Sunday, August 20, 2017

Defining Public School Success

How do you define success in your life? Do you base success on your salary, the size of your home maybe? Do you define your success based on promotions, how new your car is? Do you take a standardized test along with other adults in your age group once a year?


Would you say that success in life is a combination of factors, many of which are intangibles?

To me, success on its most basic level, means that all my basic needs are met and that I’m reasonably happy. Your measure of my success is likely different than my measure. I rent a modest apartment, drive a small vehicle, and I don’t take a lot of vacations. However, I have a career that I’m passionate about, I’m considered an expert in my field, my kids love me, they’re happy and healthy, and the tools I’ve developed over my lifetime allow me to tackle new challenges and adapt to make good career moves.

Still...if you have a job, at least once a year someone is going to try to put a measure on your performance.

Every performance review I’ve given or received has been based on a combination of metrics or key performance indicators (KPI’s) like sales, efficiency, and quality of work performed which can all be objectively measured. The other part of that performance review is based on things that cannot be objectively measured like how well someone works with others, do they promote desirable qualities like leadership and attention to detail, are they innovative, or do they go above and beyond.

You can’t argue KPI’s but the intangible qualities lie in the eye of the beholder. Businesses, like the Kentucky Legislature, keep changing their KPI’s for employees and students as the business world changes but the intangibles never change. The numbers are only as good as the climate in which they were developed.

The Legislature demands that public schools measure anything you can put a number on; ACT Scores, MAP Scores, KPREP Scores, and on and on. Folks compare these numbers to other schools, other districts, and other states but are these really the measure of a successful school? The Legislature says it is but they change their mind every couple of years so let’s look for a better definition of success.

The Kentucky Constitution says that the Legislature must provide for an efficient system of common schools, they must fund the system, (By the way, funding common schools is the only funding mandate on the legislature in the constitution) they must ensure that funds aren’t used for any other purpose, ensure that common schools don’t discriminate, and do not use the funding to support church, sectarian, or denominational schools. (Remember that last bit as the voucher debate continues)

The Kentucky Supreme Court goes a little further in its opinion on Rose vs. Council For Better Education in 1989:
[FN22. In recreating and redesigning the Kentucky system of common schools, these seven characteristics should be considered as minimum goals in providing an adequate education. Certainly, there is no prohibition against higher goals--whether such are implemented statewide by the General Assembly or through the efforts of any local education entities that the General Assembly may establish--so long as the General Assembly meets the standards set out in this Opinion.]
The essential, and minimal, characteristics of an "efficient" system of common schools, may be summarized as follows:
1) The establishment, maintenance and funding of common schools in Kentucky is the sole responsibility of the General Assembly.
2) Common schools shall be free to all.
3) Common schools shall be available to all Kentucky children.
4) Common schools shall be substantially uniform throughout the state.
5) Common schools shall provide equal educational opportunities to all Kentucky children, regardless of place of residence or economic circumstances.
6) Common schools shall be monitored by the General Assembly to assure that they are operated with no waste, no duplication, no mismanagement, and with no political influence.
7) The premise for the existence of common schools is that all children in Kentucky have a constitutional right to an adequate education.
8) The General Assembly shall provide funding which is sufficient to provide each child in Kentucky an adequate education.
9) An adequate education is one which has as its goal the development of the seven capacities recited previously.

According to the Kentucky Supreme Court then, the 7 elements by which we measure success are that the schools are free (public), available to all Kentucky Students, uniform, equal opportunity, monitored, must fulfill a child’s constitutional right to an education, and that they shall be adequately funded. This is the most basic definition of successful public schools.

I would offer that the intangibles mean as much to a successful public school as the definition that the Supreme courts has laid out and the KPI’s that the Legislature dictates from year to year.

