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June 8, 2009

Let’s Be Clear About the “Distinctive Impact” of Public Education

by Chris Lindholm

In a recent meeting of local admininstrators, a colleague was reflecting on the incredible changes that technology and the movement for other venues of learning have brought about in public education.  His pragmatic style of leadership made his words all the more powerful.  "The public high school will look very different in 15 years, he ruminated.  I wouldn't have said that even 5 years ago, but the ability for a student to hop online and earn credit for a class in just 15 to 20 hours that we require, by state law, 60 clock hours for is going to challenge what we do.  We may need to question whether it's worth investing in buildings like we're currently putting up if indeed students won't be in them." 

These comments led me to reflect on a difficult truth to swallow in public education – students could learn the content they are taught in a 7-8 hour school day in just a few short hours each day if time spent on other "things" was eliminated.  This is one of the main rallying cries of those opposed to public education and one that we struggle to defend against.  "But there are so many other, very important things that students learn in a public school" we argue, yet what record to we have to show for it?  We record credits for Civics, Algebra, and Biology, and we have test scores to assess specific skills deemed important, but we have no documented defense to show all of those other, valuable, "things." 

Jim Collins offers some challenging thoughts to wrestle with that apply to these questions in his monograph "Why Business Thinking is Not the Answer; Good to Great and the Social Sectors."  If indeed we in public education believe that variables such as teaching team work, working toward the common good, establishing an appreciation for equality, and embracing some core American values are part of the distinctive impact that we offer, might we measure progress on those goals and be clear that these are part of what we do?  Without such information to present, how do we set ourselves apart from the online class that a student can complete in less than half of the time? 

Jim Collins calls on social sector organizations to participate in rigorous debate about purpose and how to best align systems to achieve the purpose articulated. 

A great organization is one that delivers superior performance and makes a distinctive impact over a long period of time…  For a social sector organization, however, performance must be assessed relative to mission, not financial returns.  In the social sectors, the critical question is… "How effectively do we deliver on our mission and make a distinctive impact, relative to our resources?" (Collins, pg. 5). 

The basic idea is still the same: separate inputs from outputs, and hold yourself accountable for the progress in outputs, even if those outputs defy measurement (Collins, pg. 5).  What matters is not finding the perfect indicator, but settling upon a consistent and intelligent method of assessing your output results, and then tracking your trajectory with rigor (Collins, pg. 8).

So what is the distinctive impact of public education?  What are the outputs that we deliver on that other education venues cannot?  What do we do better than anyone else in the world?  It must be more than the credits that we print on a student transcript…  A student can earn those much more efficiently elsewhere… 

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