Archive for the ‘Entry’ Category

Value-Added Measures

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Value-added measures, or growth measures, are used to estimate or quantify how much of a positive (or negative) effect individual teachers have on student learning during the course of a given school year. To produce the estimates, value-added measures typically use sophisticated statistical algorithms and standardized-test results, combined with other information about students, to determine a “value-added score” for a teacher. School administrators may then use the score, usually in combination with classroom observations and other information about a teacher, to make decisions about tenure, compensation, or employment. Student growth measures are a related—but distinct—method of using student test scores to quantify academic achievement and growth, and they may also be used in the evaluation of teacher job performance (see discussion below).

Value-added measures employ mathematical algorithms in an attempt to isolate an individual teacher’s contribution to student learning from all the other factors that can influence academic achievement and progress—e.g., individual student ability, family income levels, the educational attainment of parents, or the influence of peer groups. If, for example, teacher effectiveness was determined simply by looking at student test scores at the end of a school year, then teachers with the most highly motivated students from the most educated households would likely get much higher ratings than teachers whose students have troubled home lives, significant learning disabilities, or limited English-language proficiency, for instance. In reality, the latter teacher could be more skilled and effective than the former, but the test scores of a student population that faces significant learning challenges might not accurately reflect the teacher’s abilities.

By only comparing a teacher’s effect on student learning against other teachers working with similar types of students, value-added systems attempt to avoid comparisons that would be perceived as unfair (although the fairness and reliability of such calculations is a matter of ongoing dispute). The measurements typically attempt to quantify how much more (or less) student achievement improved in comparison to what would be expected based on past test scores and personal and demographic factors. While value-added measures use many different algorithms and statistical methods to gauge teacher effectiveness, most of them consider the past test scores of a teacher’s students.

The following highly simplified example will serve to illustrate the general process: To obtain a value-added score for a sixth-grade teacher, the fourth- and fifth-grade test scores of every student in the class might be collected. A mathematical formula would factor in the test-score data alongside a variety of other information about the students, such as whether the students are on special-education plans or whether their parents dropped out of school, completed high school, or earned a college degree. The formula would generate projected sixth-grade test scores for each student, and then the sixth-grade scores would be compared to the predicted scores after students take the test. The teacher’s value-added score would be based on the average difference between the actual scores earned by students and the predicted scores. (Here’s another way of phrasing it: value-added measures consider the test-score trajectory of the students in a given teacher’s class, at the time they arrived in the class, while also controlling for non-teacher factors, to determine whether the teacher caused the trajectory to increase, decrease, or stay the same.)

Student-Growth Measures

Although the terms student-growth measures and student-growth percentiles are sometimes used interchangeably with value-added measures, the two approaches are technically quite different. Student-growth measures compare the relative change in a student’s performance on a specific test with the performance of all other students on that same test. The scores of all students are used to create an “index of student growth” and to identify a median achievement score that can be used as a point of comparison for all student scores—i.e., some students will show growth that is greater than the median, while others will show growth that is lower than the median. In contrast with value-added measures, student-growth measures do not attempt to control for outside factors that may influence a student’s relative improvement on a test, such as individual ability, family income, or the educational attainment of parents, for example.

Reform

Ongoing concerns about inadequate school performance, low standardized-test scores, and persistent achievement gaps, among other issues, have led school leaders, education reformers, elected officials, and policy makers to focus on improving the effectiveness of teachers in public schools. The basic rationale is that if schools can identify the most highly skilled teachers, improve the skills of lower-performing teachers, or remove ineffective teachers from the classroom, schools will be able to realize rapid improvements in test scores, graduation rates, and other indicators of performance.

In pursuit of this goal, some educators, researchers, and reformers have gravitated toward the idea that the most efficient or objective way to identify effective and ineffective teachers is to use student test scores as a primary indicator—and value-added measures are an extension of this general view. Consequently, educational experts, researchers, and statisticians have tried to create mathematical or more “scientific” models to isolate the impact of individual teachers from the numerous personal, situational, cultural, and familial factors that might influence student achievement and test performance. And many recent reform proposals—by the federal government, state legislatures, districts, and national reform organizations—have sought to connect valued-added scores and student-growth percentiles to a variety of rewards and punishments, from increased school funding and teacher bonuses to penalties, poor performance ratings, and negative publicity.

Debate

The use of test-based, value-added measures in teacher-performance evaluations and compensation decisions is one of the most controversial and contentious issues in public education today. Many teachers unions, for example, have vigorously fought against policies and proposals that would make student test scores a factor in job-performance evaluations, and some have even gone on strike to protest certain proposals. Some educators argue that the practice is inherently unfair—because a wide variety of factors can influence test scores that are unrelated to teaching ability—and that the strategy will ultimately be self-defeating because it will drive good teachers away from working in the most high-need schools, or with the most high-need students, out of fear that they will receive poor ratings, be penalized with lower salaries, or even lose their jobs. Despite this resistance, some states have adopted, or are in the process of adopting, legislation and policies that will require a certain percentage of a teacher’s job-performance evaluation to be based on value-added scores and student-growth percentiles, with percentages that range from five or ten percent to a much as fifty percent. Yet, as with other applications of high-stakes testing, many educators, researchers, and experts have cautioned against using value-added ratings in isolation from other information to make important decisions about teachers.

The following are a few representative arguments that may be made by proponents of value-added measures:

  • The need to improve school performance and educational results requires that the best teachers be identified and matched with the most needy students. Value-added measures offer an objective and consistent way to measure teacher effectiveness on a large scale.
  • Current approaches to teacher evaluation have failed to distinguish effective from ineffective teachers. Many job-performance evaluations are highly subjective or flawed, which is why most teachers receive positive evaluations, even in cases where students are clearly underperforming. Value-added measures, even if they are not perfect, represent an improvement over existing systems.
  • Struggling students cannot afford to spend years of schooling getting poor instruction from ineffective teachers—they will only fall further and further behind. The least-effective teachers must be given a reasonable opportunity to improve, and if they don’t they must be removed and replaced with better teachers. Value-added scores provide an objective measure for making these difficult decisions.
  • Value-added measures are a more fair way to evaluate teachers, and the impact they have had on their students, than considering student test scores or achievement levels in isolation from other influencing factors.
  • The best teachers deserve to be identified by objective measures so they can be acknowledged and rewarded.
  • Concerns about value-added measures are overstated, since they have shown in some studies to be more accurate than other accepted and widely used teacher-evaluation methods, such as principal evaluations.

