Many in our culture want to provide an excellent education for our students. Most parents want this. We spend an egregious amount of money and untold amounts of effort aiming at this goal. Sadly, more and more data shows that we are increasingly failing to provide it. What's up? Here are my critiques of common measures of educational excellence:
First, we do a bad job of measuring excellence because we are incessantly looking at the wrong measures. We, and by we I mean students, parents, school administrators, and our culture, tend to measure excellence by SAT scores, grade point averages (GPAs), and college acceptances. On the first day of my Omnibus class this year my challenge to my students was this: you can study like sons and daughters or like slaves....choose to study like sons and daughters! Slaves work for pay or reward. In the academic world, the main slavery is to grades, honors, and getting a particular school to say "yes" to you. I see students wrap so much of their identity around these idols. I see so much grief when the goals are not reached. Sons and daughters work because of love. Their identity is settled in deeper things than grades or honors. Again, the problem is not the grades, the scores, or the college acceptances. The problem is the idolatry.
I do need to make one qualification at this point. There are times when schools (even my school) need to talk about SAT scores and college acceptances. We have run ads that do this and will continue to run those ads in the future. The reason we run the ads is because we want people to know that Christian schools can prepare students for very competitive environments. The sad part is that ads don't tell the whole story. Ads help us refute misconceptions, but they don't show you true excellence!
Second, the right measures of educational excellence are transferable skills rather than facts and data. Today, we confuse the amount of data known by a student with an excellent education. This fact came home to me when I was being interviewed by one of our international students. He quizzed me about classical education. This very bright student talked about his own education which ended up being, even in high school, just more and more memorization. I asked him which way was better. He answered, "This is much better because you have to think!" Our society clings to the myth that we can create some sort of system that provides vocational training or memory work that ends in educated students. This cannot happen. Classical education aims at learning facts (particularly in grammar school). From this, however, it moves on to a focus on critical thinking and on effective and persuasive communication. These are skills needed for any job. These are the skills that are necessary for full participation in a free society--a society where the people rule themselves. They are the skills of sons and daughters.
Finally, the love of learning is the most telling hallmark of an excellent education and it can best be measured when school is NOT in session. An excellent education makes a student hunger for more learning. It gives them the confidence and skill to learn on their own. This hunger can not be measured by standardized tests. It is hard to measure while school is in session. They say that character is what you do when no one is watching. In the same way, the love of learning is what you learn when no grades are being given. I see this when I find students studying Calculus for fun in the summer. I see this when students ask for books to read over vacation or on Christmas Break. (I give my class my favorite books from my home library for Christmas reading!) All of these examples come from last year's senior class pictured above. I want students, by the time they leave Veritas, to be glad school is over so that they can have time to learn what they want to learn.
Were our culture to curtail the quest for scores, acceptances, and grades and begin to measure excellence by thinking ability, communication ability, and love of learning, we would do a much better job of preparing our sons and daughters for their future.