I just finished Disrupting Class, by Clayton Christensen, et. al. It’s a terrifically interesting book for anyone interested in education.
Christensen is an expert in innovation. In the book, he brings his concise, clear, highly useful frames for thinking about improvement and change over to education.
Of particular interest to Student Affairs, I believe, is the historical narrative listing the changing goals of education.
A quick summary:
Job 1: 1830’s – Horace Mann lead a charge to formalize schooling around a Jeffersonian goal: educate students to be citizens in a democracy. Only elite students went on past grade school.
Job 2: 1890’s – Provide something for every student. Prepare them for a variety of jobs so that everyone can be employed. This required high school, and diverse offerings in high school. In 1905 only a third of students made it to high school and only a third graduated. Even fewer made it to college. By 1935 75 percent were entering high school and almost 45 percent were graduating. Both breadth and depth of services exploded. With 1954’s Brown vs. Board of education high schools opened wide to all of society. While the number of high schools in 1930 to 1970 stayed about the same at 24,000, the average number of students per high school exploded tenfold from around a 100 to over 1000 by 1970. The larger high schools had an unheard of variety of programs with a growing number of student support services. By 1960, 69 percent of high schoolers were graduating- an impressive record of success.
Job 3: 1960’s – Keep America competitive. Sony, Canon, and Toyota all started to displace their American competition. Policy makers drew a correlation between performance of American students vs. their foreign peers. Standardized tests were the metric, education, again, was the solution. In the influential 1983 report “A Nation at Risk“, the federal government questioned the breadth of services, suggesting it muddied the focus on the more important core competencies. It said “students have too many choices”. In short, the goal post had moved. What was good – more offerings to prepare everyone – was now bad.
Job 4: 2001 – Eliminate Poverty. the No Child Left Behind act changed the goal from bringing up the average standardized test score to bringing the highest number possible up to proficiency. It’s a subtle, but important shift in the value system.
Christensen sums it up:
“Society has hired education to do four distinct jobs.”
Impressively, education as a whole has shown steady improvement towards each goal as it has been defined. The very difficult challenge is simply that the goals keep changing.
Now education is “in a crisis” not because it’s doing a bad job per se, but because it is being measured by different people with different, and shifting, value systems.
It does not make sense to blame administrators and teachers for falling short on the new metric of success. Any judgement of success must be placed in context. An important part of that context is clarity on what the current goal is and what metrics go with that goal.
The Student Affairs professionals in my circle often talk about “taking it all on” and constantly struggling to complete assessment that is both actionable and in line with the value systems of the school and their supervisors.
Do you feel like your job goals have changed during your tenure? Are you clear on the big picture? Is your supervisor and school on the same page?
In the same book, Christensen offers a great frame for addressing disconnects – but that’s another post.