Defining Success in Education

One of my initial purposes for this blog was to examine the purpose of English education and of education in general. My coursework, discussions, and readings in all of my classes this semester have strengthened my belief that stakeholders in education (including policy makers, administrators, teachers, parents, and students) need to agree upon a clear purpose of teaching and learning before we can successfully reform education.

This lack of a common purpose of education is most clearly reflected in the ways that different groups define success. Too often, a new program or intervention is only deemed successful if it raises students’ test scores. Without this marker of success, these reform efforts may be disregarded, despite other benefits that could have resulted from them.

The following quote, from an article I read for a class about technology and education, demonstrates why this limited definition of success in education frustrates me:

  • “Although there is solid evidence of academic payoffs from school computing, success is by no means assured. Some well-financed interventions have yielded disappointment. The best known among them is Apple Computer’s Classroom of Tomorrow project that initially created computing-intensive environments in five schools. Although students’ attitudes toward learning improved over a five-year period, students’ skills in tests of mathematics, reading, and vocabulary did not (Baker, Gearhart, and Herman 1994)” (Attewell, 2001, p. 256).

What if the last sentence of this quote were written in a different way?

  • “Although students’ skills in tests of mathematics, reading, and vocabulary did not improve, students’ attitudes toward learning did” (my words).

The first statement, as printed in the article, clearly reflects the widely-held view that test scores matter more than students’ attitudes toward learning. If preparing students to be good test takers is the purpose of education, then the intervention mentioned above was indeed a failure. As a classroom teacher, however, I do not believe that preparing students for tests should be my primary goal. I believe that improving students’ attitudes toward learning is an important purpose of education – more important, in fact, than improving test scores. For my purposes of engaging students in the learning process and preparing them to be lifelong learners, the intervention seems more like a success (as reflected in my rewritten statement above). Of course, students’ attitudes about learning are not the only outcomes I am concerned with; I also believe that education should help students develop academic skills, including critical thinking and communication skills, which are not always accurately measured by standardized tests.

I am not intending to criticize this particular article or to take a position on the Apple Computer’s Classroom of Tomorrow project; rather, I point to this as one example of how a limited and controversial purpose of education – to improve test scores – can negatively affect reform efforts that produce positive results beyond the scope of skills-based tests.

Citation: Attewell, P. (2001) Comment: The first and second digital divides. Sociology of Education, 74(July), 252:259.
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