The following are a few representative arguments that may be made by critics of value-added measures:

  • Value-added measures are ethically questionable, unproven, and not yet ready for real-world application. Evidence suggests that there is a significant risk that the measures will misidentify effective teachers as ineffective and ineffective teachers as effective. The potential consequences do not justify the risk.
  • Research shows that out-of-school factors could account for up to eighty percent of the variation in student test scores, so it’s highly doubtful that value-added algorithms can accurately and reliably isolate the effect that an individual teacher has on student learning. The contributing issues are just too complex to be reduced to a single mathematical formula. Consequently, teachers are still liable to be blamed for factors that are beyond their control.
  • The student-performance and testing data used in value-added calculations may be flawed or inaccurate, even if the value-added algorithm is considered sound. Since data can easily become corrupted by numerous factors (see measurement error), it’s ethically questionable to compensate or fire teachers on the basis of numbers that could be inaccurate or misleading.
  • Basing teacher evaluations on test data is another high-stakes use of test results, and the method will likely contribute to or exacerbate the same problems associated with high-stakes testing, including cheating and teaching students only the narrow range of material evaluated on tests.
  • Value-added scores for individual teachers can vary widely from year to year, rating them as excellent one year and ineffective the next, even when the teaching strategies they use remain consistent—which suggests that value-added measures can be imprecise or misrepresentative, with potentially significant consequences for teachers.
  • Student-growth measures should not be used to rate teachers because they do not attempt to control for other influences on student achievement.

Capstone Project

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Also called a capstone experience, culminating project, or senior exhibition, among many other terms, a capstone project is a multifaceted assignment that serves as a culminating academic and intellectual experience for students, typically during their final year of high school or middle school, or at the end of an academic program or learning-pathway experience. While similar in some ways to a college thesis, capstone projects may take a wide variety of forms, but most are long-term investigative projects that culminate in a final product, presentation, or performance. For example, students may be asked to select a topic, profession, or social problem that interests them, conduct research on the subject, maintain a portfolio of findings or results, create a final product demonstrating their learning acquisition or conclusions (a paper, short film, or multimedia presentation, for example), and give an oral presentation on the project to a panel of teachers, experts, and community members who collectively evaluate its quality.

Capstone projects are generally designed to encourage students to think critically, solve challenging problems, and develop skills such as oral communication, public speaking, research skills, media literacy, teamwork, planning, self-sufficiency, or goal setting—i.e., skills that will help prepare them for college, modern careers, and adult life. In most cases, the projects are also interdisciplinary, in the sense that they require students to apply skills or investigate issues across many different subject areas or domains of knowledge. Capstone projects also tend to encourage students to connect their projects to community issues or problems, and to integrate outside-of-school learning experiences, including activities such as interviews, scientific observations, or internships.

While capstone projects can take a wide variety of forms from school to school, a few examples will help to illustrate both the concept and the general educational intentions:

  • Writing, directing, and filming a public-service announcement that will be aired on public-access television
  • Designing and building a product, computer program, app, or robot to address a specific need, such as assisting the disabled
  • Interning at a nonprofit organization or a legislator’s office to learn more about strategies and policies intended to address social problems, such as poverty, hunger, or homelessness
  • Conducting a scientific study over several months or a year to determine the ecological or environmental impact of changes to a local habitat
  • Researching an industry or market, and creating a viable business plan for a proposed company that is then “pitched” to a panel of local business leaders

For related discussions, see authentic learning, portfoliorelevance, and 21st century skills.

Reform

As a school-reform strategy, capstone projects are often an extension of more systemic school-improvement models or certain teaching philosophies or strategies, such as 21st century skills, community-based learning, proficiency-based learning, project-based learning, or student-centered learning, to name just a few.

The following are a few representative educational goals of capstone projects:

  • Increasing the academic rigor of the senior year. Historically, high school students have taken a lighter course load or left school early during their twelfth-grade year, which can contribute to learning loss or insufficient preparation for first-year college work. A more academically and intellectually challenging senior year, filled with demanding but stimulating learning experiences such as a capstone project, the reasoning goes, can reduce senior-year learning loss, keep students in school longer (or otherwise engaged in learning), and increase preparation for college and work.
  • Increasing student motivation and engagement. The creative nature of capstone projects, which are typically self-selected by students and based on personal interests, can strengthen student motivation to learn, particularly during a time (twelfth grade) when academic motivation and engagement tend to wane.
  • Increasing educational and career aspirations. By involving students in long-term projects that intersect with personal interests and professional aspirations, capstone projects can help students with future planning, goal setting, postsecondary decisions, and career exploration—particularly for those students who may be unfocused, uncertain, or indecisive about their post-graduation plans and aspirations.
  • Improving student confidence and self-perceptions. Capstone projects typically require students to take on new responsibilities, be more self-directed, set goals, and follow through on commitments. Completing such projects can boost self-esteem, build confidence, and teach students about the value of accomplishment. Students may also become role models for younger students, which can cultivate leadership abilities and have positive cultural effects within a school.
  • Demonstrating learning and proficiency. As one of many educational strategies broadly known as demonstrations of learning, capstone projects can be used to determine student proficiency (in the acquisition of knowledge and skills) or readiness (for college and work) by requiring them to demonstrate what they have learned over the course of their project

In recent years, the capstone-project concept has also entered the domain of state policy. In Rhode Island, for example, the state’s high school graduation requirements stipulate that seniors must complete two out of three assessment options, one of which can be a capstone project. Several other states require students to complete some form of senior project, while in other states such projects may be optional, and students who complete a capstone project may receive special honors or diploma recognition.

Debate

Most criticism of or debate about capstone projects is not focused on the strategy itself, or its intrinsic or potential educational value, but rather on the quality of its execution—i.e., capstone projects tend to be criticized when they are poorly designed or reflect low academic standards, or when students are allowed to complete relatively superficial projects of low educational value. In addition, if teachers and students consider capstone projects to be a formality, lower-quality products typically result. And if the projects reflect consistently low standards, quality, and educational value year after year, educators, students, parents, and community members may come to view capstone projects as a waste of time or resources.

