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Test scores are tip of the iceberg when comparing school systems

iceberg effect cover imageAs the parent of school-age kids, my ears prick up when I hear news about America’s schools. One story I’ve heard repeatedly since 2013 is that U.S. schools were falling behind those in Shanghai-China, which scored at the top of PISA, a large standardized test that compares nations.

When this became headline-grabbing news, many educators at the National Superintendents Roundtable raised their eyebrows. They knew the reports didn’t tell the full story of how American students were faring. PISA’s ranking of countries wasn’t truly comparable because the size, diversity and governments of participating nations varied greatly. PISA results also failed to mention that top-ranked Shanghai had screened its poor and disabled students out of testing while other countries like the U.S. did not.

The Roundtable and Horace Mann League decided to design their own study to fill in the picture. They defined 24 measures impacting student performance in the categories of equity, social stress, support for families, support for schools, student outcomes and system outcomes. Then they studied G-7 nations (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States) plus Finland and China, which are viewed as successes in education.

What they found shattered assumptions about U.S. stagnation. The U.S. remained the wealthiest country with the most-educated workforce, based on the number of years of school completed and proportion of adults with high-school diplomas and bachelor’s degrees. America also had 25 percent of the world’s top students in science at age 15, followed by Japan.

But the news wasn’t all good. U.S. data revealed terribly high levels of poverty and social stress compared to other nations. This was recently validated by the Southern Education Foundation which reports that 48 percent of students in American public schools are eligible for free/reduced lunch.

The U.S. also reported more violent deaths and teen pregnancy while investing less in services for children and families, such as preschool. American teachers work longer too: spending 40 percent more time in the classroom than their peers.

As Claudia Rowe of the Seattle Times described it, our glass is half-full, but draining fast. America’s schools are actually quite effective but we face daunting societal challenges that cripple learning.

I was proud to release this study “School Performance in Context: The Iceberg Effect” with the Roundtable and Horace Mann League in January 2015 in Washington, DC. We briefed journalists and educators the same day a Senate committee convened to revamp the No Child Left Behind law.

Lawmakers can look to this study and learn: We actually lead the world in educating all of our population. That’s something to be proud of. International tests are a useful data point, but shouldn’t be the only way we set policy or compare ourselves to other nations.

The other lesson is this: If we really want all students to excel, we must fix societal problems that make their learning difficult, especially poverty and violence.

This project was real education for me. Read a summary and full report.

Speaking the truth when the truth hurts

Photo by Bearseye on Flickr

I recently had a tricky time writing a column for a community leader. He was winding down his role as the president of a professional society and my task was to recap the organization’s successes for the year and pass the torch with optimism, all in his voice.

Personally my client had endured a tragic year when his grown child died unexpectedly. My heart went out to him, yet when he returned to work I had the distinct sense that he did not want to discuss it. So I figured my best way to support him was to make the writing of his monthly columns as smooth and painless as possible.

He’d given me a rundown of the topics he wanted to cover, but when it was time to pen his final column, I struggled to get started. It seemed insincere not to acknowledge his personal loss in recapping the year. I have observed other CEOs write about their personal trials elegantly and with pathos—engaging and making employees respect them even more—but it wasn’t this dear man’s nature to do so.

I sat on my hands for a few days until I ran into him at a conference. Seizing the moment I said, “I’ve been challenged to write in your voice when I know you’ve been through hell this year.”

His reply: “Yes, I guess I’ve dealt with it by keeping busy. I know it’s probably not the healthiest approach.”

This was the extent of the conversation, yet for me, my tension eased. We’d shared a moment of candor, the saddest kind, and then we both got back to work. I put together his final column, which highlighted some exciting results including the groundbreaking for a new civic institution. I did not mention his son’s death.

Still, the piece was truthful. In it we dissected the professional tensions that were erupting in the industry and how people had been asked to do more with fewer staff—all due to an anemic economy.

As we wrapped up his draft, my leader proposed some final edits: Mention that he’d grown professionally that year and that he was grateful for working with great people. Check.

Sometimes there’s a time and a place for personal details in an editorial. In this case, with the platform too public and pain still too raw, there wasn’t. Still, I believe the column succeeded both in content and in process. Together we had prepared a sincere and honest leader message. It signaled progress and a course for the future, even as currents eddied in sorrowful pools just around the edges.

REI: Taking design to new heights

A decade ago I wrote about REI’s retail space in my masters’ thesis. Here’s a nice example of how successful branding strategies evolve.

Right-Brainers unite (and save the world)

The going joke when I was in college was that English majors were destined for a life of poverty. Back then computer science, law, and accounting were the fastest tracks to a secure future. For a quite a while, it proved true.

Not any longer, says Daniel Pink in his book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers will Rule the Future. Pink argues that the era of left-brain knowledge worker has given way to a new world—one where people with artistic and more holistic perspectives are needed the most.

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Group Health and Virginia Mason top the charts in latest community checkup

Click to view's Flickr photostream

Photo by on Flickr

If you live in Western Washington, you can see how your doctor’s medical practice stacks up against 76 others in quality at the Puget Sound Health Alliance. The Alliance publishes a periodic Community Checkup report that shows which groups practice the best medicine for dozens of measures such as giving preventive screenings, diabetes and heart care, and access to care, among others.

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Inspired Spaces at SAM

Inspired spaces at SAM: A Sit + Sip Event
March 11, 2010