Almost from the start of my term on the Board, I have struggled with how to understand value and affordability metrics in education.  As an engineer, I’ve been taught to analyze any system for its structure of performance, feedback, and control.  This is the essence of any accountability system.

Of course, the difference is that schools are not machines and students are not widgets that we can mass-produce, but they are systems.  Both schools and students are vastly more complex than machines, so we should not hope than any simple system of metrics can adequately guide us with feedback or control, as they might with more simple systems.  This is why we have to be very cautious about using the PISA and NAEP reports, interesting though they may be, to guide our perspective on the full range of services and courses that we offer at our schools.  Producing quality adults requires a much broader set of experiences than can be measured by the simple math and language arts testing that is currently done, and we certainly cannot limit or guide funding based on a desire to generate high performance in only those subjects.

One major challenge is: how do we measure a quality educational experience, one that produces a productive, creative, and engaged population; and thus how do we get credit for and be accountable for providing the kind of education that produces that population.  And this accountability applies to everyone in the system, not just a subset, say, of teachers.

Given that we are, today, driven by these few metrics, another challenge is: how do we embed broader knowledge exposure into these core courses so that students have the full enrichment needed to appreciate a subject and the bigger picture.  I have begun to see research and implementation of project-based learning as a way to do exactly this.  I’m encouraged by the new ideas and have supported examinations of project learning in our local discussions.

From what I’ve learned in just the last year, school districts are under intense pressure to cut costs for all but the “most essential” courses and services.  But who makes these decisions and how do we decide what is most essential?  Today, it is often the state legislature with little input from district leadership or teachers.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  As an engineer, I’m a big fan of math, science, and technology education, so-called STEM education, but one obvious casualty of our laser focus on math and language arts has been our fading offerings in the arts and humanities across the nation.  While we are required by state laws to offer certain courses outside of math and language arts, cost constraints are placing great pressure to do only the bare minimum to meet those requirements and to focus much of our effort on performance on a only a few metrics.  This is just wrong with potential serious consequences.

Our democracy and, indeed, our humanity is dependent on the maximization of population with knowledge across a broad array of subjects.  Only then can we hope to benefit from the diversity of perspective that will enable us to continue to solve our greatest cultural and scientific challenges.  We have to find a way to make offering a broad range of courses part of the the economically incentivised accountability, feedback, and control systems.

I’ll close with two recent articles that highlight the importance of supporting the humanities and encouraging students to “go beyond the core”.  While costs are always a factor, I believe we cannot let the economics tied to using a narrow set of metrics drive the humanity out of education.

“Don’t underestimate value of a liberal arts education”, Professor Victor Hanson, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Minnesota program encourages 8th graders to “go beyond the core” in selecting their high school courses. 

I welcome your perspective on this subject.