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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

I Was Once Defined by a Number

By Peter DeWitt — June 27, 2013 3 min read
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We all have numbers in our heads that defined us from time to time. Perhaps it was a phone number or the place we finished in a road race. Perhaps it’s our age or our weight. Other times it may be our height that works for or against us. Numbers surround us and can have a powerful impact.

I was once defined by many numbers. I’m sure it didn’t start out that way. The numbers somehow found me and they made me feel badly about myself. They got into my head and played mind games with me. In many cases they won...for awhile. There are a few numbers I will always remember.

7...the age I was when my last grandparent passed away.
10...my age when I spent my second year in 4th grade.
11...how old I was when my dad passed away.
262 out of 266...my high school class rank.
3...the number of community colleges I attended before I woke up and was ready to do the work.

Out of all of my defining numbers, 262 was by far the most defeating. I had friends who were in the top ten and had full rides to the colleges of their choice. Some of them did the work to get there and others had it all come naturally. For years after graduation I kept the number in my head. It prevented me from moving forward or taking risks. I worried that everything I did would end badly.

Even after I found success in college and had a job, 262 still followed me wherever I went. I didn’t want the principals who hired me to know my number. I was literally scared that they would find a way to take away my job. Numbers have a way of doing that. They make us believe things that aren’t even close to being rational.

But then something great happened. I met my students and continued to surround myself with good people who helped me drown out the number. After awhile, I realized that I let myself be defined by a number and I wasted a great deal of energy trying to prove it was wrong. Have you done that too?

In our present accountability system we are all in the position of being defined by numbers. Unlike my 262, which I take responsibility for, the numbers we get from our collective state education departments have very little to do with us. In some cases they are fabricated to make us look bad. Or worse, they are being created to prove others in charge are doing their job.

They’re not doing their job...

They call them HEDI scores. Highly Effective, Effective, Developing and Ineffective. We score people in education based on how well they follow directions. We sit kids down at their desks to take state assessments that last hours and days. Speaking of numbers...in elementary school we do it to children who are between the ages of 7 and 11. We make kids complete Student Learning Objectives (SLO’s) at the age of 4 for those who start kindergarten before their fifth birthday.

Just to be clear, defining people by numbers isn’t a way to prove someone is doing their job. Doing their job means helping schools that need the most help, offering resources to schools that lack them and creating professional development opportunities that are not about spreading accountability but about fostering creativity and risk-taking.

The Lessons We Can Learn
As educators we have to be careful not to do this to students. We can’t let them be defined by numbers, but if they do, we have to help them find the skills to cope with the number. We have to do our best to focus on the things they can do and help them with the things they can’t.

I was once defined by a number...and won’t be again.

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Peter contributed a chapter to De-Testing and De-Grading Schools which is edited by Joe Bower and Paul L. Thomas and published by Peter Lang USA. Introduction and chapter by Alfie Kohn, along with chapters by Anthony Cody, Monty Neill and many others.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.