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Measuring What Counts

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By Gail Connelly, Executive Director, National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP)

The greatest scientist of our times, Albert Einstein, is often credited with saying that "not everything that counts can be measured, and not everything that can be measured counts." I think policymakers and educators alike should pay heed to this tidbit of wisdom.

The National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) is paying heed by teaming up with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) on a project to develop principal evaluation guidelines. (Watch for our guidelines and report in mid-May.) Like Einstein's message, the central premise guiding our work on principal evaluation is simple: Let's measure what counts.

Most principals are fully supportive of using data — and lots of it — to assess student achievement, teacher competency, and their own performance. NAESP's professional standards, Leading Learning Communities: What Principals Should Know and Be Able to Do, state that effective principals manage data to inform decisions, use data to measure student and school performance, and make data a driver for school improvement.

The additional reality, however, is that data can be a double-edged sword. Consider this from the opening chapter of Data-Based Decision Making, a joint publication of NAESP and Solution Tree written by highly regarded education professional, researcher, and consultant Edie Holcomb:

"The good news is that people no longer argue about whether you should use data," she writes. "Effective use of data has been repeatedly tied to successful efforts to increase levels of student achievement. ...The bad news is that schools sometimes use the wrong data in the wrong ways while neglecting other vital and useful information. The danger is a tendency to generate data for the sake of having more data, without creating context in which those data will become useful information."

It's this "good news/bad news" dilemma that concerns me. As both Einstein and Edie wisely point out, an over-reliance on some kinds of data can cause us to overlook other high-value information. Not everything that is important can be reduced to a number, a data point, a bar chart, or a scattergram. That said, there's no question that much of a child's academic progress (or lack thereof) can and should be measured. However, the total learning experience, especially in the case of early childhood education, defies numeric metrics. The "whole child" means just that — a child's physical, emotional, mental, social, and academic development are parts of a whole, intertwined and inseparable. A child's academic development cannot be assessed in a vacuum any more than a book can be solely judged by the author's knowledge of semicolons, for example.

To achieve real understanding, educators and education policymakers must assess a child's academic progress in the context of the whole child. But let's be clear: Acknowledging the whole child in student assessment isn't code for "non-assessment." Rather, such a focus ensures that quantitative data (which can be negatively impacted by many uncontrollable external factors) are balanced with qualitative data — portfolios, journals, and problem-solving and team-building projects, just to name a few. Absent this balance, I worry that we're actually testing too many of those uncontrollable external factors — hunger, ill-health, fatigue, a troubled home situation, or excitement about an after-school activity — and making inaccurate, piecemeal judgments that can haunt a child's academic experience.

While we don't speak of the "whole principal," perhaps we should. In the nearly three decades I've been privileged to work closely with principals, I have discovered that the principalship requires a blended approach of intellect, instinct, experience, skill, and compassion. Almost without exception, successful principals are lifelong learners, excellent listeners, hard workers, and masterful adapters who understand, synthesize, and act on multiple priorities and conflicting agendas.

More important, elementary principals care deeply about children — their academic progress, to be sure, but also their emotional and physical well-being, their social experiences and skills, and their creativity and curiosity. Exceptional principals take palpable joy in being around children. They demonstrate respect for youngsters and appreciation for their exuberance and humor, and they are, unfailingly, dedicated, kind, optimistic champions of every child in their school.

These characteristics are as important in evaluating principal performance as any skill sets, best practices, leadership qualities, or advanced degrees. They comprise, in part, the measure of a principal's heart. So as we take on the difficult and essential work of evaluation, let's not forget that it's often the heart of a principal that inspires the heart of a child and vice versa. And that makes all the difference.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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