SCPS has developed their Profile of a Graduate which tries to nail down what those intangibles are and they state them as follows:
This Profile describes the expectations our community believes are required of successful leaders who graduate from SCPS. A Shelby County Public Schools graduate is...
·        A Critical Thinker
·        A Responsible Collaborator
·        A Lifelong Learner
·        An Effective Communicator
·        A Global Citizen
·        An Inspired Innovator

Sounds a lot like my last performance review at work honestly. Those qualities, in essence, are what my employer grades me on and what I’ve graded my employees on throughout the years. Businesses find more value in someone who can find answers and solve problems than someone who already knows all the answers.

When I first saw the Profile of a Graduate, my first thought was “Wow, if the apprentices in my class were all able to do this then I could teach them anything!”. When I think of my students in terms of this profile, I can quickly see a pattern between those who exhibit these traits and who the most successful students are. After my first few months of training I started drifting from the outline for classes that the manufacturer lays out and started teaching to each individual’s strengths. Some technicians did well on written tests, some were better at hands on demonstration, some found different ways to use resources, and some could stray from the procedure and still be successful. The point is, I found that I couldn’t use the same yard stick for all of them because they all had different learning styles and strengths but they could all complete the tasks and demonstrate their abilities in different ways. I really thought I was onto something!

Then I took a tour through Clear Creek Elementary, East Middle School, and Shelby County High School and saw that our public schools are way ahead of me. I got a detailed look at different instruction approaches including The Summit, Launch, and 3PT, the innovative learning programs of the respective schools.

What I saw amazed me. There was mismatched furniture, beanbag chairs, library tables, and students scattered throughout the classroom. Some were working in groups, some alone. Some were sitting on the floor, some at desks. It was a shock for someone who went to school in the days of uniform rows of desks and a very structured atmosphere.

It may sound like chaos but what I began to notice is that some of the students that were in groups weren’t chatting and socializing, they were coaching each other and solving problems together. Some students were working alone extremely focused on their work and occasionally asking for help from the teacher or another student. We all remember the disruptive kid that would sit in the back and draw on the desk, and make spitballs, right? I couldn’t find that kid in any of these classrooms. The freedom to move around, the tools to problem solve, the encouragement to succeed and learn in their own way, and what I would best describe as a kind of peer pressure to learn and succeed seems to have minimized the disruptive element. Granted, a strange guy in a suit walking into a classroom is certain to have a chilling effect on shenanigans but in all the years I went to school I never sat in a classroom where every single student was focused on the task at hand.

Yes, you will hear accounts of students who have completed their work and have nothing to do. Yes, you will hear accounts of students who leave the classroom and work in various study halls or community rooms. Yes, you will hear of students that do all of their work on laptops. Understand too that teachers still give lessons and assign work and are available at the same numbers to help with questions and coach and correct.

If anything, what I saw in classrooms reminds me more of my brief college days than it reminds me of my grade school days. To go a step further, what I saw reminds me of what I see at work in that tasks are assigned, some individually, some requiring collaboration, and all with very little micromanagement.

Wow, you mean we’re preparing kids for college and careers while facilitating learning?


Not only that but test scores aren’t plummeting, graduation rates are inching in the right direction, and every child I saw was engaged.

Now, when you see a report card that doesn’t assign a letter grade that doesn’t mean that “participation awards" are being handed out. Terms like needs improvement or mastery or approaching mastery replace an archaic measurement and they sound a lot like the performance reviews I see in my company with terms like meets expectations, exceeds expectations, etc.

What do we really want to know about our students? Can they meet the expectations for grade level content and are they critical thinkers, responsible collaborators, lifelong learners, effective communicators, global citizens, and inspired innovators?

I encourage you to talk to teachers, principals, administrators and ask them about what goes on in schools. Ask them to lead you on tours or visits. See it for yourself.

When someone asserts that schools are failing, ask them to define that failure. Ask them specifically how a school is failing because it’s likely that their definition of failure is different than yours. There are definitions for success, The Kentucky Supreme Court gave us the basic definition, the legislature gives us another, and visiting your child’s classroom can help you define your definition of success.

As always, if you have questions or comments you can reach out to me at

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