Public education suffers from the tyranny of the tangible. The penchant to judge schools and teachers on the basis of test scores, graduation rates, suspension rates, or other metrics has run wild. Schools are perceived successful if they get the numbers. In the debate about public schools, it basically boils down to ‘if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t matter.’
What are lost are the intangibles that are absolutely essential for educating children. Schools are not technical organizations. They are supposed to be safe and caring sanctuaries for children to learn, grow, and develop.
All parents want their children to attend a school where fairness, respect, trust, compassion, sensitivity, and honesty are evident in its daily operation and long-term performance. Schools should be places that spur creativity and passion. Safe places to try and learn from success and failure: places where character and value count as much as academics, where beauty and imagination are prized and revered, and where the fine arts feed the mind and soul.
These intangibles are not easily reduced to a scorecard or number. Parents want their children to go to a “good” school. A “good” school is not synonymous with a three on a five-point Likert scale between poor and excellent. Numbers cannot capture the aura and spirit of a “good” school or the intangible qualities that make teachers significant to students.
The tyranny of the tangible is evident when schools and educators kowtow to the pressure of test scores. The domino effect of assessing teachers on standardized tests scores results in emphasizing test preparation, narrowing the curriculum to what’s tested, pressuring children to succeed, and eliminating other activities that stimulate creativity and critical thinking – projects, exploring, defining problems, questioning. Moving beyond superficial test scores to creative and critical thought takes time. In addition, children grow at different rates: growth sometimes happens in spurts not in consistent linear fashion.
Schools focus on tangibles because they translate into standards, ratios, scores, and ratings. The emphasis on metrics can result in decisions that are ethically questionable. Educational triage is one example. To improve school’s performance on a high stakes tests, priority and emphasis is placed on helping those students who are close to achieving proficiency – for example, needing to correctly answer 2-4 questions — at the expense of spending more time with students who are farther from demonstrating competence and moving the metrical needle. In some situations, students who do not fit the mold are not enrolled in the school or are counseled out thereby creating a more select student group more likely to achieve higher on tests.
Just examine the cheating scandals that have occurred in school districts as tests and scores were manipulated. We all know that numbers can be massaged to distort and blanket the truth. We also know that some things are greater or lesser than the sum of their parts.
Stressing high-stakes testing can turn classrooms into high pressure, competitive environments that create ‘haves and have-nots.’ Time and the clock work on teachers and students resulting in a harried, negative climate. Pressure and fear can move children short-term, but does not motivate them and, in fact, can be damaging to their long-term development and confidence.
Unless we focus on the moral imperative of educating children, we will fail them and possibly even slide into an ethical quagmire. In actuality, intangibles – principles, values, and ethics – that we desire in a place called school are the foundation for its integrity and credibility. Schools as sanctuaries for children provide high levels of care, compassion, and patience as students work their way to maturity. Actually, helping and encouraging children to find meaning and fulfillment is an act of love not a technical exercise.
Schools are not businesses and students are not customers, and the bottom line is not a test score or other metric. Being educated is much more than that: – it concerns the intersection of the heart and mind. A quote attributed to Einstein carries an important message for schools and all of us: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”