Grade Point Average

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A grade point average is a number representing the average value of the accumulated final grades earned in courses over time. More commonly called a GPA, a student’s grade point average is calculated by adding up all accumulated final grades and dividing that figure by the number of grades awarded. This calculation results in a mathematical mean—or average—of all final grades. The most common form of GPA is based on a 0 to 4.0 scale (A = 4.0, B = 3.0, C = 2.0, D = 1.0, and F = 0), with a 4.0 representing a “perfect” GPA—or a student having earned straight As in every course. Schools may also assign partial points for “plus” or “minus” letter grades, such as a 3.7 for an A–, a 3.3 for a B+, and so on. GPAs may be calculated at the end of a course, semester, or grade level, and a “cumulative GPA” represents an average of all final grades individual students earned from the time they first enrolled in a school to the completion of their education.

In some schools, weighted-grade systems are used in GPA calculations, and they give students a numerical advantage for grades earned in higher-level courses, such as honors courses or Advanced Placement courses, or for completing more challenging learning experiences. In weighted-grade systems, an A in a higher-level course might be awarded a 4.5 or 5.0, for example, while an A in a lower-level course is awarded a 4.0 (yet weighted grading systems vary widely in design and methodology).

A student’s GPA is often used to determine academic honors, such as honor roll, class rank, or Latin honors. GPAs have been one of several major factors used by colleges, postsecondary programs, and employers to assess a student’s overall academic record.

In public schools, grading systems and GPA scales may vary significantly from one school or school district to the next. When investigating or reporting on grading systems, class rank, or other academic honors, it is important to determine specifically how grades and GPAs are calculated, and what evaluation criteria was used to measure academic performance and award grades.

Debate

While the use of grade point averages has been common in public schools for decades, critics of the practice may argue that averaging grades over a semester, year, or school tenure can misrepresent student learning, particularly learning growth over time, and that it can adversely affect a student’s academic performance, educational confidence, and sense of self-worth. Since the arguments against the use of GPAs are complex and nuanced, see class rank, grade averaging, weighted grades, and proficiency-based learning for more detailed discussions.

Action Research

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In schools, action research refers to a wide variety of evaluative, investigative, and analytical research methods designed to diagnose problems or weaknesses—whether organizational, academic, or instructional—and help educators develop practical solutions to address them quickly and efficiently. Action research may also be applied to programs or educational techniques that are not necessarily experiencing any problems, but that educators simply want to learn more about and improve. The general goal is to create a simple, practical, repeatable process of iterative learning, evaluation, and improvement that leads to increasingly better results for schools, teachers, or programs.

Action research may also be called a cycle of action or cycle of inquiry, since it typically follows a predefined process that is repeated over time. A simple illustrative example:

  • Identify a problem to be studied
  • Collect data on the problem
  • Organize, analyze, and interpret the data
  • Develop a plan to address the problem
  • Implement the plan
  • Evaluate the results of the actions taken
  • Identify a new problem
  • Repeat the process

Unlike more formal research studies, such as those conducted by universities and published in peer-reviewed scholarly journals, action research is typically conducted by the educators working in the district or school being studied—the participants—rather than by independent, impartial observers from outside organizations. Less formal, prescriptive, or theory-driven research methods are typically used when conducting action research, since the goal is to address practical problems in a specific school or classroom, rather than produce independently validated and reproducible findings that others, outside of the context being studied, can use to guide their future actions or inform the design of their academic programs. That said, while action research is typically focused on solving a specific problem (high rates of student absenteeism, for example) or answer a specific question (Why are so many of our ninth graders failing math?), action research can also make meaningful contributions to the larger body of knowledge and understanding in the field of education, particularly within a relatively closed system such as school, district, or network of connected organizations.

The term “action research” was coined in the 1940s by Kurt Lewin, a German-American social psychologist who is widely considered to be the founder of his field. The basic principles of action research that were described by Lewin are still in use to this day.

Reform

Educators typically conduct action research as an extension of a particular school-improvement plan, project, or goal—i.e., action research is nearly always a school-reform strategy. The object of action research could be almost anything related to educational performance or improvement, from the effectiveness of certain teaching strategies and lesson designs to the influence that family background has on student performance to the results achieved by a particular academic support strategy or learning program—to list just a small sampling.

For related discussions, see action plan, capacity, continuous improvement, evidence-based, and professional development.

Content Area

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A now-preferred synonym for subject or subject area among educators, content area refers to a defined domain of knowledge and skill in an academic program. The most common content areas in public schools are English (or English language arts), mathematics, science, and social studies (or history and civics). In some cases, traditional content areas may be combined or blended, as with humanities (typically a blend of English and social studies), the fine and performing arts (a blend of visual art, dance, music, and theater), or STEM (an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math).

Content areas are one method that schools use to organize knowledge, teaching, and academic programming. For example, learning standards, standardized tests, academic teams, graduation requirements, and faculty departments are often organized by content area.

For related discussions, see content knowledge, core course of study, and curriculum.

Reform

In recent decades, some schools have moved away from traditional content areas by (1) creating new blended content areas (such as humanities or STEM); (2) creating new academic programs, such as theme-based academies, that offer more intensive, in-depth education in a certain content area or blended content area; and (3) integrating multiple domains of knowledge and instruction into a single assignment, lesson, or course. For example, teaching strategies such as authentic learning or project-based learning typically bring together multiple domains of academic knowledge, skill, and study that would have historically been taught in separate content-area courses.

Learning Gap

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Closely related to achievement gap and opportunity gap, a learning gap is the difference between what a student has learned—i.e., the academic progress he or she has made—and what the student was expected to learn at a certain point in his or her education, such as a particular age or grade level. A learning gap can be relatively minor—the failure to acquire a specific skill or meet a particular learning standard, for example—or it can be significant and educationally consequential, as in the case of students who have missed large amounts of schooling (for a more detailed discussion, see learning loss).

Generally speaking, learning gap refers to the relative performance of individual students—i.e., the disparity between what a student has actually learned and what he or she was expected to learn at a particular age or grade level. Achievement gap refers to outputs—the unequal or inequitable distribution of educational results and benefits—while opportunity gap refers to inputs—the unequal or inequitable distribution of resources and opportunities.

