Diminishing Returns

A recent article from the FFT Education Datalab examined the effects of school quality on students’ long-term outcomes. The study compared students from lower- and higher-performing schools over the span of fourteen years and concluded that while measures of school quality were somewhat associated with measures of students’ long-term outcomes, the association diminished over time. In other words, school quality had a decreasing effect on individuals’ outcomes as they progressed through their lives.

The notion of the diminishing returns of a quality education raises interesting questions about schools and school systems, and about how we measure their success – and our own. To begin to answer them, it helps to think about why we educate in the first place.

Getting a Good Education

What does it mean to get a good education? The underlying value of going to school or getting an education has always come down to one thing: preparedness. The concept is seemingly omnipresent across schools and school systems, whose mission or purpose statements often speak to the importance of preparing each student to succeed in “college, career, and life.” We’re sold on the idea of preparedness as an inherent outcome of education, and we’re sold on the cause of its variability – the better the school, the better the preparation.

When we see something that tells us the impact of school quality decreases over time, we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that school quality doesn’t matter. Of course school quality matters. If education has any reason at all for existence, there’s reason to want the highest quality education. Instead of calling into question if school quality matters, we have to call into question what school quality means. The answer is always in the outcomes.

Income vs. Outcomes

A question that may have been on your mind with regard to the FFT study is a question of unrivaled importance in schools: How is success being determined? The indicators of student success incorporated in the study to determine the effects of school quality over time included (1) students’ performance on standardized exams at two different points in time, (2) students’ pursuit and attainment of a college-level degree, and (3) employment and earnings data. These indicators assume a “link of preparedness”: If students can succeed on standardized exams they’ll be prepared to succeed in college and career. That assumption has driven school systems for decades. But, rather than undermining the importance of school quality, the data speaks instead to a broken link – being able to succeed on standardized tests does not prepare students to succeed after school.

That conclusion isn’t drawn from the results of one study; it’s drawn from years of practical and worldly experience and of research directed at solving a question: What does it truly take to succeed? The reality is that success on standardized tests, pursuit and attainment of a college degree, employment, and even income alone aren’t enough to tell us whether an individual is succeeding at any one point in time. Success is much more than those things – it’s the meaning and fulfillment that comes from understanding who we are, from being knowledgeable and competent, and from feeling connected and contributing to the lives of others and the world. It’s a function of all those outcomes – self-understanding, knowledge, competency, and connection – and unless we help our students develop each one we won’t be preparing them to succeed in the world.

The Quality Question

Changing the definition of student success requires a similar change to our definition of quality. When student success is test success, quality schools have high standardized test scores. When student success is human success, quality takes on a new meaning entirely – and, in turn, it becomes a real predictor of lifelong success.

Quality has to be measurable. Whether arrived at by way of standardized data or inspections carried out by external parties, there has to be a valid and consistent basis for determining levels of quality. The most important underlying indicator will always be students’ outcomes. So how can we determine school quality when the student outcomes we care about shift from test scores to self-understanding, knowledge, competency, and connection? In short, we measure those outcomes. Schools can measure students’ deeper learning outcomes, and they can measure their own progress in bringing deeper learning to life (see Measuring Human Return: Understand and Assess What Really Matters for Deeper Learning). Together, self-understanding, knowledge, competency, and connection lead to human return – the contributions we make to humanity and the world and that give us a true sense of meaning and fulfillment. There’s a new measure of quality for schools, which can help put an end to diminishing returns with a purposeful focus on human return.

When schools become places of deeper learning and contribution, they’re transformed into places that truly prepare their students to succeed after school. But it’s more than just that – rather than simply preparing their students to succeed once they’re out in the world, schools support students through their everyday experiences to use what they learn to make a difference in the world.