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Friday, August 20, 2010

What Counts?

Albert Einstein once stated that, "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."

That quote must be kept in mind when evaluating the purpose and promise of schools in this day and age where newspaper headlines broadcast the latest test scores on state mandated tests as the lone measure of the value of schools. The test results can certainly be counted - but are they the only statistics that count? What about the attitude or feelings of a child at the end of the school day? That counts, but can it be counted?

I thought about this perplexing dilemma, the idealistic mission of public schools versus the realistic expectations of schools, while I attended an educational conference today on two important topics, bullying, and suicide among youth, two subjects that also receive a great amount of space in newspapers. Recent data indicates that almost 1,400 students commit suicide in New York State each year. This figure warrants sincere attention and comprehensive response. Bullying has increased and expanded to, and through, the Internet in the form of vicious and hateful comments exchanged in social network sites.

Those who educate learners must grapple with many different factors outside of school that prompt support programs which compete for the same scarce resources of time, money, and materials that are devoted to the academic preparation for annual assessments of progress.

During a break at the session today I recalled reading about another perspective on a conference that tackled the issue of conflicting or confusing goals in schools. Carl Glickman, the author of Holding Sacred Ground, related an experience at a conference he attended on the subject of effective schools. The blue ribbon panel of experts headlining the meeting delivered studies that collectively defined an effective school. The researchers highlighted characteristics of schools producing high standards of achievement. They listed elements such as - clear vision for the school; frequent monitoring of achievement; curriculum articulation; high rate of engagement between learners and learning; and several other attributes.

However, after the experts finished elaborating on effective schools, an audience member asked about a "good" school, and provided his own interpretation of a good school - a caring and supportive environment; a dynamic and interactive atmosphere; pride; dignity, and a handful of other signs of a good school. The members of the blue ribbon panel agreed on the qualities presented for a good school.

The audience member acknowledged the significant value of both, but he pressed the experts to respond to the question - "If you could only pick one of these two schools for your own child to attend, which would you pick, the effective school or the good school?" The experts reluctantly admitted that although both were desired, and in fact, it's possible for a school to be both effective and good; if they had to select only one they'd opt for the good school.

I would concur with that pick. I want my children to be respected, cared for, treating with dignity, empowered, and nurtured while they are at school. But, I'd also want them to be stretched to think, imagine, explore, achieve, and grow intellectually. You get the challenge facing schools. Be everything, do everything.

That brings us back to today's conference. Bullying and suicide are two different issues that have also intersected at times, like they did in a recent, well publicized case in South Hadley, Massachusetts, where a teenage girl committed suicide as an escape from the intense bullying she experienced, in and out of school. Schools must identify and respond to issues that impact learners, regardless of where the issues originate and what form the issues take. We have the responsibility to treat the boys and girls at school as we would want our own sons and daughters treated. If we don't react appropriately to the needs of the kids on a social, emotional, and psychological level then our efforts to address their academic needs are distracted and undermined. We will soon be publishing an article on our school district website for you with information and important resources listed on bullying, as well as suicide prevention.

It's at this nexus, the intersection of various factors that influence learning, whether they are in-school or out-of-school issues, where our school staff need your assistance as partners. You can begin by recognizing the tremendous challenge of our commitment to simultaneously meet ever increasing state performance standards while also supporting the development of young children as they navigate the ever changing social, emotional, and psychological terrain of today's complex world through adolescence and eventually into adulthood.

Heatly School assumes and accepts the responsibility of being both an effective school and a good school. This effort begins with a commitment to a quote that means a great deal to me: "People don't care about what you know, until they know you care."

Please join us in this pursuit. We'll need your help.

Dr. Michael Mugits

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