Hitting Targets, but Missing the Point? Take Stock & Make Adjustments...but Don't Delay!

In his 2016 NYT editorial How Measurement Fails Doctors and Teachers, Robert M. Wachter describes how medicine and education (“our most human and sacred fields”) have taken measurement and data-based decision making too far too fast. Measuring health and learning, it turns out, is far more complex than calculating quarterly profits. “The focus on numbers has gone too far,” Wachter argues. “We’re hitting the targets, but missing the point.”

What an apt description of many Vermont schools in the Age of Act 77 & Education Quality Standards (EQS), which require that all high school seniors, starting next school year, graduate from a proficiency-based school system, using their Personalized Learning Plans (PLP) to meet proficiencies set by their local school system. Next year’s deadline has many Vermont educators, especially in our high schools, scrambling to comply with these connected mandates. Proficiency-Based Graduation Requirements? Check. PLP for all? Check. New grading system? Check.

Targets hit, but are we missing the point?

Many schools are missing the point. They are complying with the letter, but not engaging with the spirit, of Act 77 and EQS. And this should shock no one, given the scope of the ask--a paradigm shift, for sure, not a mere tweaking of the system--and the fire-hose of initiatives that preceded and accompanied the arrival of Act 77 and EQS. Worn out and whiplashed, some Vermont educators have developed the very habits their students exhibit when asked to do too much too fast with too little support, resorting to retreatism and compliance. And as next year’s deadline nears, some are engaging in rebellion.

But not all Vermont educators and schools are missing the point. There are plenty of bright spots out there, educators and school systems that understand that Act 77 and EQS are Vermont’s antidote to the dis-ease that’s spread through our nation’s schools, infected by standardized tests and a race to the top that’s divided, rather than amplified, our efforts. These clear-eyed and inspired educators experience Act 77 & EQS as long-overdue relief that puts the reins back in their hands. They’ve stopped the wholesale adoption of nationally published standards; instead, they’re identifying and prioritizing with their colleagues the type and number of proficiencies that all students will meet locally.

And even more exciting, they’re involving students in the process, learning with them where things are working and what needs work. How many proficiencies are too many to do well? What type of proficiencies tend to bring out the best in learners? And what kinds of instruction and experiences do students need in order to meet and exceed these expectations?

And most promising of all, educators and schools are networking with each other in new and deeper ways, something that would not be happening without the momentum and focus of Act 77 & EQS. You might disagree with the direction Vermont’s schools are headed, but there’s no denying the brightness of our north star. And thanks to our thriving local professional community--nourished by our AOE, the Great Schools Partnership, our Educational Service Agencies (E.S.A.), and a wide range of local and national providers of professional development--Vermont possesses the expertise and resources we need to recapture our agency to make continual progress toward our mission of excellence and equity for all.

This doesn’t change the fact, unfortunately, that many Vermont educators are weary, which makes it hard for them to believe that Act 77 and EQS, rather than being two more piles on their already overloaded plates, are opportunities to create a new plate. Exhausted and even a little irritable, they’ve had it. “Whatever. Just tell us what to do.” Right when we most need all of our educators’ deepest engagement and creativity, too many of their tanks are empty.

What to do?

Well just about the worst message we could send right now is, “Hey, this is getting really hard, so let’s delay.” We, and our communities, deserve better.

A much better message would come in three parts.

1. We hear you. Yes, this is hard, and yes we are expecting a lot. You and your students are worth it.
2. You’re not alone. Will you show and explain what you’ve done so far, and share your current sense of what’s working and what needs work? 
3. We can figure this out. Will you propose your most sensible next steps and pose your most pressing questions? How might we / others help?

In other words, we should stick to our north star and make it possible for all Vermont educators and students to head that direction, regardless of the different paths and paces they might need to take. If we do this, we’ll be modeling the spirit of Act 77 and EQS and the mission of our public schools: excellence & equity for all.

I started this post with Wachter’s NYT editorial How Measurement Fails Doctors and Teachers because he takes such elegant aim at the false dichotomy far too many of us still fall for, one that pits measurement (proficiencies) against relevance (personalization).

