Education, Philanthropy and Metrics

In a recent interview with Black Enterprise magazine highlighted on the Foundation’s blog, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation U.S. Programs President Allan Golston discusses the

“[H]uge inequity in this country … [Y]ou can live in a different state, or different zip code, and that [is] … a determinate of what type of education you’re getting through what you’re expected to know. So, one goal is to level that out so we have high expectations regardless of what state, what zip code, what school district you’re in.

The second goal is to have a great teacher for every student. So, [it] shouldn’t matter if you’re in an urban district or a rural district, or you’re in Massachusetts or Mississippi. [For] every student, particularly the ones that don’t get access to a high quality education, which are typically students that are low income, minority, we’ve got to solve that problem so that there is a great teacher for every kid in every classroom.”

Golston is absolutely right, of course, about the importance of these goals. But how do we ensure that the current efforts of the big foundations and philanthropists to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for poor kids don’t meet the same fate as failed efforts of the past?

One part of that challenge will be getting the right measures in place. Golston notes in the interview, “We do think that while testing can’t be the only measure it has to be a component of it.”

That makes sense. But, the fact is, today, many act as if test scores are the only measure. That can lead to some very negative unintended consequences. This is part of the argument Fay Twersky, Valerie Threlfall and I make in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution op ed, published last week.

“The Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal illustrates the peril of focusing on a single performance measure to the exclusion of all other data and should open the eyes of school leaders and policymakers to the need for a broader set of indicators of school quality.

What the school system created was a focus on test scores so intense that seating of principals at an annual meeting was based on how their schools fared, with high-scorers getting prime seating and low-scorers forced to stand in the back. The message was clear: Deliver high test scores or be humiliated. So, as Superintendent Beverly Hall collected national accolades and hundreds of thousands of dollars in performance bonuses, principals and teachers engaged in rampant cheating.”

In the op ed, we argue for complementing test scores with a variety of other indicators, including student perceptions gathered through our YouthTruth initiative – which received its start-up funding from the Gates Foundation. Through YouthTruth, students precisely like the ones Golston describes can weigh in – and they have a lot to say. (A majority of the students surveyed through YouthTruth are eligible to receive free or reduced price lunch, and two thirds of YouthTruth respondents are students of color.)

Students, after all, may have the best seats in the house to judge the quality of their education. Teachers and parents have invaluable perspectives, too.

Yet, today, it seems all we hear about is test scores. That’s because of the emphasis placed on them by the 2001 No Child Left Behind legislation. It’s also because some reformers seem to want to pretend that assessing educational quality is as simple as gauging company profits.

But that’s not so, and foundations working in education have an opportunity to counter this by tying their support for school reform efforts to a focus on a more well-rounded set of metrics. Foundations, in other words, can be an important counterweight to the federally mandated over-emphasis on test scores.

Of all institutions, foundations should understand that a single metric is insufficient. Just as their own performance cannot be boiled down to a single “Social Return on Investment” calculation – because gauging foundation performance requires reviewing a range of indicators – neither should schools be judged solely on students’ performance on (often flawed) standardized tests.


Phil Buchanan is President of CEP.

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