I remember a story from my youth overheard at a family reunion picnic. It was the first time I heard the oft used description of data in the context of disagreement. "There are statistics, and then there are darn statistics" said the commentator (albeit perhaps a tad more colorfully). How true this is. Statistics and data tell us many things. The wisest use of data is most often an analysis of many variables viewed through a lens of seeking honest improvement or validation. The researcher or reader can use the initial collection to determine what more he or she needs or hopes to find. It is a snapshot in time. The more you know, the more you realize you may not know.
Unfortunately, incomplete data can also be used to "prove" or disprove a position, direction, or idea. When this occurs it is akin to taking that picture at such a close up angle that the sides are lost or unseen. I can photograph a lovely flower so close that you can see the flakes of pollen upon its soft petals. Perhaps the flower grows among others in a beautiful garden. Perhaps the flower grows alone in the middle of a city landfill. The close up view elicits pleasant thoughts. The wide angle version that includes the landfill likely doesn't. In fact, I can argue that the flower in the landfill has overcome the obstacles of the surrounding environment to bloom forth. As with data, it is important to know as much of what you are "looking at" as you can. Only then can a better analysis be offered.
Transylvania County Schools is not perfect. But we continue to work toward that and to be as good as we can every day. We have committed educators, a supportive community, and dedicated parents. But most importantly, we have wonderful students. We can't afford to merely pick low hanging 'data' fruit to satisfy some unknown agenda here or far away. We have to look at the entire orchard to celebrate its successes, and determine its areas for improvement.
Every day in our school system I witness small miracles. Success is measured in millions of ways. From the 1st grader who masters another level of word comprehension all the way to the 12th grader who has been accepted to college after 13 years of hard work. From the 8th grader who has learned to apply the principles learned in algebra to a robotics experiment to the young student with a disability who smiles at knowing they have overcome an obstacle. Success is measured many ways.
This week our state begins releasing preliminary report card data. It is an important measuring stick for us as we look into our successes and identify improvement. It is important and it matters. But it is only a small close up snapshot in time. We will use it. But we will also continue to look at the wide angle view for children. There are statistics and there are darn statistics. Children are neither. They intricate, special, bright, talented, beautiful, and exhilarating. They are our future. And Transylvania County Schools offers them the best education in our county.
North Carolina's public schools are the backbone of success for our state. From Murphy to Manteo they serve as the educational, cultural, and social center of the great communities of the old North State. Time may pass and society may change, but our traditional public schools remain the catalyst for learning and opening the door to the future. North Carolina's real public schools - the traditional public schools - are an integral and leading part of what makes America itself great. America is often compared to other countries, while at the same time those countries are trying to emulate what makes us special. When 'performance' indicators are judged, they are most often the proverbial apples to oranges. We try our best to educate everyone, regardless of ability. We encourage students of all backgrounds, socio-economic conditions, race, color, gender, or political belief to go forth and be anything they choose to be. We teach them that everyone can succeed. We educate them to become lifelong learners. We open their minds to unlimited technological horizons. We remind them that they are our next leaders. What is frequently lost in this process of comparison is the simple truth that many of those other counties we are compared to do none of that. And one of the most important skills we help students develop is also the one thing many of our 'competitors' cannot understand or imitate.
Public Schools are increasingly under society's microscope. In an era of high stakes accountability and rising costs, the investment in our schools on the national, state, and local level has become a political minefield. Just as technology is increasing exponentially in doubling its capacity, the burdens and expectations placed on our schools and educators is also expanding more rapidly. One of the challenges in meeting those expectations is in how we collectively view what our schools should do.
The most common frame of reference for parents and adults is how school was "when they were in school." And that reference in their internal memory may be 20 years or more out of date. Just as with technology, the rapidity in change is exacerbating the perceptions. Grandparents and older Americans have a frame of reference that covers longer time frames than new parents of today. The changes over the last five years alone are more dramatic than the previous ten. As with the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back, many adults of today may not fully grasp all the 'straws' added over time to the backs of public schools.
What are our expectations for our schools? We hear of the good old days and how it used to be. We hear about how much smarter students were compared to now. We hear about discipline and accountability. But do we know what that means and how we arrived to this point in time? Performance now includes everyone; not just the students who decided not to drop out. Fifty years ago I’m sure the senior classmates for the majority was the cream of the crop. The ones who didn’t want to be there, were not going to college, or who went to work had already dropped out. Students with disabilities, students who spoke limited English, and even students of color may not have been classmates fifty years ago. A reminder that the “good old days” were not always so good for everyone.
Prior to the 1950s, schools were largely charged with teaching students in reading, writing, math, some science, and history. Over time vocational education made its way into the curriculum along with foreign languages, speech, drama, and Physical Education. School lunch programs began to appear as well as music and arts. By the end of the 1950s driver's education, tornado drills, expanded math and science, and even sex education in some schools joined the school day.
In the 1960s we saw the directed additions from the Federal government. Schools now were to include options for kindergarten, Head Start, AP courses, consumer and career education, and adult education. By the end of the 1970s special education, character education, gifted programs, environmental education and behavior education joined the fray. We saw courses, curriculum, and requirements introduced in women's studies, alternative education, Title IX for sports, school breakfasts, parenting, and free speech rulings from the Supreme Court.
During the 1980s the ball began to roll faster and larger. Education in keyboarding, anti-smoking, anti-drug, abstinence, teen pregnancy, multicultural education, pre-school for at risk students, expanded health and psychological services, and child abuse monitoring became required tasks and legal mandates added to the plate of educators. Let us not forget these were all in addition to all the previous additions. Not much has ever been taken away.
In the 1990s we saw the arrival of Tech Prep, computers, school to work, AIDS Education, conflict resolution, CPR training, anti-gang initiatives, bicycle, gun, and water safety. We first saw inclusion, mainstreaming, and the need for school safety. We also saw increased Federal directives through America 2000 (Republicans) and Goals 2000 (Democrats). As the 2000s signaled education's entry into the 21st century additional servings were added to the platter via No Child Left Behind, anti-bullying, credit recovery, distance learning, health and wellness, financial literacy, suicide awareness, obesity monitoring, social media, STEM, STEAM, and Race to the Top. We added common core standards, contextual learning, media literacy, internet safety, and of course more and more testing.
The ball continues to grow and gain speed. Meanwhile, we still need to find time in the day to make sure we address reading, writing, math, and history. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention we want to hold teachers accountable for more and more test results. So testing now must live within the daily psyche of educators. Somewhere along the climb we forget about the simple yet vital art and craft of teaching. Some of what we do was once done at home. That is no longer always the case. We are asked to do more and more of this alone, yet held responsible for the other 17 to 18 hours a day students are not with us.
Public schools are a mirror of society. We don't control what comes in. But despite the challenges we do a pretty good job of positively affecting what comes out. But we can't do it alone and without the resources to do it.