Monday, April 27, 2015

What makes school significant (It's not the M-STEP)

We are in the middle of M-STEP, Michigan's state mandated assessment for students in grades 3-8 and 11.

This assessment, while it is not intended to do so, will determine our worth.

After the assessment we will receive in weeks (or months) our scores. These scores will be reported in the newspaper. These scores will be used to rank school districts. Academic champions will be crowned based on these scores.

But in the end, the test scores don't matter.

I reached this epiphany while reading Atul Gawande's book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. The book is about the conversations doctors and the medical professionals have with patients who because of age or life-threatening illnesses are facing the end of life.

The book is wonderfully difficult. It made me think about what is truly important in life.

But it also made me think about school. Gawande says the following when discussing the medical field: 

The problem with medicine and the institutions it has spawned for the care of the sick and the old is not that they have had an incorrect view of what makes life significant. The problem is that they have had almost no view at all. Medicine's focus is narrow. Medical professionals concentrate on repair of health, not sustenance of the soul. Yet - and this is the painful paradox - we have decided that they should be the ones who largely define how we live in our waning days. For more than a half century now, we have treated the trials of sickness, aging, and mortality as medical concerns. It's been an experiment in social engineering, putting our fates in the hands of people valued more for their technical prowess than for their understanding of human needs.

As I read those words it made me think of schools and education. Schools should not be defined by test scores. Schools should not be defined by many of the various metrics that appear on state reports or in the paper.

The problem with education and the institutions it has spawned to care for students is not that they have had an incorrect view of what makes life significant. The problem is that they have had almost no view at all.

What makes school significant for students?

People, relationships, passion, discovering ideas, talking about ideas, learning who you are and what you care about.

State legislators and newspapers seem to think that the most important part of school are test scores and graduation rates and daily attendance. Those are important. But the schools that have high test scores and good graduation rates and high daily attendance are schools that don't focus on those things.

We can tell ourselves that high test scores are important. We can spend all of our time in school prepping students to take a test.

But in the end, those things do not matter.

I believe that schools that measure well on the new metrics of education do so because they focus on making school relevant and meaningful. Schools that focus on relationships and help students develop a passion for learning, those are the schools that understand what is truly important about education.

Medicine focuses on repairing health when the real discussion should be about what is significant in life.

Often the discussion in schools is about test scores when the real discussion should be about sustenance of the soul.

While I completely agree that schools need to ensure that students learn, that students have the skills they need to pursue their dreams, the more important discussions are about what students are passionate about. The more important discussions are how what we are learning applies to life outside of the school.  The more important discussions are about how school makes it possible for a student to follow their passion and make a difference.

We give the M-STEP because we have to.

What I want our schools to find are ways to sustain the souls of our students so that they can make powerful contributions to their family, their friends, and to society.


  1. Dr. Matthews, this is exactly what directed me to learn about mindfulness in schools. In our push for higher test scores and academic achievement, we have pushed aside their social/emotional learning - especially in lower elementary. I want my students to grow up to be more than just academically successful. I want them to be well-rounded, balanced individuals who are happy, healthy, resilient, compassionate, and empathetic. I want them to come to the end of their lives with no regrets, surrounded by family and many friends. That, to me, is success. I have made the decision to leave teaching at the end of this year to focus my efforts on going into schools to train staff and students on the benefits mindfulness instruction. I have been trained in the mindful schools K-12 curriculum, and I have been teaching it to my class this year. They LOVE mindfulness! I have had several teachers from within the district and from Oakland Schools come and observe my students in mindfulness lessons and they are very interested in learning more about this. I would love for Novi to give this gift to its students and staff.

  2. I could not agree more.

  3. This is a beautiful piece and I love seeing this concept applied in education, where the whole student is considered, including mind, body and spirit. While testing is tangible and easily measurable, the results are surely showcasing just a piece of the puzzle and not the underlying root causes of how learning is accomplished. In my own health coach practice, I discuss nutrition and lifestyle with clients who want to address weight, stress or digestive issues. However, I always make the time to understand broader elements in their lives, like career, physical activity, spirituality and relationships to get to the root causes of their overall health. Nice perspective, Dr. Matthews!

    1. I enjoyed your comments and like most educators, parents and community members, I agree completely. The real question is how do we reverse the sanctions of ESEA to free us from the financial shackles we need to educate students according to our moral directives as leaders and teachers? Over the last couple of years, I have studied the education trends and observed that the accountability movement combined with a business model of education is sweeping the globe. Unfortunately, large groups of influential people with financial pull are behind the changes. I thought it was interesting that parents pulled their students out of the PARCC. As an educator, I could never condone such an act and I would hate my school to be sanctioned for not testing the correct number of students, however, turmoil is the only thing that causes change. It is a difficult tight wire act that educators walk during these times.