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Hey Arne: Assess This!

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Dear Mr. Secretary:

We're both huge basketball fans, so I'm wondering if you saw the recent feature on ESPN's SportsCenter about a basketball team at a girls' correctional facility in one of the poorest counties of Tennessee.

As regular readers know, I've been bemoaning for some time now the dearth of high-quality stories about teaching and learning. If we're ever going to reimagine education for a changing world, we need to overcome the myriad mental obstacles that prevent us from articulating a different vision of what school can look like. Stories are a central tool to that end - particularly, portrayals of teachers, students and schools that capture the emotional center of the learning process, and inspire us to align policies and procedures around a different set of values.

ESPN's feature on the Carroll Academy Lady Jags does that powerfully. It's a story about a girls' basketball team that has lost more than 200 consecutive games - and a school that has evaluated the success of its program by something other than wins and losses.

The experiences of these young women, and the dedication of the men who coach them, makes me wonder - what if, as the signature aspect of its second term education policy, your boss and you outlined a federal framework for schools that actually incentivized educators across the country to do the sort of work we see at Carroll Academy?

It's not as crazy an idea as you may think.

First, the caveats: we all know policy is a blunt instrument, and it's hard to use such an unwieldy weapon well if the goal is true systems change. As Marc Porter Magee recently pointed out, policymakers only have three tools at their disposal: give money away, tell people what they must do, or tell people what they can't do. That's about it.

Since 2001, we've all seen what happens when education policy tries to circumscribe too narrowly what schools can and can't do. Indeed, although No Child Left Behind deserves credit for forcing our collective attention on the chronic underperformance of our neediest children, it has also created the current climate in which literacy and numeracy has been overvalued to the detriment of just about everything else.

If the rumors I hear are true, Congress is serious about reauthorizing NCLB sometime between now and early 2014. That means this is your opportunity, Mr. Secretary! Which begs the question: What is the better policy, and the more holistic path, for evaluating the success of a school - or a basketball program?

Here's where it gets tricky, but if you want your new framework for whole-school success to be supported by a wealth of data, why not choose the forty-year-old framework Yale University professor James Comer has used for his School Development Program?

As any veteran educator knows (and almost no one else), Comer is the medical doctor who first suggested that the best way to help a community of children learn and grow was ensuring that the community's adults were all well versed in the six major developmental pathways of human beings: cognitive, social, emotional, ethical, linguistic, and physical.

What would happen if the new NCLB mandated that all schools evaluate their progress along each of those six pathways - and left it to the schools to decide how that progress would be evaluated? The Department of Education could still publish a useful "cheat sheet" of helpful psychometrics, surveys, and data-collection instruments. It could clarify which existing tools - of which there are many - were considered to be most valid and reliable. And it could provide a way for schools to share publicly which tools they were using - or, if they chose, creating from scratch - to ensure that no school felt like they were making such important decisions in isolation.

Undoubtedly, some schools would do this poorly - while others would do it exceedingly well. But all schools would be incentivized to pay attention to more than just academic growth, and all teacher preparation programs and professional development strands would become much more attuned to the developmental needs of young people.

Can we do this, Mr. Secretary?

Yes we can.

Let's do it for the Lady Jags.

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