Monday, September 24, 2012

Aiming at Goal

                Over the past month or so, assessment and measurement has been receiving a great deal of attention. Loads of blog posts and tweets and conferences. Rightly so, I’d say, for these are very important topics—ones that we should reconsider constantly. I wrote a post that included some thoughts on the topic: “Less I, More R.”
                This past Saturday I was watching an English soccer match between Everton and Swansea. Everton was dominating the match, but the score remained nil-nil. One announcer brought up what has become a popular statistic the past few years by mentioning what a large percentage of possession Everton had. The other announcer, a former player, argued, “That’s technology driving that stat, that is. And it doesn’t matter. Only stat that matters is goals.”
                While I am not that old school, his comments started me thinking. First, how much has technology driven what is measured? In other words, how often do we measure something because we discovered that we could, and then convinced ourselves that somehow it may be meaningful? I suspect the answer to that question varies wildly depending on the respondent. Also, certainly there are things we wanted to measure and only now can do so efficiently.  I like to look at data and see what story emerges. But I have a second question. In this era of big data, with so much of it available, have we focused on the ones that really matter—the goals?
                I guess before we can do that, we need to keep clarifying and building consensus about the goals. Not as easy as sticking the ball in the back of the net.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Why I Still Subscribe to the Newspaper

                Lately I have been wondering why I keep my subscription to The Dallas Morning News newspaper. Nothing against the newspaper—it’s not great, but it’s fine. However, my reasoning is fairly typical. I find myself reading the newspaper less and less; instead, I turn to on-line sources. Meanwhile, the cost has risen over 300% over the past few years for a skimpier version.
                So why do I keep it? Inertia and comfort, to some degree. I am an early riser, usually up before 5:00 AM. For as long as I can remember, my morning routine has included brewing some coffee, then systematically working my way through the sports pages, the comics, and the puzzles. Then I’d finally look at the real news and op-eds. Nothing there I couldn’t accomplish with a device of some sort. But I find a certain comfort in the newspaper itself, and certain things just aren’t as fun when done by tapping on a screen. But I could adjust.
                My wife also likes the newspaper. She also could adjust, but she would do so much less willingly. She believes we all—not just our family, but our culture—spends entirely too much time staring at screens. Perhaps. While that particular discussion must wait for another time, it does hint at another reason I keep renewing. I love my gadgets, and I celebrate the possibilities that modern technology has created for education. However, with everything there is an opportunity cost, in this case one of more ethereal economics. I find the slow demise of local newspapers sad for many reasons.  In some ways it represents the microwave pace of our lives. More than anything, I mourn how we are losing newspapers because each holds symbolic value as a representation of its community. As such, they also have a unifying power.
                But another larger reason, one which includes the others, leads me to keep having the newspaper delivered each day. As part of that morning routine, I enjoy making breakfast for my two children. After I’m done with the paper, I leave it on the kitchen table near the food. When they stumble out, the first thing my kids do is scan the various parts of the newspaper. I love to see them making that connection, however fleeting, to the issues of the larger world, our nation, and our city. Often they will ask questions, either then or later; and they can have some wonderful discussions about current issues.
I’m unable to trust serendipity will allow this to happen as they browse the web. In fact, I see it happening in quite the opposite fashion: those encounters with print can positively influence their on-line behavior. My daughter will explore certain political sites. My son, when he wants more information or is rightly skeptical about some facts, will say, “Search it up.” Those are some nice exhibits of 21st-century literacy in action. It’s also meaningful engagement with the world, albeit vicariously. Both prompted by an “outdated” technology.
And that leads to my final reason for being on auto-renewal. That newspaper on the kitchen table is a daily reminder that as we hurtle into embracing the wonders of this morphing world, certain things hold timeless value.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

