I am a wood shop teacher at Dearborn Academy, a special needs school serving Eastern Massachusetts located in Arlington, MA. Like many teachers these days I have been thinking about how to measure success. It is a question that comes up with my colleagues and it certainly appears in the media frequently. As is so often the case in these sorts of discussions, it is important to reach a common understanding of definitions. Success can mean many things. It can be an on going process or and end. When I mentioned the question to my wife she jokingly answered, “Big cars, fancy mansions, lots of cash.” (Many of my students would un-jokingly answer the same.) But are we talking about day-to-day success, weekly, quarterly, yearly, ultimate success?
Not surprisingly, as a “child-centered” program, we define success differently for each student. For some, just getting to school has to be acknowledged to be a major achievement. For others, success means academic excellence and a return to public school. And there is every experience in between. Success can mean going from feeling miserable all the time to believing one can make it through the day, or going from frequent explosive behaviors and suspensions to increased control and the occasional discipline issue, or from debilitating social anxiety to playing musical chairs or limbo at a school party.
An important additional question is, why and for whom are we measuring “success?” Are we trying to figure which approach works best for a given student? Are we trying to gauge which school is doing the best job? Are we looking at which students succeed in order to reward or punish students, schools, or individual teachers?
It is a widely held belief that by testing all our students with a common test we can measure success. It might be possible to test an automobile’s crash worthiness by subjecting all cars to the same set of crash tests, or to test new medications for efficacy by running carefully controlled double blind studies. But these tests only work if you control for the variables. That is obviously impossible with schools, teachers and students. If you were testing to see how teachers are doing, you would have to give the teachers all the same students and resources. If you were testing the students, you would have to give them all the same teachers and resources. And if you were testing curricula, you would have to use the same students, teachers, and resources. None of this is possible.
So, is this sort of testing of any value? Well, it can give people an idea of society’s educational priorities. That can certainly be useful. It can help us to look at long-term trends and that can be useful as long as the people doing looking understand the limitations of the research. And it can provide guidelines to focus for schools. But, it is a highly problematic way to evaluate schools, students or teachers. In addition to all the usual uncontrolled variables, our school offers an example of the sorts of problems that arise from attempts to measure success through testing in special schools. We are a bit like a minor league baseball team. If a student does well, he or she moves up to the Big Dance – public school. If we were measured on our students’ test scores we’d be penalized for our students’ success. Other schools remove students who they are unable to educate and send them to schools like ours, thus inflating their scores.
Every year some of our former students will call, write, or visit us. This is a skewed sample to be sure. If they did not harbor positive feelings, they would probably not reach out to us. But there are students every year who do reach out. Sometimes they have succeeded in the traditional manner (gotten into or graduated from college, found gainful employment, created families) but sometimes they are struggling. Despite not being where they might like to be, they still reach out. The point is that we make them feel safe enough and connected enough to reach out even if they don’t have a “success story” to tell us. And they all have fond memories. They remember teachers, classmates, dances, games, the various rituals we have developed over the years to give our students a sense of consistency and tradition. Often they’ll express their personal amazement that we had put up with them. Imagine what that means. They are now mature enough to look back at their behavior with honesty. They trust us enough to know we cared for them then and we care for them now. I am fine with that definition of success, just don’t ask me to measure it.