Measuring What Matters in School Leaders
Our lack of adequate school measurements makes it difficult for the public to understand why people who know Cindy Marten are so excited about her.
Since Cindy Marten was designated as San Diego Unified’s next superintendent, there has been a discussion about whether the gains Central Elementary made during her tenure as principal warrant the praise she has received in the press.
As Will Carless described, other schools similar to Central Elementary made higher API gains than Central during Marten’s tenure. Some readers have even questioned whether Marten is qualified to be superintendent, based on Central’s API numbers.
I, for one, am not that concerned about Central Elementary’s API numbers. Those among us who believe that Central’s numbers under Marten tenure are indicative of a mediocre school must assume two things: that the entire achievement of a school can be represented in one number, and that the government has developed the perfect way to arrive that number.
I don’t share those assumptions, and Carless raises plenty of points to give pause to the notion that an API score is the only meaningful measure of a school’s success.
In fact, one of the things that has me optimistic about Marten is that she wants to focus on measurements of school success, a point which she discussed, along with the data’s role in teacher assessment, in her Q-and-A with Carless.
… this board and the current leadership team has decided that there’s 12 different indicators for a quality school. So, I’ve been hired by the board of education to lead Vision 2020 and to lead the implementation of a quality school in every neighborhood.
If I want a quality teacher in every classroom, there has to be a citywide conversation about what makes a quality teacher. And to define a quality teacher, we’re not going to reduce it to a test score.
[Data is] a tool to help drive your instruction. Data should inform and drive your instruction. But it’s not what I’m producing.
I want to know more about this 12-point indicator system (as well as how she wants to use data to support teacher development) because the things that we measure tend to end up being the things that we focus on the most. Boiling something so complex down to one number can distort our perception of reality, and diminishes our ability to address problems in their complexity.
To illustrate the weakness of relying a single measure, if you go to the doctor and ask how you’re doing, the doctor isn’t going to say, “Well, you’re at a 720 right now.” If you have a kid who wants play at a friend’s house, you wouldn’t say, “I don’t know, your friend has a 550 Kid Score,” or “absolutely, because your friend lives in a 925 Household.” I can’t imagine people would support the idea of developing a single measure for something as complex as a “good kid” or “good household” score.
Even in situations where we do have single numbers that we know are imperfect measures, those numbers can carry so much weight that they can distort our perception of reality. The stock market’s record highs can blind people to the fact that most people are not enjoying this growth in wealth. The declining unemployment rate doesn’t take into account those among us who have given up looking for work because of despair, disability or incarceration. Some schools’ high AP passage rates may be based on the practice of only letting some students take the AP class and encouraging even fewer to take the exam.
I’m not suggesting that data doesn’t matter. It does. What we need to do is account for all of a school’s markers of success. If so many people from San Diego’s education community are praising Marten, based on her work at Central, as the right person to lead the district, that suggests that API is an inadequate measurement of school success. But our lack of adequate school (and leadership) measurements makes it difficult for the public to understand why people who know Marten (I am not one of them) are so excited about her.
It reminds me of the moment in baseball, when people began looking beyond limited measurements like batting average and strikeouts in assessing a player’s value, and developed measurements like “on base percentage plus slugging” and “walks and hits per innings pitched.” The result is that, while some values are still intangible, we have better measurements with which to assess who the best players are.
Instead of praising Marten in terms of Central’s intangibles, we should develop better measurements in order to bring more of those current intangibles into the realm of objective reality, which is what I look forward to her leading the district in doing.