Schools Must Have Priorities and Goals

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Opinion," February 2, 1999, p. 9A

Judy Codding was excited to be picked as principal of Pasadena High School. Until she discovered the stark facts: 30 percent of her students were dropping out early; another 30 percent didn’t graduate.

What to do? Research, read, see what’s on the Internet.

She found a report that the best indicator of students’ educational success is math scores. She checked. Sure enough, her school had the lowest math scores in the district.

A junior high sent her 110 students “ready for high school math.” She tested them. Only two actually were!

What did she do? She came up with a focus, a measurable goal, for her high school. A new math curriculum. Double the number of teachers who could teach it – and hours students spent learning it. Parents agreed to help.

What happened? Pasadena High’s math scores became the highest in the district. The drop out problem was solved.

Extra money? No grant from an angel. It came from painful budget cuts more severe than anything this district has ever considered. Programs were slashed or eliminated.

But she had central office authority, and the backing of parents, students, and remaining faculty. She just did it.

There are similar stories closer to home: 30 minutes up I-380 in the College Community School District. Low reading scores got their attention. (Sound familiar?)

Response? A diagnosis, focus, new approach, consensus, goals, additional resources – and results!

In other words, those districts’ programs, their goals, were hitched to the front of the budget wagon, not trying to push it from behind.

What are our school district’s measurable goals? With rare and relatively meaningless exceptions, we have none.

Of general statements, on the other hand, we probably have too many. The “Strategic Plan” has “belief statements,” such as, “1. Each person has intrinsic worth.” It has “goals,” such as, “3. To continually increase students’ knowledge of . . . their responsibilities as citizens.” And “parameters,” such as, “9. We will not tolerate ineffective staff performance.”

A lot of people put a lot of thought into these statements. They’re helpful reminders. In fact, I’d like to see them posted on our boardroom wall and referred to at meetings.

But none constitutes a measurable goal with progress reported by a fixed date. They don’t hitch a programmatic horse to a budget cart. They don’t guide a school board’s choices for our children.

No one says her goal in life is to watch more television. So you watch her behavior. Four hours a day of TV watching (the average per person; the average set is on for seven) becomes, at life’s end, 13 years of life. That person’s epitaph: “She watched TV.” Declared or not, based on her actions her goal in life was to “watch TV.”

Our high schools have high standards of many kinds, not the least of which is academic. Walking down the halls of one a couple weeks ago, I looked at the pictures on the wall. Outstanding students. I knew the families of many of them.

But the students selected, and what was written on their plaques, dealt exclusively with athletic accomplishment. I saw no pictures identifying National Merit Scholarship winners, valedictorians, or those whose test scores had most improved.

(Maybe they were elsewhere in the building.)

I’m not criticizing, just observing.

Anthropologists and sociologists study institutions by “feeling the walls.” In that institution they would conclude the building is exclusively devoted to athletic achievement. Would they be wrong?

Would the aspect of high school life given a full section in this paper confirm or conflict with that impression? Reports of our state athletic championships? Comparing crowds at football and forensics contests?

“Opposed to athletics”? Not me. I participated in, and benefited from, every high school athletic team we had.

Athletics merely illustrates the dilemma. What do we want our schools to do for our children?

Schools that “have it all” are ridiculed as “shopping mall high schools.” One of this, one of that.

We can’t afford it. Even if we could, it diverts focus. For our students. For us.

Whether in personal life, business, or schools, no one can make rational budget decisions without some sense of focus, priorities, and measurable goals – articulated or not.

Until we decide whether we want to increase physics scores or athletic team scores how could we possibly know which unified field theory to put our money on?

Meanwhile, talking about “budget cuts” is at best irrational, and at worst irresponsible.

Nicholas Johnson is a member of the Iowa City School Board.