Saturday, September 21, 2013
Measuring Education - What a Noble Nobel Thought
Discussions on public school education are far more likely to focus on statistics now than such a dialogue would have twenty years ago. At some point amid the conversations of facts and figures one may hear a faint, cautionary reference to DRIP – Data Rich, Information Poor. One of my favorite authors, Malcolm Gladwell, wrote the following in his best seller, Blink:
“The key to decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.”
I am not averse to developing metrics to gauge progress toward stated goals. But, the tremendous amount of data collected by countless people and organizations in their quest to measure the status of public school education does not necessarily translate into practical information that can leverage success. The mere existence of a mountain of data does not move us ahead in our efforts, and perhaps confuses and constricts our direction. It is information and understanding that we desire, not inert data fueling swirling rhetoric wielded by those not charged with applying strategies designed to improve performance levels.
I wonder if we have charged forward without a clear understanding of what our objective is. We can probably all agree that we want better schools and there is no lack of critics of public schools, but the disagreement begins at the definition of what “better” means. Is it high school graduations rates? College acceptance rates? Overall grade point averages? Scores of state assessments? Is it better when everyone succeeds at pre-determined standards of performance (albeit within a society that subscribes to the bell shape curve to define/discriminate?)
What is “better”? More importantly, who decides the meaning of “better”?
The results of the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) scores in math and science are typically employed to demonstrate that the US lags behind their industrialized nations in educational output. That is but one measure, but certainly one shared by those decrying the current state of public school education in our country. If that is the measure of “better” then we must re-direct our focus and subsequent strategies. And, to a large extent we have, with No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top and the myriad assessments and accountability measures (as much as one can glean from a fill-in-the-bubble test format) that have emerged in their wake.
But, what if we reframed the way we measure “better”? What if we opted for an impartially determined form of measurement rather than one that may evolve from a political or philosophical or financial basis? One that wasn’t designed to affirm someone’s prefixed values or interests.
What if instead of using the TIMMS we used another world-wide measure of excellence? One that speaks to our viability as a nation to sustain progress and contend with future social, economic, technological, and political challenges?
What if we examined and valued contributions made each year in the best interests of mankind and used that guideline as a yardstick of our expansive educational system involving all stages and ages– from public, private, parochial, and home-schooled enterprises; from pre-K through PhD? For example, what if we identified the following areas:
"the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics;
the most important chemical discovery or improvement;
the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine;
the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction;
the most important breakthrough in economics
and, finally, the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace;"
What would you say about that form of measurement to assess overall educational outputs?
Well, you might say we already have those parameters in place. In fact, except for economics which was added as a prize in 1968, the world has already attached a fair amount of significance to these very same standards and criteria in the form of the Nobel Prize awards.
Here’s the text of the will of Alfred Nobel that served in 1901 as the foundation of these prestigious honors that are sources of national pride and financial windfalls of the recipients.
"The whole of my remaining realizable estate shall be dealt with in the following way: the capital, invested in safe securities by my executors, shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind. The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: one part to the person who shall have made; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
Now, let’s look at how the US ranks in these vital areas of critical importance to our future.
Nobel Prizes by Country (we’ll examine several large European/Asian nations)
United Kingdom 119
South Korea 1
Wow!!! That’s a lot of Nobel Prize awards!!
In fact, that collective amount from several of the largest nations in the world is only ten more than what the US has earned alone by its distinguished citizens and graduates.
I wonder how the recipients of these outstanding awards think of the rigid and frequent fill-in-the-bubble assessments that our politicians promote and our children must endure to prove their competence. I wonder what the 1921 Nobel Prize winner in Physics would think –
“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Alfred Einstein, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1921