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.

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