My Current Political Platform

                I’m treading into potentially dangerous waters here: the political scene. Because of that, I want to make clear that I am not making a statement of support for either side on any particular issue; any references to any party or topic are purely for illustrative purposes. In fact, I take it as a point of pride that students used to tell me they could never figure out my real stance on an issue. I believe very strongly that schools should be teaching students how to think and not what to think. Plus I hold both sides responsible for the current situation that has me vexed.
                The recent conventions have prompted this post. That’s because I didn’t watch much of them. I used to. I love the optimism, the faith so many still hold in the system, the unabashed hope in process and progress and better times. The conventions are an amazing reminder that we live in an amazing nation begun as a crazy experiment by some rabble-rouser just over two centuries ago.
                This year I watched bits and pieces. I’m sure the same gung-ho spirit was on full display in speeches, chants, cheers, and goofy hats. But I just couldn’t muster up much excitement.
                A large part of a meaningful education involves preparing students to engage with the world in important ways. At St. John’s, one quality in our Picture of the Graduate cites being “community- and globally-conscious.” Inherent in that is paying attention to and participating thoughtfully in the political process. Ideally one would do so in a way aligned with another POG trait: “bring[ing] optimism, confidence and discipline to solving problems through the use of critical thinking skills.”
                Unfortunately, the current political climate not only makes this difficult. It also makes it somewhat undesirable in some ways. Politicians and their handlers haven’t exactly been behaving as role models.  The problem only seems to grow worse.
                Political finger-pointing and demonizing is nothing new. The Federalists and anti-Federalists fought through our nation’s founding, and the deliberations in Philadelphia were full of acrimony. In 1856 Congressman Preston Brooks attacked Senator Charles Sumner during an anti-slavery speech and almost beat him to death with a cane. So there have been rough, dark periods. But over the past decade the level of anger seems to remain at a high boil. This, in turn, has led to an oversimplified, practically binary way of thinking and acting. Sometimes I feel as if the level of debate has been reduced to this formula: “You are a ____ and support ____. Therefore, I disagree.” It can become a childish cycle of is not-is too. And the enmity seems to be expected.
                I’ve wondered if my perception is valid, or if it’s just a case of my becoming fed up with it all. So I asked myself two general historical questions. The first: when do I first recall paying much attention to political events? The second: what might be the last time there seemed to be so much deep political discord in our nation? Both received the same answer: the late 1960s and early 1970s, with all the issues brought about by the Vietnam Conflict. In Gallup Poll data collected between August 1968 and September 1969, 51% of Democrats and 56% of Republicans believed the war to have been a mistake, while 37% of Democrats and 34% of Republicans believed it had not been a mistake. Contrast that to 2005 poll data about the Iraq war in which 81% of Democrats called it a mistake and 78% or Republicans said it was not. (Data taken from Friedman and Mandelbaum’s That Used to be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and how We Can Come Back )This clear split also appears, sometimes in even stronger fashion, on most issues.
                Both parties were once coalitions of both liberals and conservatives. For example, Democrats used to include conservative Southerners whose opposition to the Republican Party dated from the Civil War. Republicans used to include people with fairly liberal social views who tended to be more conservative in economic terms. People literally used to cross the aisle to embrace political opponents. Former Republican senator Alan Simpson tells a story of going across the chamber to hug Dale Bumpers, a Democrat. When he returned to his side, another newly-elected Republican chided him by asking, “What were you doing over there with Bumpers?” After Simpson replied, “He’s my friend,” the other said, “He’s no good. He’s a Democrat. He’s a rabid liberal. You shouldn’t be hugging him.” (ibid)
                We are in this sorry situation for multiple reasons, most of which I’m sure you can tick off. So I won’t, and I’m also not going to elaborate on any of them. Maybe another post at another time, although I doubt it. Because what brought us to this point, while important and interesting, is not really my larger concern here.
                I’m wondering more about what lessons young people are gleaning from what they witness. What are they learning about leadership? About constructive debate? About seeking compromise? About thoughtful deliberation? About respectful disagreement? About respect in general? About working together for the common good?
                This last point is crucial. We face enormous problems—energy, environmental, financial, technological, infrastructure, international—which will require our collective resources to solve. However, we continue to squawk about our disagreements to such a degree that we cannot collaborate in any fashion. And the frightening thing is divisiveness tends to breed greater divisiveness. When and how does it end?
                In the big picture, I don’t know. Perhaps when some situation becomes desperate enough that we have to pull together.  In our own corners of the world, we can help children by asking questions and initiating discussions with them. At just about any age, children have reactions and opinions, often laced with insight that we can neglect in our busy adulthood. We must model the desired behavior. Simply put, to have the type of political leaders and citizenry we want and need, we have to nurture the essential qualities. It’s hard, slow, often messy work. It’s vital work. Imperative work.
                I’m Mark Crotty, and I approve this message.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Less I, More R

