The Re-Education of Alex Bruzan – Episode 7: Measuring Success Differently

In a round about way it is roughly ten miles from one of the poorest neighborhoods in Metro Milwaukee to one of the wealthiest. I didn’t intend on doing this, but recently I rode from my house on the edge of Milwaukee’s 53206 zip code to the lakefront in Fox Point. I was trying to go up the Oak Leaf trail but there is this detour at Silver Spring and I couldn’t figure out how to get back on the trail. I gave up quick and decided I would meander around until I had gone far enough to do my 20 miles and then turn around and go home. Heading north on Green Bay I turned east on Bender Rd and then turned north on whatever street Nicolet is on. Once that dead ended, I turned east again on Green Tree. At that point I remembered this cool area in Fox Point where the lake shows up out of nowhere once you go down this big hill. It’s the area a bunch of fancy people live. Massive mansions are tucked in corners of sprawling perfectly manicured yards. I even biked past Buck’s coach Mike Budenholzer while he was on a walk near the shore of Lake Michigan. So that was cool.

I have been spending a lot of time lately thinking about school design. I’ve been trying to get ready for this triathlon so I am spending more time alone running or biking, which gives me a lot of time to think. Probably too much of that time has been spent on thinking about school design. As of now, my neighborhood MPS high school is North Division. I got on the Oak Leaf Trail at Riverside University High School. I rode past Nicolet where kids from Fox Point might go. I started to wonder how similar or different those three schools are in terms of design. As far as general systems and structures were they more similar or different? My general perception is that that they are more alike than different. I don’t know if this is actually true. I feel confident that the student population is different within the three, so wouldn’t that mean that they would need to be designed differently. My perception is that the general level of student outcomes is also different between the three. What does that mean from a design perspective. Does that mean if they are structured similarly that one group is getting their needs met and another isn’t?

I have no idea if those three schools are set up the same or if they are radically different than one another. I have no data about student performance measures or demographic make up of their student populations. Maybe I was just tired after the ride and looking for something to write a blog post about. 24 hours later, though, I am still thinking about how similar of different those three places are. On a run the day before I was listening to this podcast where they spend 90 minutes talking about a rewatchable movie. This episode was on Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and the host made a quick comment about how the movie perfectly captures the collectively American experience of being bored in high school. I wonder if that is still a shared experience and what we need to do about that. Like, if the schools are pretty much designed the same way that Ferris’s was, who are they actually designed for? It would be interesting to see the three designs from those three different schools if they were solely tasked with creating an educational experience where kids aren’t bored. It might help reframe the question of who is this designed for.

This is the time of year when I start to look back on the school year and think about where we started, where we are ending, and what it took to get there. This year is no exception even though it’s a little strange reflecting from my chair at home rather than a chair at work. It’s also the time of year when it seems like some kids will graduate and some won’t. The weird thing is that most of them will figure it out and get done on time. The end of the year never sits right with me. There is something off about it. Working at a school that has historically specialized in credit recovery, makes you think differently about what the goal is or should be for our students and students in general.

Over and over and over and over again I hear this statement. So and so really wants to graduate what can we do to make that happen or if it’s coming from the kid – just tell me what I need to do to graduate. Everybody wants to graduate, but not everybody wants to get ready for what comes after graduation. Way too many of those kids look at graduation as the end, rather than step 4 or 5 in the story arc of their lives, an arc that will have dozens or even hundreds of steps. Almost none of them see high school as preparation for the rest of their lives. In fact, it’s almost like it is in the way of letting them live the rest of their lives. Because of that (and a bunch of other factors), they disengage from the opportunities presented to them and don’t take up the offer for educational guidance during the time when they need it most and it costs the least (because it’s free). They want a list of hurdles to jump over and move on when in reality, the hurdles they need to be preparing for are out there waiting for them after high school.

