Friday, March 10, 2006

Ends vs. Means: the big question

Yesterday I went to a lunch attended by a large group of women, most of whom are JIS parents. As often happens, the conversation turned to the school, and inevitably, people began to describe their children's stories -- the good, the bad, and the ugly. As I listened, it became clear that although these stories focused on very specific situations, they also highlighted bigger issues that confront every school: educational standards, professional development and evaluation, student assessment....

The difference between big-picture issues (which the Carver governance model calls "ends issues") and specific family situations (which often raise what the Carver model calls ""means issues") is important, because each demands its own forum for discussion and expectations of resolution. As John Carver explains, the ends/means distinction allows school boards

"to govern the system, rather than run it; to define and demand educational results rather than poke and probe in educational and administrative processes; to redirect time from trivia and ritual actions to strategic leadership; to give a superintendent one boss rather than several; to grant administrators and educators great latitude within explicit boundaries; to be in charge of board agendas instead of dependent on staff; and to guarantee unbroken accountability from classroom to taxpayer."

Put simply, ends issues define ""what services are provided, to whom, and at what cost," while means issues look at how the services are delivered -- the day-to-day business of the school. Once that's clear, parents can figure out where to take their issues -- principals, PAFs, or the school council.

But the distinction between means and ends often isn't so clear. Consider standards. On one level, standards are very big picture, because they answer the question, "What do we want our children to be able to do when they leave JIS?" The answers to this question (eg. "be able to handle personal finances" or "be able to write a powerful issues brief" or "organize a budget for an existing business") are "big-picture" standards". They reflect what we want kids to be able to do at a specific point in time -- graduation. These are ENDS issues -- after all, they are the explanation of why the school's purpose, it's mission.

That being said, it's more common to look at standards as means issues. For example, if the big-picture standard is "students must be able to handle personal finances," then the administration has to figure out how to reach that END. That's the curriculum (for example, "we'll have to be sure that students understand math in real-world settings. In eleventh grade, that means students should know how to _____, and in tenth they'll have to be able to ______," and so on). These smaller steps that a student must take along the path to achieving the desired end result are also called standards. But clearly, these are curricular issues that should be considered MEANS issues.

An easy way to think about it is like this: "Big-picture standards" are ends that you want to achieve. Means-related standards are the baby-steps required along the way to reach the big goal. In the United States, most schools still operate by focusing mainly on the little steps, and if you look at the state-mandated standards (many established after the "No Child Left Behind" Act so that states could measure compliance), you'll see that those standards are very specific (e.g. "student will be able to calculate multiplication tables from a factor of 1 to 12"). Those types of standards are means. But that narrow view of standards is changing to embrace the larger definition.

The difference is important -- most parents think about standards in terms of their particular child ("is Johnny learning fractions when he should?"), which are means questions. But as a community, schools need to think also about standards in the big picture ("what do I want Johnny to be like when he graduates? What kind of person should he be? What kind of things should he be able to do?"). Those are the questions that should drive EVERYTHING at a school. It puts the headlamps on the student by forcing the school to say, "If we want our students to end up at X when they leave, how do we get them there?"

So how do we (meaning all members of the JIS community) have the discussion about ends issues? How do we know what the ends issues are? How do we separate ends from means? Any thoughts?


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