One of the more consequential features of learning gaps is their tendency, if left unaddressed, to compound over time and become more severe and pronounced, which can increase the chances that a student will struggle academically and socially or drop out of school. In addition, if foundational academic skills—such as reading, writing, and math, as well as social and interpersonal skills—are not acquired by students early on in their education, it may be more difficult for them to learn these foundational skills later on. As students progress through their education, remediating learning gaps tends can become more difficult because students may have fallen well behind their peers, or because middle school or high school teachers may not have specialized training or expertise in teaching foundational academic skills. For these and other reasons, many educators, school reformers, researchers, and policy makers have called for greater investments in early childhood education, including universal access to prekindergarten programs.

Study Hall

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A study hall is a period of time set aside during the school day for students to work independently or receive academic help from a teacher or adult. Historically, study halls have been used to fill gaps in student schedules, and students are assigned to a specific classroom at a designated time. Study halls are more common in schools with traditional six- or eight-period schedules, but they are less common in schools that use block scheduling—fewer and longer periods during the school day.

Reform

In recent years, many educators have questioned the utility and value of the traditional study hall—an unstructured period of time spent in a lightly supervised classroom. Given that there are only a limited number of hours in the school day, and that many students may be underperforming or not receiving the help they need to succeed academically, many schools are replacing traditional study halls with more structured academic-support periods, advisories, learning labs, and other strategies, or they are abandoning them altogether. The basic rationale is that unstructured study halls squander precious time that could be used more purposefully, either to help students who are struggling academically or to provide more useful, meaningful, and enriching learning experiences.

For related discussions, see acceleration and expanded learning time.

Computer-Adaptive Test

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Computer-adaptive tests are designed to adjust their level of difficulty—based on the responses provided—to match the knowledge and ability of a test taker. If a student gives a wrong answer, the computer follows up with an easier question; if the student answers correctly, the next question will be more difficult. Considered to be on the leading edge of assessment technology, computer-adaptive tests represent an attempt to measure the abilities of individual students more precisely, while avoiding some of the issues often associated with the “one-size-fits-all” nature of standardized tests.

For students, computer-adaptive testing offers a shorter testing session with a smaller number of questions, since only those questions considered appropriate for the student are offered. On the other hand, test developers have to create a larger pool of test items so that testing systems have enough questions to match the varied abilities of all students taking the exam. The most current forms of computer-adaptive testing are typically administered online, and because the scoring is computerized, teachers and students can get test results more quickly than with paper-and-pencil tests.

Computer-adaptive tests can be used for a wide variety of purposes, including large-scale, high-stakes testing; formative assessment, which provides teachers with in-process feedback on student learning that they can use to modify instructional techniques; and summative assessment, which educators use to determine what students have learned at the end of a unit, term, or year. They are also used to identify students who may need specialized academic support in a specific skill or subject area, such reading, writing, or math.

Since computer-adaptive testing systems select questions that are intended to be appropriately challenging for each student, most students will get about half the questions right and half wrong, so a score based on the total number or percentage of correct responses will be meaningless. Therefore, computer-adaptive scoring is based on both the number of correct answers provided and the difficulty of the items completed. Before the tests are administered to students, test questions are typically field-tested with representative samples of students to calibrate difficulty levels.

Reform

While computer-adaptive technology is a relatively recent development, its use appears poised to grow significantly in the United States over the coming years. For example, two major national assessment initiatives, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), intend to use the technology. In general, computer-adaptive testing is being adopted by states and schools based on the following rationales:

  • By using more precise and efficient assessments that take less time to complete, teachers and students will have more time for instruction and learning, while still getting test results that are either just as accurate as traditional tests or more accurate.
  • The tests tailor each question to the knowledge and abilities of the test taker, removing the need for students to struggle with questions that are too difficult or spend time on questions that are too easy.
  • The tests can provide more precise and quickly available information on student learning needs, which teachers can use to adapt instruction and improve academic support for students.
  • Test security is improved because not all test takers see the same items.

Debate

Since computer-adaptive tests are still relatively new, debates about their use, reliability, benefits, and shortcomings are just beginning to emerge. With many states planning to use new computer-adaptive online tests in coming years, the technology will likely become the object of increasing scrutiny, discussion, and debate.

In addition to the potential benefits described above, the following are a few representative arguments that may be made by advocates of computer-adaptive testing:

  • The tests can help to identify a student’s learning level more precisely than fixed-question exams, especially for students at the lower and higher ends of the learning spectrum.
  • Adaptive tests give teachers more precise information about students who are exceptionally adept or exceptionally far behind in their mastery of expected knowledge and skills.
  • The tests may increase student engagement in the testing process, and possibly lead to more accurate results because the tests are shorter, less tiring, and better calibrated to a student’s individual abilities.
  • Computerized scoring of open-ended and essay-style questions is becoming more accurate, and may even become more reliable than human scoring, which could increase the efficiency and reduce of costs of large-scale standardized testing.

The following are a few representative arguments that may be made by critics of computer-adaptive testing:

  • The sophisticated technology needed to score open-ended questions and essay sections on computer-adaptive tests is not yet ready for widespread use in schools. Systems may not have been sufficiently tested and others may be prone to glitches and errors, which could lead to inaccurate results that can disadvantage the students taking the tests, resulting in the need for human scoring.
  • The use of computerized tests could disadvantage students with lower technological literacy and less access to digital technology, such as students from lower-income households and students in rural areas with less-reliable internet access.
  • Transitioning from paper-and-pencil exams to computer-adaptive tests entails, in many cases, significant logistical challenges and financial burdens, particularly for cash-strapped states, districts, and public schools. The sophisticated software required for the tests—whether it is custom developed or an off-the-shelf product—can be expensive and potentially cost-prohibitive.
  • For schools with few computers or inadequate computing networks—or both—it may be prohibitively difficult to allocate the time and computers needed for all students to complete a test.
  • Computer-adaptive testing typically requires robust technical support because broken or malfunctioning systems can derail test administration and significantly disrupt school scheduling and operations.
  • For districts and schools that still rely on paper-based processes, transitioning to online, computer-adaptive testing might be burdensome or infeasible because a school may not have sufficient resources, devices, and on-staff technical expertise.

