On my Texas Forums blog, I have to be careful to be neutral and professional. I don’t plan to abandon ALL standards on this blog, but I DO think that it’s important for those of us working to promote civic engagement to have a place to ask questions and explore contradictions in a safe place. So, I’m still Taylor Willingham, but here I’m a private citizen struggling through issues and conundrums like anyone else. So here goes…

You may have read my earlier quagmire post (ain’t it grand to work that word in!). In my quest for stories, I have been interviewing people from the communities in Central Texas where we will be holding forums on the Achievement Gap. Today I spoke with the director of an after school program that serves a rural-fast-becoming-suburban community outside of Austin. Coming out of the literacy world where I was often confronted with questions like, “How many people did you teach to read last year?” (like it’s a light switch!) I had to ask her the “accountability” question, especially since she’s on the brink of losing her funding. What outcomes are her funders expecting?

Thankfully, the question of cost per child isn’t coming up, but like other components of our education system in Texas, she feels obligated to collect TAKS scores (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) and compare her after-school children’s scores to those “at risk” but not part of her service population. This is a difficult comparison given the transient nature of her population and those outcomes are especially important given the diminishing amounts of her “pilot” grant from Texas Education Association over the next several years. That grant provided three years of full funding and then 20% reductions for two years until it is discontinued.

I am not a stranger to these grant programs. I inherited such a program after ALL state funding was eliminated, but a last-minute legislative action set aside matching funds up to a 1-1 match (we never got more than a quarter to the dollar match from the state, but it helped!

But here’s the problem. Her outcomes cannot be measured within a three or even five year time frame any more than I could have ever told you “how many people learned to read” in a given year. Education – personal development for crying out loud! – does not work that way. What if you took piano lessons for three years and I asked you “can you play the piano?” What would you say? Sure we could determine your ability to play scales, identify notes and chords, hammer out a simple piece by sight reading and critique a piece you’d committed to memory. But are you a pianist? If you could not do these things, but you could improvise along with old recordings of Sam Moore, would you be a pianist whose talents should be cultivated?

What if you had never seen a piano, but now knew it well enough to make simple melodies? Wouldn’t that be an accomplishment?

Her potential outcomes are far more long term and amorphous. She told me,

Difference being made are in “harder to measure” areas, things we might not see for a long time – character, graduation rates, positive experiences in school that keep them in school, positive relationships, the ability to resolve conflict.

These seem like the very traits and behaviors that we expect from our citizens. But she can’t sleep at night worrying about sustaining her good work and her funding in a rural community with few resources.

But still her kids come every day at their parents urging until the TAKS test has been administered. Her kids do better than average on these tests and then they go away and return to their life as latch-key kids. They don’t dance or paint or receive after-school tutoring. The enrollment just drops because the parents, like the administrators and teachers, are so focused on TAKS that all else takes a back seat.

I worry that we’re raising a generation good at playing scales, but incapable of making music.