As part of my studies in the University of Dayton, I recently completed a wonderful book by Don Wheeler entitled Understanding Variation. The book is only 151 pages long, and is full of brilliant observations and theories. One of Wheeler’s points is that There are 3 Ways to meet a goal. 1. Improve the system. 2. Distort the system. 3. Distort the data. That is it. If you aspire to reach a higher target, those are your choices. Wheeler then proceeds to emphasize the importance of focusing on choice number one – improving the system. I was reminded of this point yesterday morning when I saw a television campaign that is currently being run by Dayton Public Schools. The campaign informs parents whose children attend Dayton Public Schools that an attendance “count week” is approaching soon, and that it is important to make sure children actually come to school that week.
Scott Elliot of The Dayton Daily News had this description of last year’s advertising campaign for count week in the November, 21st, 2005 edition of the paper.
The district is especially aggressive with advertising in advance of “count week,” the third week of October, during which the state uses attendance figures to determine enrollment. That enrollment figure is vital because the district receives state aid only for those students who attend during count week.
Here is the problem. Attendance is not measured daily, but on specific dates that are predetermined. Good attendance that week means a good score, although actual daily attendance the rest of the school year may be poor. A good score, which is likely to be a distortion of the system, means a better ranking. The resulting ranking, which is not likely to be accurate, yields more funding and a better public persona. In Dayton’s defense, more funding may actually help to solve some of the daunting issues facing Dayton Public Schools, and hence the motivation for the campaign. So based on the activity of one week, the school board can make the claim that it has improved the educational system, when in actuality it improved nothing but attendance on one specific week, which it needed paid advertising to achieve. To summarize this is a group of public officials, going on the public airwaves, using public funds, to advertise an attempt to distort the educational system looking for parents to buy into the plan. In 2005 Dayton Public Schools spent over $150,000 in television advertising. What if that $150,000 went to pay for college scholarships for graduates of the Dayton Public School System? What do you think that would do to attendance? Would it encourage students to come for more than just a week?
Instead of talking about the success they have made in improving the schools, they are asking for people to participate in a lie. Instead of selling the the lifetime value of education that comes from sending children to school every day, they are peddling a myth. Something about that just does not sit right with me. Let me be clear that I would love to see Dayton Public Schools score well. I firmly believe that strong schools benefit everyone, and as someone who works in Dayton, I help to pay for them too. However I think we should expect more from those charged with educating children than a public display of a distortion of the educational system. Time, money, and effort would be better spent on Wheeler’s choice number one – improving the system everyday.