is already happening at KIPP schools, whose leaders have partnered with Angela Duckworth in developing a report card for “predictive character strengths that are correlated to leading engaged, happy, and successful lives: zest, grit, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity.”

A second potential problem with the Duckworth grit notion is a sense that the inferential statistics that the grit scales are based on are reliable in predicting success.  It positions the individual, and in this case children, as having the power to direct their own lives solely based on their possession of these traits.  While these character traits may be very good things to possess as an individual, I think it is clear that adults make policy decisions about economics, healthcare, employment, education, and national security that inhibit an individual’s ability to succeed.  Just ask college graduates who have amassed an average of nearly $30,000 in student loan debt and are having difficulties finding jobs if their level of grit has ensured their success.  They certainly had the grit it supposedly takes to earn a college degree, but that sometimes doesn’t make their entree into the career world any easier and doesn’t reduce their financial constraints as they try to being an adult life.  The Duckworth approach to success and happiness ignores the power of cooperative and collective action in making the world a better place.  Where on the KIPP report card is there any mention of cooperative action?  The only trait that moves beyond the individual is social intelligence and even that is defined in a way that doesn’t necessarily reflect a sense of shared community.  According to KIPP, social intelligence is measured as the ability to “find solutions during conflicts with others,” to show that “s/he cared about the feelings of others,” and to adapt “to different social situations.”  It is about individual actions, not about the health and well-being of the whole.

Third, and perhaps most troubling, is the potential of grit research to lead to stereotyping, bias, and racism.  The application of Duckworth’s research to children attending schools in low socioeconomic communities, schools which predominantly serve children of color, exacerbates discussions of how to improve the outcomes for these children.  It provides a convenient tool for blaming the children and their families for the social problems that inhibit their ability to succeed.  It diverts attention away from the structural factors that have left entire communities without jobs that pay a living wage, with crime and violence and a police state ready to counter with violence, and with the vestiges of a racist society that too quickly judges people based on the color of their skin or the language they speak.  The Duckworth Lab’s research statement should be a harbinger for all who care about education and children.  The research of Francis Galton, the father of the eugenics movement, is cited as providing a theoretical foundation for the lab’s research.  In the world of research, I suppose, all research is relevant in that it can be expanded upon, confirmed, or negated.  It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that Galton’s research formed the basis for the Nazi regime’s actions toward Jews and other ethnic groups, homosexuals, and those suffering from genetic and mental disorders. Angela Duckworth expands upon Galton’s research and, therefore, resurrects his name in the arena of research in human development. Whatever value the researchers at the Duckworth lab may find in Galton’s research, it is clear that his research was misused and had a catastrophic impact on humanity. So, why resurrect it now?  And why apply it to our most vulnerable citizens — the children who have no vote or voice in education policy decisions?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll continue to say it again and again.  Data is not destiny.

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