Education Opinion

The Softer Side of Performance

By Justin Baeder — December 13, 2010 3 min read
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Years ago, Sears had an ad campaign with the slogan “Come see the softer side of Sears,” an apparent attempt to remind customers that they sell clothes and linens, and not just tools and electronics.

When it comes to performance in public education, I think we need to undertake a similar campaign, to remind the public that performance is about the “softer” dimensions of schooling as well as the “hard” data points like test scores.

I believe, as a public school principal, that school culture matters, that respect and humanity are essential, that it makes a difference when students feel good about coming to school every day. I believe part of excellence—and therefore, performance—is doing things that make no pretense of contributing to higher test scores, simply because they are the right things to do. I believe that art and exercise and fresh air and exploration and discovery and joy need to be part of the school experience, even if they’re not in the standards.

I jokingly asked a teacher whose class was doing an art project the other day how painting winter scenes contributed to higher standardized test scores. I’m not sure she was amused. At any rate, I felt compelled to make sure she understood I was joking, because in the current climate of accountability, it’s not an unheard-of question, even two weeks before Christmas.

One of the reasons I write about performance in education is that I’m concerned that performance is being defined more and more narrowly, squeezing out qualitative measures of excellence.

Is this school what John Goodlad calls a “good place”? Do we embody what Nel Noddings calls an “ethic of caring”? Are we helping our students become well-rounded citizens, not just achievers of test scores?

I believe in having standards, common benchmarks that educators are responsible for helping all students to meet. I believe that good test scores indicate that we’re doing some things right, and that bad test scores indicate that we need to make changes in how we teach. But I don’t for a second believe that “achievement,” narrowly defined by test scores, is all that matters in schooling.

Just as Sears had to push the public to look beyond the socket wrenches and televisions, I’m convinced that we educators need to remind ourselves, policymakers, and the public that having a great school for every child is not simply a matter of raising reading scores. We need to resist the draconian, Skinnerian, results-or-else tactics that seem to be growing in popularity as calls for higher levels of performance in education grow louder. We need to get better results, but we need to do it while making school a better place.

I wonder if anyone else believes this is possible—to improve education, period, in ways that show up in both quantitative and qualitative measures. I believe schools can feel like better places and get better test scores, and that the two shouldn’t necessarily be pitted against each other.

Another reason I write about performance, is that we seem, as a profession, to be afraid of talking about it. We took the basic idea of accountability, testing, and data-driven instruction in stride (after voicing our objections, if only in the parking lot), but in the waning days of No Child Left Behind, the conversation is shifting, and educators are dropping out of it. We’re happy to talk about the softer side, but afraid of discussing accountability for performance among educators. I would submit that we need both emphases in order to have truly great schools.

I want to be held accountable for the achievement of students in my school, but I also want to be held accountable for ensuring that it’s a humane, decent place to learn and coexist as a community.

You’ll notice that I did not say that we need to focus on performance and the more qualitative aspects of goodness in schooling. This is a key distinction: we need to define performance as including goodness—the softer side—as well as test scores and other quantitative measures of success.

What are your priorities when it comes to the softer side of performance?

The opinions expressed in On Performance 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.