Years ago when we were Racing to the Top and Leaving No Child Behind, a district leader of a professional development session for language arts teachers that I was sitting in asked participating teams to share their greatest accomplishment from the previous school year.
He was nudging teams towards describing the measurable growth that their students had made towards mastering important outcomes in their required curriculum — “Really look at that test score data,” he said. “What patterns do you see? What can we celebrate about your work together!”
Group after group stood up with pie charts and bar graphs, proud of the fact that they had increased student mastery of core curriculum objectives by 6.3% or that benchmark screening data showed that growth in reading proficiency averaged 14 months — and sometimes more for their “at risk” populations.
And then I got up to represent our team. “Our greatest accomplishment was Jarius*” I said, sharing a beautiful picture of a boy who had won our hearts in place of the pie charts everyone was expecting.
He’d been “a behavior problem” his entire school career — chronically in trouble, chronically absent, and chronically behind academically as a result. He’d tested us early on — but once he realized that we were on his side, he invested fully. We pushed him — using data to identify gaps in his knowledge and then developing lessons tailored to address those gaps. Just as importantly, we tinkered with the role that relationships play in driving student learning — and learned lessons that I still apply today.
I’m not sure how Mr. PD Man felt about our presentation. But I’m also not sure that he realized I was sending a message that everyone in that flippin’ rippin’ room needed to hear.
My point was a simple one: Our greatest achievements should never be moving SCORES forward. Our greatest achievements should be moving STUDENTS forward.
When we stop talking about kids and start talking about numbers, we lose the moral imperative of our work. The passion that drew every one of us into the classroom in spite of crappy salaries, long hours and little public respect is the notion that we can make a difference in the lives of the kids that we cross paths with.
You can’t motivate me to work harder or to give more by celebrating statistical growth. Bar graphs bore me. They feel cold and impersonal — and there’s nothing about the hearts of the best teachers that is cold and impersonal.
Want to motivate me? Show me a kid who is struggling mightily and ask me if there’s something that I can do to help. I’ll work harder than anyone you’ve ever seen. I’m more than willing to throw your data away — but I’ll never throw a kid away.
Now lemme ask YOU an uncomfortable question: Are your school’s most important goals and/or celebrations SCORE driven or STUDENT driven?
Odds are that, if you are being honest, you just said, “Score Driven.”
Here’s how I know: When I look at the websites of schools and districts that I consult with, I see tons of impressive sounding statements like, “We will increase graduation rates by 8% by 2018” or “The percentage of students in our school who are college and career ready will move from 71.8 to 74.5% by 2019.”
Those goals aren’t surprising. They are a by-product of the accountability culture that has strangled education for the past twenty years. We think that measurable outcomes define our credibility.
And by no means would I argue that we should IGNORE evidence when trying to determine just how successful we have been as an organization.
But imagine how much more powerful our goals and celebrations would be if you told the story of students who you had moved forward. Shouldn’t every team be able to point to kids like Jarius that they had influenced? Inspiration matters — and stories of kids who are better off because of the work that we are doing together are a thousand times more inspiring than banners touting the fact that we “exceeded growth expectations” for the third year running.
George Couros calls this being Child Driven, Evidence Informed.
I call it the first step towards capturing the hearts and minds of your teachers again.
*Jarius wasn’t his real name. But his accomplishments really were our greatest success that year. Take THAT, Data Guy.
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