Saturday, March 19, 2016

Our Mission is Not Higher Test Scores

I've been reading Good to Great by Jim Collins. It's one of the top business books ever, but it has so much to offer for educators and really for everyone. The principles apply to life in a variety of ways.

In the book, Collins shares the story of Merck, the pharmaceutical giant. At one point in its history, the company gave away millions of doses of a drug that cured river blindness. The disease was caused by a parasitic worm that ultimately caused blindness in victims. 

The point of the story was that Merck didn't profit from distributing the drug charitably to remote places like the Amazon. Collins shared the story to illustrate that Merck had established a purpose for the company beyond profits.

Back in 1950, George Merck, son of the founder, explained the company's philosophy:
We try to remember that medicine is for the patient...It is not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to appear. The better we have remembered it, the larger they have been.
Collins described how the great companies they studied all shared a commitment to core values aside from the desired end resultprofits. The companies all had different core values, but they were consistent in building these into the organization and preserving these values over time.

So how does this apply to schools? In recent years, schools have felt immense pressure to produce ever increasing standardized test scores. It seems that schools were being defined almost exclusively by how well students were doing on achievement tests. 

As a result, many schools lost sight of developing core values other than creating higher test scores. But raising test scores is not a vision for learning. It is not at the heart of what a school is or should be. We have, to an extent, created an identity crisis in education by allowing too much of our value to be defined by high stakes standardized tests.

But the purpose of my post is not to rail against standardized tests. In more recent days, it seems that policy makers have taken small steps to reduce the amount of testing and its exclusive role in defining successful schools. That's all good news.

But what are we doing to establish core values in our schools? Every school has a mission statement, and most of them are quite alike. But do the mission statements really reflect the culture of your organization? What is it you want your school to do better than anyone else? What are your core values?

I've adapted the words of George Merck to education. It's a brief statement about some of my core beliefs.
We try to remember that our school is about learning, and for the students. It's about creating better opportunities. It's about building on strengths and ultimately building stronger people. It is not about higher test scores. However, if we create a future-driven, learner-centered school, higher test scores will likely follow. But if we focus on test scores, we miss the mark badly and will likely fail many of our students.
I would like to see schools think deeply about the outcomes they are seeking for their students. I would like to see students, parents, business leaders, and higher education have a voice in the discussion. What do we really want for our bottom line? It's obviously not profits. And it's not standardized test scores either.

Every community has different needs and every school has different strengths, so I think finding a purpose and establishing core values should be closely tied to the individual school. But instead of focusing on outcomes like graduation rate, test scores, or attendance, maybe some schools would adopt one or more of these core values?

What if a school chose to make ending poverty a reality in its community?

What if a school's purpose was to find a cure for cancer? Or solve some other pressing problem plaguing humanity.

What if a school's purpose was to make learning as customized and personal as possible for students?

What if a core value was to make learning as creative as possible?

What if a core value was to construct learning on a foundation of each student's passions?

What if a school involved students as co-creators of their own learning?

Those are just a few ideas. I think the possibilities are endless. Instead of the same old mission statements, wouldn't it be great to see schools finding a unique mission to drive action and really make a difference in the lives of their students and in the world outside of the school?

Question: What are the core values you would want your school to embrace? What can your school do better than anyone else? I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment below or share on Twitter or Facebook.
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