About 15 years ago I was having lunch with a school Superintendent from a tiny, rural school district in Western New York. We conducted many polls for educators and I was there to discuss educational quality and the role that opinion polls can play in helping drive improvements in school districts.
Every once in a while when you are speaking with a leader and get them in a soft moment, they will break away from telling you what it is they are supposed to say and tell you what they truly feel.
That was the case with this school leader. He said something like this: “You know the problem we have with education? The entire system rewards process and not outcomes. When a kid graduates high school, it just means he successfully got through 13 years of our system. It doesn’t indicate that he knows anything at all.”
That puzzled me a bit, perhaps because I had successfully negotiated 19 years of formal education and had the degrees to prove it. “You mean high school graduates don’t know anything?” I asked.
“It isn’t that they don’t know anything, it is that we don’t know what they know.”
I didn’t get it. Why was this school leader bashing his own system? “Go on … how should they system be run?”
“The issue is all pacing. Take high school physics for example. In a class of 25 kids, there are probably 10 who could learn the material in half the time and be ready to move on to more complicated things. 10 more might be served well by the way the course is paced now. And the other 5 probably require more than a year to understand high school physics.”
Here he got very animated. “And that is the problem. We feel like we succeeded wildly with the 10 smartest kids because they ace the test. And, the 5 who are struggling do well enough to pass, so we move them on as well. The reality is we only served 10 of the 25 kids well with how we structured the course.”
But, how should it be done? “We should never compromise what the outcomes of the course should be. Never. If a kid gets by Physics, it should mean that he knows Physics. We should never negotiate that. What we should negotiate all day long is the amount of time it takes to get to the level of knowledge. It might take a kid two months or two years to master the material. It doesn’t matter.”
He went on to say that some kids are so bright that they will be capable of meeting the standards of high school by the time they are 14 or 15 years old. Others might need more time, until they are even 20 or 21. And, all that is fine.
In essence, by setting the educational system up to pace to “typical” students and being completely uncompromising in that, we set it up to fail both the brightest students and those who require the most support. One group gets out of high school bored and spinning their wheels until college, and the other gets out of high school not knowing what they should.
This issue is all about the dangers of rewarding process and not outcomes. Teachers are masters at implementing processes. Lesson plans, programs, etc. are what they are trained to do. And, of course to some extent process matters, as how you get somewhere can matter. But what matters the most is that you arrive at your destination. This Superintendent felt strongly that what mattered is what the child had learned.