What if the goal for high school is to prepare students for the next steps after high school. We can measure success a year or two or three after high school if the metric for success is preparedness for that next step. But that doesn’t do us any good, since we wouldn’t necessarily know if we were winning as educators until it was way too late. Can we measure success during the process? How do we know that we are preparing the student for the next part of their life? What would the metrics for success look like? If the student is on a four year university track, we can more easily quantify preparedness because we can create a system that mimics what they will be experiencing at the university level. But what about anyone else not going that route? How do we mimic what the world is going to be asking of a 19 or 20 year old taking courses at MATC or working in their family business?

Backing up a little, I guess the first metric for success would be creating a career pathway and then understanding the types of training that would allow you to enter into that career. How do you successfully decide if you should go to a four year university, a tech school, or enter the work force. It depends on the type of work you want to do, the resources you have, and the type of lifestyle you want to have in the future. I wonder what age it is realistically appropriate to expect a young person to make that decision.

Let’s assume it is by the end of a students sophomore year. That actually lines up with a trend I have seen from looking at thousands of transcripts. Students that are behind in credits typically become credit deficient during their sophomore year, many times by failing multiple courses during one semester. I wonder if there is a correlation between failing courses as a sophomore and the disconnect in understanding by the student regarding the purpose of those classes in relation to their career pathway.

I have worked with a ton of kids that had no desire to go to more school and therefore were trying to figure out a life plan that included no more schooling. That’s actually really hard to do. The plans usually included working for a relative or a friend of the family, but nothing is set in stone and the student has no forward momentum in making that plan come to fruition. Sometimes it works out and a lot of the time it doesn’t. It doesn’t work out because they aren’t prepared for their next steps or have no idea what those next steps are. The thing is, we focus on the passing of classes as an indicator of success when maybe the focus should be on preparing them for whatever comes next. What does success look like when you are in college? You are preparing to have a specialized skill. What does success look like for a kid that doesn’t want to go to college. Maybe it is something similar, you are still preparing to have a specialized skill, you just don’t need to go to college to get it.

Success in the educational system in general could be measured by how well that system as a whole prepared the individual to earn a living wage doing something they enjoy. Measuring that success while a student is still in the system could help us better prepare students for those next steps while helping them understand the purpose of high school and therefore creating greater student buy-in and engagement.

I am in no way suggesting that we actually consider doing this or that I think this is a good idea. Sometimes in design it is helpful to go to the extremes. You create something that solely meets the need of one particular demographic and then back off of that to include members outside of that demographic group. The result might be a product that is designed for that demographic in mind but because features of that group are found in the adjacent groups, it serves the needs of the majority.

I think an argument can be made that the structures that exist in a traditional school model prepare students well if their next steps include attending a four year university. That thought could be explored more. I am sure there are some correlating arguments about how school report cards are structured . What I was really thinking about, though, is what would a school look like if it was designed knowing that every student in attendance was not going to to a four year university. Another way to say that would we design a school where we knew that all of students were going to enroll into MATC directly after high school.

Here are eight shifts in foci that we would consider making:

Working while in school – A student at MATC is probably working and going to school at the same time. The job that student is working at is most likely an entry level job that has nothing to do with their expected career field. They are waiting tables four nights a week to make enough money to live while going to school. That is actually a really hard thing to do. Many of us have done that and it requires a lot of planning and execution of that plan. You learn to tolerate annoyances because you need the money and you are provided with a goal (completing your course track to not have to work a job like that) which is worthy enough to struggle through the present.

Freedom of choice – I have no idea how this would logistically work, but it has always seemed strange to me that a high schooler goes from almost no freedom during a weekday to having all of the freedom. If graduation is on June 4th that means that on June 1st a student is making very few choices about what they are going to do and on June 5th all of the choices are now opened up to them. For those that have a clear plan, those choices typically include following through with the plan. For someone without a plan, the freedom can be squandered quickly.

Assessing only what is needed – I wrote this statement down on my list with the Algebra 2 in mind. I taught Algebra 2 for 7 or 8 years. Some kids really needed it for their next steps and some didn’t. If someone didn’t need it, it was still good information to have, but the presentation of it was much gentler and the focus was way more on the most important aspects of the course. I didn’t really care if you could multiply two matrices together. I taught it because I thought it was interesting and I was supposed to teach it, but I was much kinder in the grading of that material.