Systemic Reform

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In education, the terms systemic reform or systemic improvement are widely and commonly used by educators, reformers, and others. While education reforms often target specific elements or components of an education system—such as what students learn or how teachers teach—the concept of systemic reform may be used in reference to (1) reforms that impact multiple levels of the education system, such as elementary, middle, and high school programs; (2) reforms that aspire to make changes throughout a defined system, such as district-wide or statewide reforms; (3) reforms that are intended to influence, in minor or significant ways, every student and staff member in school or system; or (4) reforms that may vary widely in design and purpose, but that nevertheless reflect a consistent educational philosophy or that are aimed at achieving common objectives.

Like the teaching profession, education systems are, by nature, extremely complex and multifaceted, and the challenges entailed in reforming or improving them can be similarly complex and multifaceted. Even reforms that appear to be straightforward, simple, or easily achieved may, in practice, require complicated state-policy changes, union-contract negotiations, school-schedule modifications, or countless other conditions and actions. While it is not possible to describe all the many ways in which reforms may be considered “systemic,” the term is perhaps most commonly applied to proposed reforms that are intended to achieve a specific goal or set of goals. For example, the goal of increasing high school graduation rates may have systemic implications, and states or schools may present a reform package intended to address multiple factors contributing to undesirably low graduation rates. In these cases, the reforms may or may not represent a coherent attempt to improve a complex system, and they may not—in any strict definitional sense—be truly “systemic.” And, of course, proposed reforms may also be more aspirational than feasible, practical, or advisable.

In technical terms, the idea of “systemic improvement” is predicated on the generalizable fact that, in most cases, it is extremely difficult, or perhaps even impossible, to improve one dimension of a school or education system without addressing and modifying other dimensions (the large and ever-growing body of books, experts, and research devoted to “systems change,” in a wide variety fields, provides some evidence of the difficulties entailed). While there are countless complexities involved in systemic reform—far to many to usefully describe here—a simple example may serve to illustrate the general problem:

Say that school leaders want to give teachers more opportunities to collaborate, plan lessons together, and give each other professional feedback aimed at improving their instructional skills (a common school-improvement strategy known as professional learning communities). While a seemingly simple proposition, the process of adding or creating meeting time during the school day could require significant and difficult-to-achieve changes to a school’s schedule—e.g., teaching responsibilities, class times, and room assignments may need to be entirely reshuffled or the school may decide to adopt a new and better-suited scheduling structure. If a new schedule is embraced—for example, one with longer class periods (see block schedule)—teachers may need to modify all their lesson plans and the way they typically teach, which could then require specialized training to help teachers adjust to longer class periods. If administrators decide to start the school day at a later time so that teachers can meet early in the morning, another possible option, it could impact bus-transportation schedules and parents may complain because they will have to find and pay for additional childcare. If the school then creates a new early-morning program for students on those late-start days, to avoid the transportation and childcare issues, the program will need to be staffed and funded—another complicated and complicating issue. And given that teacher contracts typically define how many hours a teacher can be asked to work in a week, and how many hours can be devoted to specific kinds of activities, such as meetings, a proposal to create common meeting time could face resistance from unions or require changes in employment contracts and school policies. And, of course, the list of possible complexities could go on.

It should be noted that systemic reform is something of a buzzword in education, and the appearance or use of the term does not necessarily mean that a school or school system is actually executing, in any practical or authentic way, an improvement process that could be accurately labeled “systemic” in any of the senses described above.

For related discussions, see action plan and continuous improvement.

Honors Challenge

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The term honors challenge refers to the practice of offering higher-level or more academically challenging assignments, coursework, or learning opportunities in a “heterogeneously grouped” or “mixed-ability” course—i.e., a course in which students of different abilities or levels of preparation are grouped together. In academic programs that do not offer multiple course levels to students, honors challenges are used in place of separate honors courses.

Honors challenges are typically offered to students who learn at more accelerated pace, who have already met expected learning standards, or who want to challenge themselves academically or pursue a personal intellectual interest. An honors challenge may take the form of a supplemental selection of assignments, an independent study that is self-determined by a student but overseen by a teacher or mentor, or an outside-of-school learning experience such as an internship or volunteer experience (for a related discussion, see learning pathway). In many cases, students will earn additional course credit or some other form of academic recognition that appears on their transcript.

Reform

In schools that do not have tiered course levels, honors challenges are a way to provide challenging academic experiences, and more academic recognition, to higher-performing or more-accelerated students and to students who want to challenge themselves academically or pursue a personal interest or intellectual challenge.

As an alternative to creating separate courses or “tracks,” an honors challenge essentially creates the possibility of “honors-level” coursework and recognition in all classes, and potentially for all students. Critics of academic “tracking” contend, among other arguments, that the multiple course levels in public high schools typically mirror existing social and socioeconomic divisions—i.e., minorities end up being grouped with other minorities, and low-income students end up in the same courses or lower-level tracks as other low-income students. Consequently, many educators believe the practice reinforces and perpetuates existing social and educational inequities. Strategies such as differentiation and honor challenges are also intended to avoid the creation of a new inequity: disadvantaging high-performing or academically accelerated students by giving them an insufficiently challenging education.

Honors challenges are also a way to introduce a more flexible approach to honors courses, which typically require students to meet certain prerequisites (e.g., a teacher recommendation, a grade of A or B in a previous course, or a certain score on a placement test) and to enroll in the course for a full semester or year. As an alternative to traditional honors courses, an honors-challenge option may allow teachers to extend “honors-level” assignments and coursework to more students and to do so at different times throughout the year. For example, if certain students start a course academically behind, but they quickly catch up to their peers, the teacher may introduce an honors challenge partway through the year, whereas that option might not be available to the students if the school were employing a more traditional tiered course structure.

Acceleration

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In education, the term acceleration refers to a wide variety of educational and instructional strategies that educators use to advance the learning progress of students who are struggling academically or who have fallen behind—i.e., strategies that help these students catch up to their peers, perform at an expected level for their age and grade, or meet required learning standards. Academic acceleration is often considered to be an alternative to some forms of remediation that may be designed to deliver less academic content to students at a slower pace. Critics of the “less and slower” forms of remediation tend to argue that the practice is insufficient and ineffective, since students will not only keep falling further behind their peers with each passing year, but they may never catch up or meet expected learning standards before completing their education, which may also place them at a greater risk of dropping out.