                Quick question: What is the top university in the United States?
                Harvard? Actually, the Crimson came in 11th. I’m sure they take solace from the fact that Yale finished 41st. Princeton was 20th. Out of the usual suspects for top dog, Stanford was the highest at 3rd.
                Number one? University of California-San Diego. Some other highly-ranked universities include Texas A&M, assorted branches of the University of California system, Case Western, and University of Texas-El Paso (11 slots above UT-Austin).
                The rankings are courtesy of Washington Monthly. Per the publication,
We rate schools based on their contribution to the public good in three broad categories: Social Mobility (recruiting and graduating low-income students), Research (producing cutting-edge scholarship and PhDs), and Service (encouraging students to give something back to their country).
You can access the list, along with those for liberal arts schools, and check for your alma mater here. I’m not sure how to feel about Allegheny College coming in 41st in the liberal arts rankings.
                The initial question was, of course, a trick one to some degree. You couldn’t come up with the right answer because you didn’t know the criteria. Even if you had, you may not have because you still might not have known how the metrics were used in each area. Even then…by now you get the idea.
                Human beings love to categorize and to rank; it seems to be part of our genetic make-up.  There are also psychological elements to it. Doing so helps us to make sense of an increasingly complex and competitive world. It can provide assurance that we are making wise choices and will reap the benefits both short- and long-term. Technology and the ease with which we can accumulate, manipulate, and share data has only increased this desire. Plus we live in anxious times.
                This latest set of rankings reignited an issue I’ve been struggling with for many years—meaningful metrics for independent schools. Over time I’ve created various dashboards on AP results, college acceptance, student engagement, service hours, ERB scores…pick an area in which a school is expected to have an impact, and I’ve tried to quantify it. All in the name of trying to prove Return on Investment.
                I can articulate for you multiple reasons why this doesn’t work, why it’s a bad idea, et cetera. Let me go ahead and tick through them. We’re dealing with intangibles. It’s about the long term. What matters can’t always be measured. Some things can’t be measured. Statistics don’t tell the whole story. You need context. The assessment tools are flawed.  Many of the measures are not really in a school’s control. Certainly I’ve missed a few, but that’s okay because I’m not trying to make that argument. Instead, I’m going to encourage a change in perspective.
                Before I do, I must say understand the notion of ROI. Several times, as a tuition-paying parent, whether in frustration with one of my children or with something at their school, I’ve asked myself, “Is this really what I’m paying all that money for?” I’ve even wondered if, in the bigger picture, it’s really worth it. I think this is very human and very natural.
                Also, traditionally independent schools have not done a wonderful job of articulating why they are worth the cost. Until recently, they haven’t faced as much pressure to do so. Now they do, and we have somewhat brought this challenge upon ourselves as costs have skyrocketed. But most of us, including the top administrators, are teachers at our core. That’s why more schools are brining on marketing and communications people, and we are just starting to figure out some of this stuff.
                So how does one know? What is the measure?
                Your child.
                Despite our wishes that every family choose us because of our mission, I wonder what percentage do. Besides, most of our mission statements contain the same generic, albeit aspirational rhetoric that remains very open to interpretation.  Ultimately, the hopes and dreams of a family are highly individualized. Each has different wishes and wants and needs. It’s highly personal and internal. Yet so often we look towards external measures for validation.
                Instead, look at your child. Ask yourself if you see her or him developing in ways that match your values. For me, this means continually asking some big questions. Do they still love learning? Does their learning lead them to engage with the world? Are they becoming more independent? Are they positive and optimistic about their potential? Are they steadily becoming better versions of their unique selves?
                Not looking at it this way may even backfire, despite our best intentions. In a recent Harvard Business Review blog post, Sarah Green considers how the recent cheating scandal at Harvard may be tied to students’ lacking a love of learning because of the end-product emphasis increasingly placed on education. Near the end she writes:
While great teachers have always been able to nurture that flame in their students, education policy has focused on efficiency — getting the biggest bang for the taxpayer's or tuition-payer's buck — and focusing on results is seductively efficient, especially in the short term. But schools are not factories, and students are not inputs. Efficiency is not the only value in this conversation; quality also matters.
In talking about the "ROI" of our schools, we have focused too much on the I, and not enough on the R.
I don’t know the perfect balance in that equation. I can say unequivocally that when I focus more on the R, I feel not only a sense of having invested well, but also genuine gratitude.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Social Media as It Should Be

The first link in the chain was a phone call. It's the old way we used to hear news from afar, and still the best when the news is bad. The inflections of the human voice affirm the shared emotions and provide support. I felt truly grateful.

The next link came when I decided to write a blog post titled "RIP Coach." I did so partly because it was cathartic, but also to honor the person because his life embodied so many of the points I've made throughout this blog. His life taught. So it felt very natural.

The third link came when I emailed someone at his school to let her know about the post. It helped me to write the piece, so I thought someone might want to read it. Not a phone call, but perhaps still helpful.

Then the links started joining fast. She responded gratefully to the email and told me she had posted about it on the school's Facebook sites for the community and alumni. Suddenly the post was getting hundreds more views than any of my others. It turns out that people had then put the link on their Facebook pages and Tweeted it. Meanwhile, people were sharing thoughts on a page set up on the school's site. I was seeing names from many years before. Some commented on the blog; I received several emails; and a few began to follow me on Twitter. I quickly sensed that these young folks i had worked with over twenty years ago had grown up quite nicely. At a much-needed time, it was powerful and affirming.

I mean that not just in a personal sense but also about social media. No, this wasn't an Arab Spring revolution spurred by thousands of Tweets or even a viral video. But it did connect people, however briefly, in a fashion and time that matter. It's all been very healthy and positive. A few years ago it wasn't possible, and now it feels quite natural. For that we should be quite grateful.

It also should remind us about some huge responsibilities about social media. We live in a reality blended of off- and on-line activity, and that has implications for the development of a whole and unified self. This goes beyond harnessing the power of these tools for their amazing educational potential, although tons of work remains to be done in this area. I still see and hear of too much behavior on-line that I suspect (hope?) that people would not do in person. Sometimes we breach common civilities because the tools can make doing so easier and more comfortable. Those are the times we must call on our better selves.

And when we do, as this recent chain of events show, social media is a gift we all can open and enjoy. The story also reminds us that sometimes the old-fashioned way is best. A phone call. Maybe even a real face-to-face conversation.