That was my original line of thinking, care more about what they will need rather than what they won’t, but then it occurred to me that we would have to strongly consider what other skills we could lump together into courses. If we actually are assessing what is needed to be successful at MATC we would need to develop curriculum based around those sets of skills reported as necessary from current successful students and then backwards design educational experiences for our high school students.

Time management/flexible scheduling – I wonder what the most successful way to teach time management is. Here is another one of those vague generalities that is kind of true, but is way overly simplified. High school students have a rigidly inflexible schedule. They graduate and go to further schooling which is inherently flexible. Then they graduate and go off to work which is, many times, structurally inflexible, you are there from 9 – 5. However the day can actually be quite flexible. There is more choice which means the management of time matters. If we were going to design an experience where the expected outcome is growth in time management skills, we would have to do so in parameters that actually matter to the kid. That would be almost impossible to force or artificially create. Maybe we would be better suited to support the growth in time management rather than construct experiences where kids manage their time. When thinking about measurements of success, managing ones time seems like one that could be assessed and tracked. In particular, the more flexibility we offer, the more a student has an opportunity to manage their time, which gives them and us data we can assess – did you follow through with your intended uses of time and what were the outcomes.

Progression of “stakes” – If a student was concerned about GPA from the start of their freshman year, they would feel compelled to do well in every class they take, because each class is weighted similarly. A class taken in 9th grade would count the same as a class taken in 12th grade. If a kid knew they were going to MATC, they might want to spend all of 9th grade focussing on figuring out what they are naturally good at. Failure wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, especially if it taught a valuable lesson on how to work through adversity and showed the child a pathway toward success. By the time they got to their senior year, we would want to stakes to be just as high as their freshman year of college. That would let them have a dry run of challenges they were going to face once they got to college. This might include an internship or a series of job shadows that were scored by the professionals they were shadowing. It might also include a long term senior project as well as the completion of some type of digital portfolio they could add to once they got to college.

Every student would qualify for MATC Promise – That’s a blanket statement that wouldn’t actually work in reality. There are going to be some that won’t qualify. But, the prospects of entering high school knowing that you are going to have at least one year of school paid for, and that your high school course work is going to be tailored to make sure you stay within the qualifications of the program would provide extrinsic motivation for students to buy in to the high school program they are participating in.

Stronger focus on skill acquisition – When I think about the types of work students would do after finishing school at MATC, much of that work is based on a set of specific skills. A student in the dental hygienistry program learns how to clean teeth. A student in the mechanics program learns how to fix cars. There are a hundred smaller skills that go in to each of those, but that’s the outcome. You attend, you learn, you graduate, and now you have a marketable skill. I taught Math for a long time. There are about 40 skills you need to learn to pass Geometry. I wonder how many students think about it in those terms. I also wonder what a class in skill acquisition would look like. It actually reminds me a lot of what we are doing with passion projects or pbl in general. The stance of it doesn’t matter what you learn, you just need to be learning something or doing something productive is pretty freeing for kids. It also mimics the process of learning a complex skill that you can use to go out and make a living for yourself.

Soft skills tailored to personality/career choice – This might be controversial and I wouldn’t necessarily know how to do this, but if we were designing a school where we knew everyone was going to MATC, we would probably have some more serious conversations about soft skill, particularly around where a student is lacking. We also probably would care less about certain skills depending on the major the kid was going to attempt to earn. There would be differentiation between a student that wanted to be a plumber and a student that wanted to get an associates in business. There would also be differentiation between the student that wanted to be a plumber and the student that wanted to run their own plumbing business.

I’m not sure if we would ever actually dedicate an entire school to one specific track (4 year university, tech school, or career/military) but if we did we would need to measure success in a way that is more in line with the realities the student would face once their time with us is over. These 8 things would be a start of what we would need to think through and could help guide some conversations within the design process.