Our obsession with growth

The move towards increased accountability coupled with the creation and collection of new data mean K-12 education is constantly sorting through a variety of metrics to better understand what is working and what is not.  But the layers of additional data have an unfortunate and unintended effect: We are swinging our attention from one direction to another, and then another.  There are so many signals, and so much noise, that we’re in danger of losing our directional compass altogether.

Confronted with this problem, the Donnell-Kay Foundation just released a paper (to which I contributed) titled “True North: Goals for Denver Public Schools.”  This paper filters through the increasing swarm of data and metrics hovering about K-12 education, and reorients the primary goals of DPS (and other school districts). To quote the opening lines:

The fundamental purpose of any public school system is to graduate students at a level of proficiency that enables them to meet the professional and personal challenges of the modern world.  The purpose is not to have proficient 3rd, 5th, or 8th graders, nor to have academic growth that still leaves students unable to read, write, and perform math at the level necessary to fully participate in and contribute to our democratic society.

[…] At the moment students depart the K-12 system to enter college or career, it matters neither how proficient they were years before, nor the pace at which they have risen. Simply put: exit-level proficiency should be the primary goal of any public school system.

What’s led, in large part, to my belief in the need to more clearly set foundational goals for K-12 education is the recent rise and focus on academic growth.  Although growth is critical, our growing obsession with it has skewed the essential measurements of our K-12 public system.  Too often now we are focused on chasing growth as an end in itself, and we forget that for students leaving public education, growth is rarely relevant.

What makes the reorientation towards a goal of exit-level proficiency and away from academic growth even more critical is the tenuous link between the two. For example, look at the trajectory of the DPS graduating class of 2013 over the past seven years as measured by both median growth percentiles (MGP) and the percentage of students who are proficient or advanced (PPA):

Growth climbs while proficiency declines. For the past four years, academic growth for this cohort has been equal or better than the state median of 50.  In the past two years, this class has had roughly the same academic growth numbers which, in DPS overall, have garnered effusive praise.  Yet proficiency has steadily declined from a high of just 42 percent in grade 5 to an appalling 33 percent by grade 10.  Which metric matters more to members of the class of 2013?

What is clear in the chart is that Denver can celebrate academic growth for years to come without making much progress in the exit-level proficiency of students. And that is simply not the right direction.  Growth is means, not end.

Increasingly, school districts in Colorado have been celebrating academic growth as the centerpiece of their (often modest) achievements.  DPS recently touted growth as evidence of its success (see also slides 7-14 in this very long board presentation).  Even the shortcomings of the district are cast in this light: Not the lack of progress with proficiency but the need for more or faster growth.  Like the recent solar eclipse, growth is increasingly front and center, obscuring proficiency – despite the very clear fact that it is proficiency that students require above anything else.

We need to change our orientation.  Again, for students who are leaving public schooling, it matters neither how proficient they were years before, nor the pace at which they have risen. What matters most to the DPS Class of 2013 is exit-level proficiency — if they are prepared for the challenges of college and career.  And by this measure – despite celebrated academic growth numbers – the overwhelming majority is far from this goal.

The Colorado growth model is unquestionably one of the most important recent advances in education reform.  Median growth percentiles are highly useful to tracking cohort progress of students, comparing schools, and even looking at overall districts. All of these are good things.  But just as Aristotle argued thatall virtues carried to their extreme are a vice, our obsession with (and celebration of) growth is blinding us to continued shortcomings in our schools, and the true needs of our students.

Now growth and proficiency are never going to be exactly correlated.  To start, the data set for growth is a subset (comprising about 85 percent) of the larger data set for proficiency .  And proficiency is a binary measure: a student is either proficient or not, while one can have academic growth both below and above the line of proficiency without crossing over it. The two will not move in tandem.

But we also have to realize that, fundamentally, growth can be a means, but it should not be an end.  It’s important to measure growth as an indicator of academic progress, but it must serve a larger and more important goal of academic proficiency.

There are a number of other issues here – the current assessments of basic proficiency are less than optimal (we prefer the ACT over the CSAP/TCAP), and ideally should be correlated with international benchmarks.  And basic proficiency should be the floor, and not the ceiling, of academic measurement. But at this point in the evolution with DPS and other districts, we cannot change the compass to point to growth (or similar variables).  We must focus on what is best for students, and that is clearly the multifaceted skills and knowledge that begin with basic proficiency.

Education is a complex, dynamic system, with many variables both within and outside its walls. The speed of change within it – long moribund – is rising.  The increased amount and use of data is one of many developments that give me great hope for improving our public K-12 systems.  But if you don’t know where you are headed, any direction will get you there.  K-12 education needs to both set a primary course and hold true to it.

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2 Responses to Our obsession with growth

  1. Pingback: 2013 School Performance in Denver | Ooms With A View

  2. Pingback: 2013 School Results in Denver | Ooms With A View

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