Q: In my district, every school has its own goal to increase standardized test scores. For example, at my child’s school, 75% of students passed their reading and math tests and this year the goal is 80%. As a parent, I like this “never be satisfied” approach toward improvement. Do you think it’s a good idea?
Not at all.
There are dozens of problems with it, but the best reasons are probably articulated by author and cartoonist Scott Adams who advocates for a “systems” approach rather than goals as a means of improvement.
One problem with goals, he notes, is that you are in a perpetual state of failure until you hit the goal. Then, when you reach it (if you do), you just have to turn around and create a new goal to take the place of the old one. Thus goals of this nature give everyone a loser mentality. You lose, lose, lose, lose and then hopefully win for a minute so you can start back over with losing. Unsurprisingly, most schools who chase such goals rarely achieve them.
The systems approach, however, is that schools continually do things to increase their chances of success. These things are generally nonspecific, but their purpose is always to lead to a higher likelihood of achievement. An example is the adoption of school uniforms. If you have valid reasons to think that your students will learn better if dressed in attire meant for the purpose of learning, your chance of success will probably go up, even if only minimally.
Now let’s look at the difference between a goals school and a systems school psychologically. Mid-term testing comes around and it looks like only 77% of your students are passing the standardized tests. The “goal” teachers will greet this news with a groan. “Oh, man, we’ve only got half a year to get the rest of the way to our 80% goal. We’ll never do it.”
The “system” teachers, on the other hand, are ecstatic. There’s been a 2% increase. The ideas they’ve put into place are already reaping benefits. Now they see if there’s anything else that can be sharpened, tightened up, modified, dropped or implemented that further increases their chances to improve. Also the confidence they’ve gained by their small victory gives them an edge over their goal-failing counterparts.
Goals schools are always looking for a silver bullet-style program that will give them the surge necessary to leap across the finish line. But schools don’t turn toward success based on one or two big programs. They are built on a foundation of a hundred small decisions, each one providing a slightly greater chance for success.
That’s why goals of the kind you are describing are for losers.
Q: My daughter’s teacher has all of her students working on the same skills at the same time. My daughter, who is extremely smart, is well ahead of the class and capable of doing more. When the teacher assigns the same homework to all the kids, my daughter isn’t even motivated to do it half the time and her grades are falling because of it. How can I get the teacher (and the school) to see that there needs to be more individualized learning to help kids like my daughter?
Author Justin Halpern writes about a time as a teenager when he tried to tell his father about a personal existential crisis that was bothering him. They were both in the kitchen.
“You worry too much,” his father said. “Eat some bacon.”
“How does eating bacon help the problem?” Jason said.
“It doesn’t,” his father said. “I just made too much bacon.”
The point is that sometimes the best answer is to worry less about the big things you can’t solve and focus more on the smaller problems that are right in front of your face. In your case, you may be right about the level of rigor in your daughter’s class, but I doubt your anxiety over the school’s “individualized learning” philosophy will lead to a favorable solution, at least not in time for it to matter to your own daughter.
Meanwhile, your letter reveals that she isn’t doing her homework half the time. Unless you want her to grow up with a lazy, blase attitude toward tasks she deems beneath her superior intellect, that’s a big problem. As a father, I personally didn’t care how bored with their homework my children were. They had to do it anyway. If they wanted to complain that it was too easy for them and they’d like something harder, fine, they could go in and tell the teacher that themselves. But when homework is assigned, homework is to be completed. Boredom is no excuse for failure.
So my advice is to eat the bacon right in front of you and worry about the existential crisis later.