Educating Teenagers: The Cost of Measuring School Performance

If you haven’t already, take a minute to consider what will be required of today’s teenagers in 20 years time?  As they become a significant part of the economy and start to shape the workforce, what type of skills and attributes will they require? What expectations will employers and policy makers have of them?

While it is hard to picture the future 20 years out, there is a good reason to at least try to consider these things.  If you want your teens to be equipped to thrive in the future, then how they learn and what they learn will be of concern to you today.

In Australia the current government has recently introduced an “education revolution.” This has involved national testing and school league tables,  an approach based on models from other developed economies such as the US and England.

I read a compelling article this week by Brain Caldwell, a former Dean of Education at the University of Melbourne. The article was based on a presentation titled The Impact of High Stakes Test Driven Accountability delivered to a national education symposium in Sydney recently.

High Stakes Testing

The paper is a call to consider what type of educational outcomes will result from the implementation of national testing and public school league tables. The synopsis gives an indication to the flavour of his argument:

As far as the future of the nation is concerned, my over-arching concern is that innovation, creativity and passion – the key requirements for a vibrant society and a successful economy in the years ahead – are in jeopardy if we continue on our present path.

Using numerous examples from experiences in the US and England,where similar testing regimes have been implemented, Caldwell demonstrates how compulsory testing and school league tables don’t produce better education systems, merely better test passing systems.

The experience elsewhere suggests that when schools funding and reputation is linked to national test scores, the focus of education institutions shifts from innovative, student centred, future orientated teaching, to instead preparing students to pass national numeracy and literacy assessments.

The complexity and variety of skills that will be required by today’s students to thrive in this rapidly changing world are significant.  The days have long since passed when learning the “3 R’s” was enough to prepare for a lifetime of gainful employment. Yet it appears that this type of learning is what Australian, and other national governments, think needs to be measured, reported to the taxpayer, and used for shaping the funding of our schools.

Bad Measures Drive Bad Behaviour

Accountability and transparency are important, especially in the deployment of public funds.  However if the processes of accountability corrupt or distort the objects of accountability then the tail is wagging the dog.

It is true in business, in public policy, and definitely in education. If you establish metrics, and these metrics are linked to consequences, then you will shape behaviour.

This is problematic if measures are ill conceived, given too much weight, or poorly designed.

Linking funding to test scores seems a sure way to drive behaviour.  If I was a principal and had to balance a budget I would be instructing teachers to make sure students are ready for the tests that will determine the schools funding next year.

If league tables create stigma and embarrassment for students and staff why wouldn’t they try their best to excel in the league ladder test?

If national testing and league tables drive schools and teachers to focus on teaching students to do well in exams as opposed to equipping them for a life of constant change and learning then the value and existence of such devices must be questioned.

It is a good thing to evaluate and keep education institutions accountable for how they use public funding to educate and equip our kids.  However let’s keep them accountable for actually preparing kids for life in the future, not life in the middle of last century.

Lifelong Learning

The days have passed when a child would be educated through to high school, get a tertiary award or trade and then spend majority of their working life in that career or industry.  It is expected that today’s teenagers will work in over 7 different vocations or industries within their working life.

But for simplicity sake put aside demographic career predictions,  and assume a teenager today stays in one career for most of their working life. The rate of economic and technological change means that any tertiary training they receive will probably be obsolete within ten years of completion. Certificates and diplomas achieved in late adolescence do not mark the end of education for today’s teens.

The future is indeed hard to imagine. But what we can be certain of is that citizens in 21st century economies will need to be lifelong learners.  Formal education is more about equipping students with the skills of learning how to learn and adapt throughout life.

Of course reading and writing is essential to this.  But if all our policies do is compare which schools teach reading and writing best, then our kids are not served and the accountability is meaningless.

Even though it might be complex to devise, wouldn’t it be great if schools were measured and held accountable for inspiring and challenging students to be creative, adaptable, and innovative? That would be a measure worth having.

What are your kids learning?  How is your school responding to national league tables? Love to know your thoughts.

Image by Temari 09
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