Education Opinion

The Three Dimensions of Student Achievement

By Contributing Blogger — August 27, 2014 4 min read
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This post is by Ron Berger, chief academic officer of Expeditionary Learning.

When a student is finished with school and moves into adult life, she will be judged not by her ability to perform on a test of basic skills, but by the quality of her work and character. This holds true regardless of what career or life role she chooses. Quality work and character are the keys to a successful life. So why are they not the primary focus of schools?

You may argue that schools do focus on these things. But consider this: to get passing grades, students must behave (at least much of the time) and turn in acceptable work (at least much of the time). This is a far cry from instilling in students an ethic of excellence for who they are and what they do. It is almost hard to imagine a lower bar.

Quality work and character have almost nothing to do with how students, teachers, and schools are judged in America. When is the last time you read a headline about a school being “high-achieving” that described the actual quality of work students produced or the quality of their actions? A “high-achieving” student or school means one thing today: good scores on basic skills tests in math and reading.

It’s not that basic skills in reading and math don’t matter. Of course they do. But success in this small realm is just a starting place. If students miss the opportunity to develop high standards for the complex skills they will need in life while they are still in school, how will they develop them?

One key aspect of Deeper Learning means expanding a one-dimensional view of student achievement to a three-dimensional view: joining test scores to high-quality student work and character. This single change could be transformational education in the U.S.: students and schools would be accountable for the things that actually matter in the world. “High-achieving” would now mean “the kind of school I want my kids to attend to prepare them for a great life,” rather than “a school that currently has good test scores.”

What is holding us back as a nation? Measuring student work and character is not easy. It’s messy. We can’t quickly rank students and schools in those areas. But do we really need to rank everything? For example, if someone were to ask you how your kids are doing, you would have to assess many things about their skills, their achievements, their dispositions, their decisions--it would truly be a three-dimensional assessment. It is unlikely you would say “My older daughter is an 82; my younger daughter is in first place--she is a 91; and my son is in last place--he is a 67.”

Because measuring these complex qualities is difficult, we have chosen as a nation to avoid the whole topic. We have settled for a one-dimensional view of achievement, and we are paying a steep price. It doesn’t need to be this way.

To become credentialed in our network of 160 public Expeditionary Learning Schools spread across 33 states, evidence of strong and improving student work and character are prioritized in the same way as high test scores. Is this messy? Always. Is it powerful and important? Always. When schools focus together on analyzing evidence of quality work and behavior, what is discussed and worked on connects to the skills and dispositions students will need to succeed in college, careers, and life.

We do not provide a rubric for what constitutes quality work. Rubrics are only helpful insofar as they name specific details, and those details depend on the level of the students, on the discipline, and the format and nature of the work. We do, however, provide a common criteria list of what constitutes high-quality work, which guides teachers and students in analyzing student work and guides teachers in analyzing their assignments. We define quality work as having three features: complexity, craftsmanship, and authenticity. You can see our criteria list here.

You can also view an archive of hundreds of exemplars of quality work here.

We do not provide a rubric for what constitutes quality character either. But we do not shy away from promoting character as being at the core of what we do. Political and educational leaders often worry that character connects to values, and values connect to religion and personal beliefs, and therefore schools need to avoid discussing character. We believe that schools instill character in students every day, all day, whether they want to or not, and it is a disservice to students not to address this issue directly. School teaches students how to approach work and how to work with, and treat, others; it can do this well, or ignore the issue and do it poorly.

We also believe 95 percent of what constitutes positive character are things that all Americans agree about: respect, courtesy, kindness, integrity, perseverance, cooperation, courage. Measuring character on a simple scale may not be easy or even wise. But showing evidence of good character is something that every student and every school can be accountable for every day. Our schools have a set of character values for positive behavior that students discuss, self-assess and peer assess in classes and meetings daily. They have a set of habits of scholarship--study skills and learning habits--that are self, peer and teacher-assessed. Grading and reporting in our schools distinguish between disciplinary content and skills and--graded separately--habits of scholarship. Success in both areas is necessary for promotion. You can view an overview of this approach here and here.

Perhaps it is time for us to take on, as a nation, this messy and important work, and get a three-dimensional view of how our students and schools are doing.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply 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.