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An poster in a classroom showing a basic network topology diagram with labeled components for student learning.

Measuring School Performance: Looking Beyond Standardized Testing and Scores

Doctoral student ‘s research supports popular educational ecosystem framework as a way to understand and address school reform.

A University of Northern Colorado study is reexamining Elliot Eisner's framework for school improvement. The late Stanford professor, who worked in school curriculum and qualitative research, advocated viewing education as an ecosystem of mutual dependence. Sarah Campbell, a student in UNC's Educational Studies Ed.D. program, is undertaking the study with Professor Christy McConnell in the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences' School of Teacher Education.

Sarah Campbell looking forward and smiling.
Sarah Campbell

"Dr. McConnell and I have been trying to bring back into popular thinking the idea that instead of just looking at testing or test scores, we should be looking at the whole ecology. I love the metaphor from science — different parts of the ecology work together, depend on each other and influence each other," Campbell said.

Through focus groups and interviews, Campbell and McConnell are learning how nine U.S.-based researchers apply Eisner's ecology framework to their work. A paper about the study will be presented at the American Educational Research Association's annual meeting in April and subsequently submitted for publication.

After 17 years in the classroom, Campbell yearned to make a larger impact, bringing her to UNC. In the Educational Studies program, her cohort meets in person in Loveland for a week each summer. Otherwise, it connects online, enabling the Denver South High School English teacher to continue working.

She said Denver high schools are rated on the number of students who take the standardized college entrance exam, the SAT, or the practice version, the PSAT. Campbell said that metric is ineffective and doesn't help schools improve, largely because it misses so many other aspects of education.

"The way a teacher teaches is dependent on whether they have a classroom that is big enough, a school that has good support from leaders and curriculum that is meaningful. All the pieces are connected. The Eisner method could offer understanding of what's happening in schools and lead to changes that would benefit teachers and students," Campbell said.

As McConnell's graduate assistant, Campbell found her ideas were welcome when the two previously edited a book chapter, titled “Eisner’s School Ecology,” to be published in The Handbook of Educational Theories. And they continue to be positively received as the duo work together on the Eisner study.

"Dr. McConnell wanted me to collaborate with her, and I felt so honored she saw that capability in me. Eisner, too, was about building community, seeing through the lens of the arts and how we are all interconnected. The philosophy itself is so much about people connecting with each other," she said.

Last year, Campbell's paper, “How ‘Stayer’ Teachers are Impacted by Administrators: A Case Study,” was published in Curriculum & Teaching Dialogue, and she gave a related presentation at UNC's Fall 2022 Graduate Research Symposium. Many of her academic works are published in professional journals. Additionally, she's a creative writer with numerous publications, including a book of essays on Front Range mountains and lakes named for women coming out this Fall.

Similar to how her writing straddles genres, McConnell said Campbell bridges the theory and practice gap, taking concepts that could improve schooling and teachers' conditions and figuring out how to apply them in classrooms.

"Sarah sees connections and grasps a range of ideas quickly and easily and synthesizes them in a creative and unique way. For example, in the Perspectives of Curriculum class she was able to see, not just the big concepts from curriculum theorists, but also how to take these ideas and use them to help the conditions of teachers or what students are learning or how we're doing evaluations," McConnell said.

McConnell is hopeful their study will help those interested in school reform understand the complexity of schools. She noted that a change in one area, such as assessments, necessitates changes in other areas, like curriculum, pedagogy, intentions and structures. McConnell believes Campbell's work can expand Eisner's reach and further the framework's use as a communication tool between theory and practice.

"Sarah can write both analytically and creatively and allow those voices to feed each other. She intentionally weaves together her beautiful literary writing style with deeply intellectual and analytical concepts related to education. That will put her in a position to be heard in the academic field," she said.

After she graduates from UNC in May 2025, Campbell plans to keep teaching and contributing research to the field.

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