To accelerate learning acquisition and progress, schools and educators may employ a wide variety educational techniques, supplemental programs, and academic support, which may be provided during the school day and during regular class periods, or outside of the regular school day and school year. For a related discussion, see expanded learning time.

As a general instructional approach or philosophy, academic acceleration tends to share a few common attributes: (1) increasing the amount of instruction provided to struggling students in a given course or subject area by providing supplemental learning time with a teacher, tutor, or other specialist; (2) teaching the same amount of content as regular courses, as opposed to less; (3) maintaining the same high expectations for learning, rather than lowering them; and (4) deploying different instructional and support strategies—i.e., not repeating the same teaching techniques that are not working for students in their regular courses. Academic acceleration may also entail instruction in practical academic skills—such as planning, organization, self-control, and study techniques—as well as other forms of support that students may need to succeed academically.

The term acceleration may also refer to the strategy of exposing groups or populations of students to higher-level content and more challenging assignments earlier in their education. The goal of this approach is to move all students in a class, school, district, or education system further ahead—i.e., past the common or former educational expectations for their age or grade level. For example, a school or district may accelerate the study of mathematics content in the elementary grades so that students are prepared to take algebra by the time they enter eighth grade (in the United States, students typically begin taking algebra in high school).

Additionally, the term can refer to the early promotion of individual students to the next grade or higher (based on their academic achievements or readiness for higher-level work); advancing them in one or more content areas; or allowing them to work independently on more advanced work. The term may also be used in reference to programs or approaches aimed at students in “gifted and talented” programs.

Content Knowledge

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The term content knowledge refers to the body of knowledge and information that teachers teach and that students are expected to learn in a given subject or content area, such as English language arts, mathematics, science, or social studies. Content knowledge generally refers to the facts, concepts, theories, and principles that are taught and learned in specific academic courses, rather than to related skills—such as reading, writing, or researching—that students also learn in school.

While the term may be considered unnecessary jargon by some, the use of “content knowledge” has grown significantly in recent decades, in large part because educators now commonly use the term as a shorthand way to articulate a useful technical distinction between “knowledge” and “skills” (see Debate below for further discussion).

For related discussions, see core course of study, curriculum, and learning standards.

Reform

In recent decades, public-school teachers have been required, in most cases, to attain certification in the subject area they teach, which can require education and training beyond a four-year college degree. Many teachers earn a master’s degree in education or in a specific academic field, such as biology, chemistry, or physics, for example.

In general, the push to increase certification or educational requirements for teachers is based, in part, on research and other evidence suggesting that teachers who are highly knowledgeable in a specific field tend to be more effective teachers. For example, a teacher with a master’s degree in biology may, on average, be less effective teaching a chemistry course than a teacher with an advanced degree in chemistry. Such findings have prompted discussion about whether it is more important for teachers to be highly educated in a specific content area, such as physics, rather than in general science education or educational theory, for example. In addition, some educators, researchers, and reformers argue that teachers also need to develop strong “pedagogical content knowledge”—i.e., mastery of both subject-area knowledge and the most effective ways to teach students that specific subject.

In elementary schools, teachers have traditionally taught multiple content areas to a class of students, and most elementary schools continue to use this model. Some schools, however, are assigning teachers to subject-specific courses or lessons based on their particular expertise and training, and students are moved from class to class or teacher to teacher throughout the day. When used with younger students, this approach can be controversial, since some educators and parents believe that moving students from teacher to teacher can inhibit the development of strong relationships with adults and adversely affect learning.

Debate

One ongoing debate related to content knowledge centers on the distinction between “knowledge” and “skills,” and whether it is more important for schools to emphasize the teaching of knowledge or the teaching of skills. Some educators argue that it’s not possible to teach academic and intellectual skills—e.g., reading, writing, critical thinking, problem solving, researching—separate from content knowledge and conceptual understanding, given that students can’t learn to write well, for example, if they don’t have ideas, facts, principles, and philosophies to write about. While some educators contend that academic and intellectual skills can’t be separated out from subject-area knowledge and instruction, others may argue that “cross-disciplinary skills” have historically been ignored or underprioritized in schools, and the push to give more attention to these skills is simply a commonsense response to a changing world. Still others may argue that the “knowledge vs. skill” debate is not only a distraction, given that students need to be taught both knowledge and skills, but that it’s a false dichotomy because it’s impossible to learn skills without content or learn content without skills (i.e., the distinction only exists in the abstract; in the real world, the two are inextricably connected and interdependent). For a related discussion, see 21st century skills.

Learning Pathway

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When used in the singular, learning pathway refers to the specific courses, academic programs, and learning experiences that individual students complete as they progress in their education toward graduation. In its plural form, the term learning pathways—or any of its common synonyms, such as multiple pathways or personalized pathways—typically refers to the various courses, programs, and learning opportunities offered by schools, community organizations, or local businesses that allow students to earn academic credit and satisfy graduation requirements.

The “learning pathway” concept nearly always implies an expansion of educational options beyond the course sequences historically offered to students. The concept is most commonly applied to educational experiences, usually at the high-school level, that occur outside of traditional classroom settings or school buildings, such as internships, apprenticeships, independent research projects, online classes, travel, community-service projects, or dual-enrollment experiences, for example. While many schools are either creating and incorporating alternative learning options for students, academic courses remain the foundational learning experiences offered by most schools; therefore, they would still be considered one of the “learning pathways” available to students.

While a learning pathway may encompass a wide variety of educational experiences in diverse settings, these experiences are typically connected to school courses and programs (i.e., what students are learning in school), while also allowing students to satisfy graduation requirements (at least in the sense in which the term is predominately used in the education community). Students typically earn grades, credit, or other forms of academic recognition for completing a learning-pathway experience. If a learning experience is entirely disconnected from school programs, it may or may not to be considered a learning pathway.

In many cases, learning pathways allow students to meet state learning standards, and teachers or other school personnel will be involved in designing, overseeing, or evaluating student performance in a learning-pathway experience—although volunteers, mentors, and experts from outside a school may also be involved. A working professional mentoring a student during an internship at a local company would be one representative example. In this case, the business professional might work collaboratively with a teacher to create an internship program that not only provides workplace training and job experience to participating students, but that is also connected to what is being taught in an academic course. Again, if an internship is entirely disconnected from a school curriculum or state learning standards, it may or may not be considered a “learning pathway” by educators (even if those same educators still recognize the intrinsic value of an internship experience for the student).

