When you look at a tree, you see a tree in relation to its location. You may see the tree as part of an ecosystem that includes birds, insects, vegetation, water supply, and other elements. Our society, however, takes the approach of deconstructing the tree to its bare elements: branches, leaves, roots, flowers, fruit, and so on. This scientific approach removes the tree from its surroundings and breaks it into little parts. If we do not analyze a tree in its original and natural condition as part of an ecosystem, then we are missing the bigger picture. The difference between mechanistic and systemic thinking was discussed in the film Mindwalk, directed by Bernt Capra. Below is an excerpt from this film.
The same scientific approach is now being applied to education, where certain economists and statisticians are studying the value-added measures of teachers on individual student performance. The claim is that a student’s performance is linked to a teacher’s performance. For example, if Student X received a 70 on the Grade 4 Math Assessment, and a 75 on the Grade 5 assessment, then Student X is expected to increase his/her score on the Grade 6 assessment. The increase or decrease of point value on the Grade 6 assessment is the “value-added” measure of the teacher. If Student X does not perform as predicted, then this reflects on the teacher’s performance. Currently, we are parsing education into smaller units, the same way a scientist divides a tree into small parts. However, in doing so, we do not see the forest for the trees, the entire class for the individual student.
Other systems of education do not take this mechanistic approach to evaluation; instead, their approach is systemic and holistic. For example, in Japan, individual schools typically review and evaluate one subject area or discipline every year. When I visited Japan, the school I observed was conducting a self-study about its physical education program. The entire teaching and administrative staff observed physical education lessons and assessed their relevance in promoting physical fitness for life. If the curriculum was current, few changes were made. If the curriculum needed revising, the staff made suggestions on how to improve it.
A similar approach is taken by one of the top performing educational systems in the world, Finland. In Finland, every school evaluates its results and methodological practices at the conclusion of the academic year. At that point, the school administration and faculty diagnose what went well and what they need to improve upon for the following year. The Finnish model of school evaluation uses both assessment data and anecdotal evidence from classroom instruction to construct a plan for improvement.
The U.S. model of evaluation uses a more mechanistic and individualistic approach where each teacher’s and principal’s final score is based on a formula that yields an individual specific numerical grade. Whether this system of teacher and principal accountability will improve instruction and make significant gains remains to be seen. Here at Clarkstown North, however, we also follow the model of an actual school self-study. The protocol used emanates from the Middle School Association (MSA). This organization has identified twelve standards that are the basis of a successful school, and these standards can be viewed here.
This year, Clarkstown North is engaged in its self-study processes, which will enable us to assess if we met our goals over the past seven years and help us identify where we want to be five years from now. Setting goals, planning targeted actions to meet these goals, identifying demographic and community trends, and analyzing data are all part of the self-study process. We will be engaging teachers, administrators, community members, parents, board members, and students to collaborate on a systemic approach to evaluate what we have done well as a school and where we could use improvement. More importantly, the process will help us develop goals for the short-term future of the school.
Compared to any evaluation process, I find the systemic analysis of an institution the most helpful, since the parts and individual components are assessed to determine whether they function together to advance the goals of the school. The current individualistic evaluation system may provide a snapshot of a teacher’s performance, but fails to connect how a teacher is part of a school community that helps advance the school’s mission and goals.
The Middle States Association re-accreditation process provides a valuable tool that will help us discuss and evaluate the school in its natural configuration as an institution that promotes teaching and learning. Taking this holistic approach allows us to examine the school through various lenses in order to make improvements, revise our mission, and set goals for the future. An approach that is organic, as opposed to legally imposed, often yields better results and more authentic outcomes. I look forward to our self-study, and hope to advance the school’s mission and goals for the betterment of our staff and students.