Assessment Opinion

The Need to Examine Definitions of Success

By Deborah Meier — October 09, 2008 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

NYC’s success at claiming to be the new Texas miracle is depressing. I may delay responding to your response to my query about national standards. Or get at it more slowly! But it makes me do some tough thinking...so we might stick with it for a while once again.

Speaking of tough, the Paul Tough book sticks in my mind a lot. The school he describes with such honest detail had one and only one standard: better test scores. Geoff Canada and his board were committed to proving that they could make substantial progress in closing the test-score gap with an unselected and under-performing entering 6th grade class by 8th grade. And then carrying them on through 12th. I think you’re suggesting that with national academic standards it would be easier to accomplish—and more worthwhile.

So it brought me back to remembering our early days at East Harlem’s Central Park East and later as we expanded opening CPE-like schools in other parts of Manhattan, the Bronx, and then many other places. Yes! We all started with standards!

Our starting point was to figure out what OUR definition was of being a Well-Educated 18-Year-Old, revise it on the basis of critiques from people we respected, and then and only then try to figure a way to measure our definition. It took us three years to flesh it out, and our first class of 7th graders was finishing 9th grade by the time we did. (And we never stopped fiddling with it, and none of the schools that replicated CPESS ended with exactly the same standards or ways of measuring them.) We told the students that they’d have to meet our standards, but we also told them that we’d stick with them for as long as it took them to do so. That was first.

Then we faced the question of “troublesome” kids. We decided the school was right for anyone who wanted to come to it. The only “promise” that parents needed to make was that they’d answer our calls for help, and all we promised them was that we would do the same. And that we’d not give up.

And third, we had no deadline. “As long as it takes.”

But we had an advantage that Geoffrey Canada didn’t and which many of our followers didn’t. Almost half of our incoming 7th graders had spent part or all of their first seven years of schooling at East Harlem’s CPE elementary school. When we had the chance to expand we confronted the fact that the new schools started with 9th graders. Many of the Manhattan schools did their best to attract a range of student abilities, so they wouldn’t be just for so-called “losers.” Some succeeded better than others. The one that utterly failed, Vanguard Academy, began with almost nothing but hold-overs with bad attendance records, but is today, surprisingly, one of our best examples. The Bronx schools had the hardest task. Unlike CPESS, they also felt obliged for a while to prepare kids for two contrasting definitions of success—the state’s tests and their performance assessments.

Based on a long-term study by Teacher’s College, the ones that stuck with it outperformed most comparable schools by a lot, but not the old CPESS. No surprise.

What we need, Diane, is to study all three of these issues in a setting that is not defensive, but exploratory. Which means examining definitions of success, the role of heterogeneity, e.g. social class, past schooling, and how long it takes to establish a culture of success. The KIPPs and Canadas of the world need this as much as we do. We can’t keep hanging on by our fingernails, trying to survive and also thrive. The larger world also would do well to come to terms with these dilemmas: how we are defining what it means to be well educated, who we are “writing off” in the effort to prove our point, and how long it takes to establish new norms of trust and competence!

But it, too, will be for naught if we don’t first and foremost tackle purposes. Thus I find it productive to talk about standards—it focuses the mind. We have differences about what matters most (what it means to be well-educated) just as we have about how best to serve such varied ends, or how long it takes. We need to keep acknowledging that all of us are works in progress. We’re learners. The hard evidence lies in the future, which involves more complexity still.

We’ve never looked clearly at the evidence for connecting the study of the traditional academics between the ages of 5-15 and democracy; it’s “just” a theory (unlike evolution). The “academy” wasn’t invented for that purpose.

Why require that all graduates (ideally all citizens?) understand (agree on?) the causes of the Civil War, WW I…..et al as you suggest? Ditto for chemistry, calculus, etc.? Probably we can agree quickly about basic literacy (at a 6th grade level—after that, it’s debatable), and arithmetic/measurement? Both of which were traditionally part of a pre-academic course of study. Personally? I’d like evidence that they can exercise the “five habits of mind” in assorted ways, that suggest their understanding of the nature of science, history, math, literature, the arts—but not any particular coverage. And I’d like to “measure” their ability to engage publicly with such subject matter in contemporary contexts, including perhaps vocational ones. That was the CPESS way. But such measures rest on fallible judgments (even the Olympic scorers were fallible).

Maybe I’d compromise?


P.S. Note that President Bush says Catholic schools need public resources and should NOT be held accountable only to test scores. Puzzling? But it opens up an interesting discourse. My Catholic friends would argue that first and foremost Catholic schools are accountable to their effect on student’s religious faith. How about something similar for public schools—their student’s informed commitment to democracy? Can we require belief?

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