Reform

Historically, high schools have offered learning pathways in the form of predetermined course sequences, or “academic tracks,” such as college-prep, honors, or career and technical education, each of which would reflect different learning objectives and requirements. In most cases, these tracks consist largely of courses taught by teachers in classrooms, labs, workshops, and other school-based settings. Learning pathways intersect with strategies such as authentic learning, personalized learning, and student-centered learning, among others, which generally seek to expand or change the instructional approaches schools use to educate students.

As a reform strategy, learning pathways are premised on the idea that the education of students does not have to be delivered exclusively by teachers or confined to traditional classrooms; learning can occur at different times and in different places. Students can learn in their community, in a workplace, or by observing natural habitats, for example, and they can learn under the guidance and tutelage of business professionals, tradespeople, scientists, and community leaders in addition to teachers. By formalizing “multiple pathways” or “personalized pathways” as viable educational options for students, schools can create alternative learning experiences that may be better suited to some students while also expanding the number and type of learning options they make available to students.

Learning pathways are also premised on the idea that learning accomplishments should be recognized, rewarded, or valued consistently and equally regardless of whether students learn in a school, outside a school, or online. If one student learns a concept through reading and researching, for example, while another student learns the same concept through a volunteer experience or internship, schools can assign the same “value”—in the form of grades, credit, or academic recognition—to both “pathways.” In this way, learning pathways are related to proficiency-based learning, which places greater emphasis on the products of a learning experience (what knowledge and skills students actually acquire) than on the process (how or where students learn the skills and knowledge they are expected to learn). If schools explicitly measure the knowledge and skills students acquire when pursuing a learning pathway, and they base their assessments on consistently applied learning standards, they may refer to learning pathways as competency-based pathways or proficiency-based pathways, among other terms.

Another important distinction is the difference between pathways that are offered and those that are created. Historically, schools have offered a selection of courses and programs, and students selected the options that seemed best suited to their learning needs, interests, or aspirations. In many schools, learning pathways are similarly designed—schools are just expanding the number and types of educational options available to students.

In other schools, however, students and teachers may be given greater flexibility to design more customized learning experiences that are based on specific student learning needs or interests. For example, a school may not be able to offer courses in Japanese (perhaps because it is too small and cannot afford a Japanese teacher), but it may allow a student to take a Japanese course at a local university and receive high school credit for completing the class. In this case, the college-level Japanese class might be considered equivalent to a world-language elective. The school might also allow a student to pursue an independent-study project in Japanese history and culture under the guidance of an academic affiliated with a local Japanese cultural organization, or the school may award some form of academic recognition or credit to a student who traveled to Japan, documented the trip in photographs, and wrote about the experience. In all of these cases, the grades, credit, and other forms of academic recognition awarded to students would be based on some form of predetermined academic expectations or standards, and learning achievement would be evaluated by educators in the school. Related strategies include capstone projects, demonstrations of learning, personal learning plans, and portfolios.

Debate

Those who advocate for the expansion of learning pathways in schools tend to argue that such alternative educational experiences offer students more rewarding, inspiring, or valuable learning opportunities that can engage their personal interests, passions, learning styles, or career aspirations better than more traditional academic options. They may also contend that such outside-of-school educational experiences can better prepare students for college or careers, since they can equip students with a variety of practical skills that will have direct application after they graduate. In other words, actually taking a course at a community college or learning about workplace expectations through an internship will better prepare students for college-level learning and career success.

Critics of learning pathways as an explicit school-reform strategy may argue that the concept, while potentially compelling in theory, can be extremely challenging or overly complicated when put into practice. For example: How will students be transported from the high school to a local college or business during the school day? Who will pay the associated transportation costs? Who’s responsible for the students when they are traveling between the school and an internship site? What are the liability issues if an accident occurs? How much time will it take to move students from place to place, and will that time disrupt the rest of the student’s course schedule? If students are learning under the guidance of an adult who is not a certified teacher, how can the school ensure that students are receiving a high-quality educational experience or meeting expected learning standards? In a word, how can schools reasonably control educational quality, personal safety, and other critical factors if students are not in school or being taught by trained teaching professionals?

While logistical complications present many challenges to schools offering learning pathways, the more significant concerns for educators tend to be related to potential variability in academic value. Since school administrators and teachers must necessarily give up some degree of oversight when students pursue an outside-of-school learning pathway, it can be more challenging to maintain academic quality, ensure that students are meeting expected learning standards, and evaluate what students have or have not learned. Advocates, however, might counter-argue that a thoughtfully designed learning-pathways program, scaled to the fit a school’s capacity and resources, can address logistical complications and ensure a quality learning experience that enables students to meet expected learning standards.

Teacher-Leader

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In schools, the term teacher-leader is commonly applied to teachers who have taken on leadership roles and additional professional responsibilities. The teacher-leader concept is closely related to voice and shared leadership (the distribution of leadership roles and decision-making responsibilities beyond the administrative team in a district or school).

It should be noted that while the term teacher-leader is commonly used across the country, educators frequently create unique, homegrown vocabularies and titles when referring to these positions in their school.

For a related discussion, see teacher autonomy.

Reform

Traditionally, experienced teachers seeking to advance their careers, increase their income, or acquire new skills or professional roles could consider becoming a department chair (e.g., the head of the English department overseeing some subject-area decisions) or moving into an administrative position. In addition, teachers unions have also provided opportunities for individual teachers to assume leadership roles in their profession. Yet opportunities for professional advancement in schools were limited for those who wanted to wanted to continue teaching while also taking on new responsibilities and growing professionally. Generally speaking, teachers were often forced to choose between teaching and career advancement, which entailed either reducing the time they spent teaching or abandoning teaching altogether.

But in recent decades, schools have been restructuring traditional governance models and redefining leadership functions in ways that distribute decision-making authority more broadly and allow more teachers and other staff members to continue in their positions while also taking on more responsibility in the governance of a school. In some cases, teacher-leaders have formal, officially recognized positions that entail specific responsibilities and assignments; in others, teachers may study new teaching ideas and methodologies, test these approaches in the classroom, acquire a specialized expertise, and then share what they have learned with colleagues. Teacher-leaders may continue to teach full-time, part-time, or not all, depending on the extent of their other responsibilities, and they may or may not receive additional financial compensation, benefits, a new title, or other incentives and recognition. In other words, the role and definition of a teacher-leader may vary widely from school to school.

