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The Bottom Line in Education: Real Student Learning

Measurement in capitalism is pretty easy: It’s profit. You can tell how effective something is by how much money it makes. Education is actually just this easy. What we should measure, the only thing we should care about, the only discussion we should have, the only thing we should fund, the absolute bottom line is: Student Learning.

Real Student Learning is Difficult & Expensive to Measure

The problem that we have is that student learning–real student learning–is extremely difficult to measure. Here are just some of the problems that make measuring real student learning so complicated:

  1. Some content is virtually impossible to measure. My field is English language arts. How do we measure literacy? We can give multiple choice tests, essay exams (which is what is done at scale now), but so many important ELA skills are left out: synthesizing ideas effectively, using words cleverly, making allusions to other knowledge, in-depth understanding of sophisticated content, originality, curiosity, use of peer feedback, ability to use sources well (including the Internet), understanding of multiple forms of correctness (as per genre, audience, purpose, etc.), speaking and presenting well, listening to others well, empathy, open-mindedness, discipline, ability to make difficult choices, editing writing so it is concise but still has impact, use of humor and drama, clarity.  The list goes on and on.
  2. Isolating what impacts student learning is extremely difficult. Think of all the things that can prevent a student from learning effectively. There are big ones that some students face: serious hunger, homelessness, no time to study outside of school, no appropriate place to study outside of school, regular family strife, fear for one’s safety. There are also smaller issues: a bad night’s sleep, a fight with a friend or companion, illness, temporary distraction, a family fight, a flat tire, a disgusting lunch, a paper cut, immaturity. How many of these things can anyone really control?

Fake Student Learning

Real student learning is very expensive and very difficult to measure in a standardized way. Teachers can assess their students effectively, but when one tries to create a standard and compare one class to another, or one school building  to another, or a district to another, or a state school system to another, or a national school system to another, the process gets increasingly more impossible to be done well. 

So some have created what are essentially fake measures of student learning: Standardized exams that ignore the complications

listed above. And then they use this essentially fake information to make claims about real students and real schools and to justify changes to them.

Perhaps it is true that measurement of real student learning is just too complicated and too expensive. Fine, let’s admit that. But we should not pretend that fake measures are good enough. They are not. Fake measures are deceiving and can be used to manipulate the public for private gain. And, that’s exactly what’s happening. This has set off a firestorm in American Education, and things don’t look like they’ll settle down any time soon.

Instead, we should focus entirely on the bottom line: Real Student Learning.

What Doesn’t Matter in Education? Everything that Doesn’t Address Student Learning

Pundits, politicians, reformers, and many other spend a great deal of time talking about aspects of education that are not centered on student learning. Here, I try to refocus some of those topics on the real bottom line.

Teacher Accountability. This is a big one. Teacher accountability matters, but ONLY in how a teacher’s actions affect real student learning. Fake measures won’t get to this measure. This is why local principals, peer teachers, parents, and students must be heavily involved in teacher evaluation. The fake measures of standardized exams aren’t telling the real story–in fact, they largely distract from them.

Teaching methods. The following things do not matter in teaching, except in how they affect real student learning: originality of methods, likability of the teacher, the behavior of the students, the look of the classroom, the volume of the classroom, the use of Internet blockers, the make up of the students, and more. All of these things DO affect how well the students learn. But that should be the ONLY way those things are measured. My classroom can be very loud and boisterous. No one should tell me to change that, unless doing so will increase student learning.

Ethical dilemmas. There are no ethical dilemmas in teaching (admittedly, this is may be overstating the case). But about any dilemma any teacher has, the following question can be applied: What action in this case will result in the most real student learning? The answer to that question is ALWAYS the right thing to do. Of course, answering that question well requires a very smart, talented, and well-resourced teacher.

Bean Counting. Many districts must now put a lot of money into the act of gathering and reporting standardized data on the kinds of fake student learning listed above. If this money does not result in an increase in real student learning, it should stop. Period. We’re wasting money and effort.

Some Things that DO Matter in Education

Parental Relations: Help parents understand what they can do to help their children with schoolwork, starting with creating an atmosphere that is conducive to learning. If they don’t have the space at home, find local libraries or other resources. Teachers and parents who work together can have hugely positive impacts on real student learning.

Community Relations: A community that supports its students can have a tremendously powerful impact on increasing real student learning. Bring in local speakers; get business to sponsor special educational events for students; help refresh the teachers’ minds, bodies, and spirits; have local pastors and other non-profit leaders involve students in service learning projects that benefit the community and provide myriad educational experiences. 

Talented, Well-Resourced Teachers: Lots of research shows that teachers are the most important, in-school factor for student learning. Reformers and privatizers have used this datum to attack teachers, and to hold them accountable. This is a terrible distraction from the real point. Because teachers are the closest to the actual students, because they are the ones who can see what each student needs and responds to, we should be LISTENING and HELPING teachers. Not beating them up and not distracting them from their students by making them insecure about their jobs. We also shouldn’t ignore the fact that POVERTY is impossible for any teacher to outweigh.

Poverty, Poverty, Poverty! Food-insecure, homeless, unsupported, unhealthy children simply cannot learn at their best. We absolutely must address the problems of children in poverty. So far, poverty is virtually ignored in education reform. This is how we really know that most reform is not truly about real student learning.

Real Student Learning

Any conversation you ever have about education, every action you take as an educator or as

an education supporter should be about real student learning. If you start there and you keep that as the bottom line, you’ll be having a conversation of substance. Let’s all try to work to refocus education onto the only thing that matters.