A Foundation for Knowledge, A Board Members Perspective 2008


It is said that knowledge is power. While this is true, without information there is very little knowledge. In 2008 we were collecting very little information that was not federally or state mandated. This left the board, its curriculum committee and the administration with very little power to change. Without the knowledge of what is happening at that friction point between teacher and student we are powerless as school board members. It is uncomfortable for any of us to have others looking at our performance but those in authority cannot do their job effectively without it.

This fear of observation, measurement and rating is irrational and frankly selfish. Every other employee in America understands their performance will be measured against certain criteria. Ideally they are a part of setting that criteria but the process of measurement is set in stone. Employers have to view employees in this light if they hope to remain employers. I do not know of many businesses or organizations that can function or operate without measurement. It is true that educators hold a special place in our culture, and they should. This does not change the fact they are performing a job, getting paid, and their performance needs to be measured.

It is not appropriate to get into particular personnel issues in this forum. This would be against the law and simply unfair to the individuals involved. Let it be sufficient to say some change was necessary and occurred over time. For the purpose of this series of articles we have plenty to focus on without getting into those areas, although there is plenty I wish I could address directly.

In 2008 the performance of the teachers in the Affton School District was not measured or understood. While this was recognized by many it was not possible to just snap our fingers and begin measuring. There were some that felt this shortcut to success was possible but they were mistaken. In 2008 we began a multiple year process of putting systems in place that would give us the visibility needed. To begin to measure what students were learning and provide the information needed. This information would turn out to be more valuable to the staff than to the board but we did not understand that at the time.

A word on short cuts. Cutting corners is recognized as a negative by most people. Despite this fact we tend to look for the quick way out of a problem in America. We like fast food despite the poor health that results. We like quick fixes that advertisers promise for our cars and home repairs. We often pay the price for these choices but our habits do not change. It was the same in this situation. We had people on the board and in the administration that felt we could just mangle the numbers we had. That we had the information we needed, we just had to look a little closer. What a waste of time that was. It would be years before we had a base of measurements that were relevant and gave us a picture of where we were. Short cuts are bad no matter what you are working on, we need to learn this.

There are many challenges to gathering useful information in education. Test scores are not sufficient to measure the effectiveness of instruction. Trends are not enough to establish what is really happening. Ultimately we need to be able to measure a single student over a period of time, establishing what has been learned. If you know where the student was at the beginning of the year, you can project where they need to be at the end. For different students this could be a radically different destination. When taken as a group with individually defined progress you can understand the “flow” of education in a particular area.

Another challenge is becoming what some call a “measurementer”. Someone who is invasive in measuring performance without regard to the consequences to the education process. We needed to build a system where measuring was an educational tool. Where measuring was not a distraction but a step in the process. We have certainly not arrived, but we have made significant progress.

What we began in 2008 was starting the process of benchmarking where students were throughout the year. These benchmarks were initially every quarter but we soon realized a core value of the information was missed at that interval. When teachers teach a given skill or transfer knowledge, if that does not occur then it would be helpful for them to know. If that information comes out after the student is gone the data has value but the student is lost. What we needed was a system that would create that feedback loop for the teacher. A way for them to know what students were not understanding so they could be taught again. What a powerful concept! I am sure there were some educators in the process that understood this but we simply fell on top of it as a board.

We quickly realized that this was a far bigger undertaking than we realized. I think it was then that the need to change the culture in the district crystallized for some us in a new way. Not that we did not get it before, but we understood how deep we needed to go. It was exciting to get those first benchmarks. To begin to see what was possible. It would be a few years before we got the process right, but it was a good start. I can honestly say we laid a fine foundation in 2008 and those that served on the curriculum committee that year did their fair share of work.

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