The following representative examples describe a few of the roles and responsibilities that a teacher-leader may assume in a district or school. Teacher-leaders may:

  • Serve on a school or district leadership team or on some other form of governance committee, task force, or board.
  • Lead a specific school-improvement initiative, such as a program designed to improve the quality of reading instruction throughout a school.
  • Model innovative instructional strategies for other teachers, such as nontraditional ways of assessing what students have learned or alternative methods of grading.
  • Train, supervise, and mentor new teachers or student-teachers.
  • Act as a “learning facilitator” or “instructional coach” who helps both new and veteran teachers develop stronger lesson plans, improve their instruction or classroom-management techniques, or acquire new professional skills, such as using new learning digital and online technologies.
  • Act as a facilitator and coordinator of a professional learning community or other group of teachers working together to improve their teaching skills.
  • Lead efforts to modify or improve school-wide or content-area curriculum.
  • Guide other teachers in collecting, understanding, analyzing, and interpreting student-achievement data, as well as using those findings to improve instructional efficacy in a subject area or throughout the school.
  • Lead an action-research project or engage in additional study and research projects to grow professionally and enhance their professional contributions to the school.
  • Write about teaching in professional journals, books, newspapers, magazines, blogs, social media, or other print or online publications.
  • Create videos, lead online discussion forums, develop webinars, or use technology in other ways to share their knowledge and skills with other teachers online.
  • Speak at professional conferences, community meetings, or other public forums.
  • Engage students in efforts to improve their school, district, or community using community-based-learning strategies and projects.
  • Serve as a parent liaison or lead other efforts to help parents and community members become more engaged in what’s happening in the school.
  • Become involved in local, state, or national advocacy groups aimed at improving education or social conditions for children and communities.
  • Write grant proposals or otherwise seek additional funds for a school, district, or program.
  • Develop partnerships with nonprofits, community organizations, and local businesses that bring in additional resources and create new learning opportunities in a school, such as an internship program or a dual-enrollment program.
  • Contact elected officials to inform them about issues affecting education or testify in public hearings.

In-Person Learning

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In-person learning is any form of instructional interaction that occurs “in person” and in real time between teachers and students or among colleagues and peers. Before the advent of audio, video, and internet technologies that allowed people to interact from different locations and at different times, all instructional interactions occurred, by necessity, in the same place and at the same time. The term is therefore a retronym that arose in response to technology-enabled forms of instruction—specifically,various forms of asynchronous and synchronous learning.

For a related discussion, see blended learning.

Mission and Vision

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A mission statement, or simply a mission, is a public declaration that schools or other educational organizations use to describe their founding purpose and major organizational commitments—i.e., what they do and why they do it. A mission statement may describe a school’s day-to-day operational objectives, its instructional values, or its public commitments to its students and community. A vision statement, or simply a vision, is a public declaration that schools or other educational organizations use to describe their high-level goals for the future—what they hope to achieve if they successfully fulfill their organizational purpose or mission. A vision statement may describe a school’s loftiest ideals, its core organizational values, its long-term objectives, or what it hopes its students will learn or be capable of doing after graduating.

The terms mission statement and vision statement often used interchangeably. While some educators and schools may loosely define the two terms, or even blur the traditional lines that have separated them, there appears to be general agreement in the education community on the major distinctions between a “mission” and a “vision.” Generally speaking, a vision statement expresses a hoped-for future reality, while a mission statement declares the practical commitments and actions that a school believes are needed to achieve its vision. While a vision statement describes the end goal—the change sought by a school—a mission statement may describe its broad academic and operational assurances, as well as its commitment to its students and community.

Reform

In most cases, mission and vision statements result from a collaborative, inclusive development process that may include students, parents, and community members, in addition to administrators and teachers. Schools may also be required to develop the statements, or modify existing statements, as an extension of an accreditation process or a grant-funded school-improvement project.

Educators and school-leadership experts contend that compelling, well-articulated mission and vision statements can:

  • Help a school community reflect on its core educational values, operational objectives, purpose as a learning institution, and hoped-for results for students. By asking tough questions about what the school was founded to achieve, and by looking at where it is in relation to where it wants to be, a school can become better organized to achieve its goals and more focused on the practical steps needed to achieve them.
  • Act as a “call to arms,” or a way to rally support for its core educational values or an improvement plan, or to mobilize the staff and community to move in a new direction or pursue more ambitious goals. By creating a “shared mission” or “shared vision”—that is, developing the public commitments with the involvement of teachers, staff, students, parents, and community members—a school can increase general understanding of what it hopes to accomplish, why it matters, and what may need to change to realize a stronger academic program.
  • Focus a school’s academic program on a set of common, agreed-upon learning goals. In some schools, teachers may work in relative isolation from one another, and each academic department may operate quasi-independently when it comes to making important decisions about what gets taught and how it gets taught. Mission and vision statements, therefore, have the potential to focus school leaders and educators on making decisions that are “aligned” with the vision and mission, that lead to greater curricular coherence, and that use staff and classroom time more efficiently, purposefully, and effectively.

A school may periodically review its mission and vision statements—such as every year or few years—to assess whether it is making progress toward its goals, reflect on setbacks that may have occurred along the way, and reconfirm its commitments. During this process, schools may choose to revise the statements to better reflect the school’s evolving educational values, operational strategies, and learning goals.

Debate

Mission and vision statements and their attendant processes—such as bringing people together to reflect on the “noble purpose” of education, spending time debating nuances of meaning and word choice, and publishing the mission statement on a school website or in course-of-study booklet—may be viewed with skepticism by some educators, students, parents, and community members, particularly if the resulting statements are perceived to contradict or be inconsistent with the existing culture and day-to-day learning experiences in a school. In other words, the statements may be perceived as inauthentic or hypocritical representations that might only serve to mask deeper contradictions. Others may question whether such statements are worth the effort or if they will actually effect positive change in the school. In many cases, however, criticism of mission and vision statements arises in response to previous experiences in schools that undertook the process, but then failed to enact substantive changes or honor the spirit and intent of the expressed commitments.