Rather than delaying the use of metrics to improve medicine and education, Wachter urges doctors and teachers to proceed more cautiously and in partnership with their patients and students. “Measurement cannot go away,” he argues, “but it needs to be scaled back and allowed to mature. We need more targeted measures, ones that have been vetted to ensure that they really matter.” This is what teachers and students who are fully engaged with Act 77 and EQS are doing, determining locally and together the number and kinds of proficiencies that will matter most.

Second, Wachter quotes Avedis Donabedian, “a towering figure in the field of quality measurement” and “hard-nosed scientist” who, before his death in 2000, declared, “The secret of quality is love.” This is what teachers and students who are fully engaged with Act 77 and EQS are also doing, determining locally and together the most meaningful ways for learners to engage deeply with what matters most.

We are still new to the powerful & paradigm-shifting practice of making performance the coin of the realm, regardless of when or where learning occurs. Thanks to Vermont’s Legislature and State School Board, we’re on the right road to increasing excellence and equity, but we need a lot more practice and feedback to determine what next turns to take. This complex and at times threatening-feeling process exposes vulnerabilities in teachers and students. They must be handled with care, if they’re going to engage fully in the process of actualizing the promise of Act 77 & EQS.

And let’s not confuse delaying with caring. Delaying will undermine hard-won momentum, while wrongly suggesting that schools on the move, but a little off pace, will somehow be punished. That’s not true. The only teachers and schools rightfully worried are those willfully disregarding our common charge.

So onward, I say, from wherever you are, committed to the cause, and with the wisdom of William Hutchison Murray at our backs.

"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance…”

Below I’ve included a list of organizations that have been helping Vermont educators make their way during these exciting times. By no means is this exhaustive! (Please share your favorites in the comment section below or on twitter: #nodelay @rhlearning.) And here’s a single-page instructional sequence for anyone interested in inviting your learners--be they students, teachers, parents, or community members--to help you take stock & make the kind of mid-course adjustments likely to improve learning.

Helpful Organizations
Vermont AOE Proficiency-Based Learning
Vermont AOE Personalized Learning
Great Schools Partnership
Tarrant Institute for Innovation in Education (TIIE) & Blog
Middle Grades Collaborative
PLP Pathways
Standards-Based Learning and Grading Facebook Page

Bill Rich
Red House Learning, LLC


  1. Bill, thanks for a gentle exhortation that is compassionate, thoughtful, and hopeful. I find myself needing reminders as to why we embarked on this journey in the first place, and it's my particular job in our middle-high school to attend to this process. At my best, I remember that the point is to let students become the drivers of their own education.

    But that's so hard for us! I've come to think of the personalization side of Act 77, with individualized pathways, as its relatively neglected side. Is it an educator thing? One side of the law invites us to make new boxes (proficiencies), and the other asks us to open ourselves to what's beyond the box (flexible pathways). Aren't we a profession more at ease with box-making than with box-breaking? In each school are one or two or a hand full of teachers doing personalized learning (Winooski iLab, CVU Nexus) or community-engaged learning (Winooski's Culture & Community Capstone, CVU's Think Tank). But no teacher escapes proficiency-based grading. One still feels like the exception; the other's the rule.

    So, how do we create some balance? It feels like when a box-maker and a box-breaker disagree, the benefit of the doubt goes - at least in the aggregate within our profession, if not with some of the outstanding leaders you and I know best - to the box-makers. The boxes we gravitate toward crafting are an insurance policy against angry parents, skeptical colleagues, fearful students. And anyhow, though I'm framing it as the [false] dichotomy it often feels like, when proficiencies are made well, including kids' points of view, what we make are not so much boxes as bumpers (think kids bowling). That is, of course, a worthy challenge!

    Finally, thanks for the quotation about how commitment can move heaven and earth. I'd lost track of the exact words since I first read them more than a decade (or nearly two) ago, but the spirit has often motivated me. Glad to reconnect the dim spark in my memory with the abiding flame. Cheers!


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