Final CUOS K–12 Education Outreach Program Report, March 2002

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II. What We Do and Have Learned, part 4

A. Themes, part 4

8. We take accountability seriously but define it differently than others may.

As noted above, we attach great importance to our responsibilities to one another within our partnerships. Both our conviction of the importance of our work and the strength of our relationships impel us to justify the faith placed in us. That is why, with little supervision and few formal requirements regarding oversight, we all work more hours than we are paid for and make certain our responsibilities are covered by someone else if we cannot meet expectations alone. We believe that we are extremely accountable to everyone with a stake in our work, but we consciously buck the trend that equates “accountability” with numbers alone.

    We do document in a traditional, numerical way some aspects of our programming. We track numbers of volunteers and child or teen participants and numbers of times they meet. We track trends, such as the tendency to have fewer or smaller groups that meet more often over a longer period of time. We collect copious affective data: feedback on attitude changes and moments of enlightenment. We trace interconnections among people and programs that indicate a luxuriant growth of learning community.

    We do not set such “benchmarks” for measuring success as

  • x number of students raised their grades by y decimal points
  • x number of middle school students took algebra
  • x number number of students increased their attendance by y%
  • students who had participated in our science clubs had science MEAP scores y% higher than classmates who did not
  • x number of participants went on to successfully major in SMET fields in college

Why not? There are at least three answers.

(1) We do not have legitimate access to most of this data, which is protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. School districts do have access to some of this data, and can certainly collect and disseminate it (within prescribed limits), if they choose to do so. For an earlier incarnation of our coalition based in Ypsilanti, the public schools did collect data on participants in a church-based Opportunity Center, which showed noticeably improved grades and attendance, as well as decreased discipline referrals.

(2) We are reluctant to appear to be taking “credit” when there are so many other inputs that may be responsible for the results. Children and their lives are much too complex to allow for a post hoc, propter hoc kind of conclusion about their achievements. Asserting that our programming is responsible for any good outcomes would undermine trusting relationships with our partners. Our school partners have shared repeatedly that they appreciate the variety of interactions and people, over a continuing span of time, that we bring to them.

(3) Although we would love to follow both our mentors and our mentees in a longitudinal study, much like that used for Head Start, to see the long-term impact on their lives, we have nothing approaching the resources that would require. We also lack the expertise and resources to do a more modest but valid study of the important—but not readily quantifiable—effects of our programs on both the served and servant populations. By this, we mean the changes in attitude toward science and math, in perception about who can do well in these subjects, in sense of civic responsibility, in feeling of power over one’s life decisions, and in knowledge and perspective to make such decisions wisely. (Anyone reading this who is able and interested in conducting such research will have our full cooperation!)

Owen School Wizards measuring
amplitude in The Wave Field at UM

Finally, however, we must admit that we are wary of a model of accountability that pretends that the things that are easily quantifiable are the achievements, rather than some rudimentary indicators of possible progress. If you believe, as we have previously noted that we do, that real learning should be demonstrated by performance—that is, by applying one’s new knowledge—then you will be suspicious of achievement tests that are not performance based. There are good tests out there (the Michigan Literacy Progress Profile is an outstanding example, and we eagerly await the math counterpart still in development), but more often than not their results cannot be reduced to a handy numerical chart. As the old adage about “lies, damn lies, and statistics” implies, some numbers are neither objective nor valid. In then–UM Provost Nancy Cantor’s May 2001 words, “Public bodies, including boards and legislatures, ask for performance indicators, and sometimes base funding on things whose principal virtue is that they are easily measured.” As Albert Einstein put it, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

    Let us try to illustrate what we mean with an example. In the summer of 2001, for the second time, we engaged in trying to teach algebra to a small group of 13–14-year-olds who were self-selected by a fear of math failure. Three weeks into the program, we had yet to do anything that could charitably be called “algebra.” We worked on integers, place value, borrowing when subtracting, and other such basic math skills. By the end of the summer, we had been unable to get to as much algebra as planned—but does that mean that we failed? Are these teens worse or better off for the experience? An example of the vital yet non-quantifiable results of this program is a new realization of their need to take charge of their own lives, to think of where they want to go and how to get there, to realize that no one can make their lives a success for them.

    I’m seeing that I have to think about self-motivation, too. Sometimes in school I just don’t pay attention, or I’m tired, or I’m thinking about something else and I kind of don’t care. Like I’ll know what to do, the assignment, but I don’t do it. Or I do some of it. Or I don’t get it turned in. My [summer algebra] teachers are making me see that this is up to me: like, the teacher isn’t going to check on me or tell me to do it or get it in. I think I have to be self-motivated.  
- Summer algebra student

In terms of its effect on their future academic success and their overall lives, all of us are willing to bet that this awareness will have more impact than any math they learned this summer. But would it show up on an achievement test?

Science Activities by Community

  No. of
No. of
Total No.
of Kids
Ann Arbor 47   342   3,964  
Pontiac 8   131   759  
Ypsilanti 36   220   3,174  
Other 4   14   448  
Total: 95   707   8,345  
Note: counts each child for each session

    We consider ourselves educators; as such, we are compelled to put the needs of children and our UM students first, before any other considerations. We rank their growth in autonomy and purposefulness as much more important—to their lives and to society—than their achievement test scores or their choice of profession.

    We cannot serve the needs of society by ignoring or riding roughshod over those of its citizens. Some of our most touching and disconcerting personal testimony has come from university women studying engineering who feel that they were “pipelined” into the field without regard for their personal welfare. Black women have actually used the term “slavery” to describe the process of career “guidance” through which minorities have been pushed into fields where they are underrepresented in order to serve the priorities—however well-intentioned—of others. They feel hurt, bitter, outraged, depersonalized, used, betrayed. How and why did this happen? Well-meaning people lost sight of their true goals in trying to diversify our campuses and work places; they prescribed “opportunities” for young people without consulting them. This is why, although we promote career exploration to provide the motivation to do well academically, we insist upon that exploration being child- or teen-centered. Our only legitimate, non-exploitative mission in this realm can be to help young people discover what they want to and are suited to become—not to “feed fields that need bodies,” in the evocative phrase of one “pipelined” black woman engineer.

    Our notion of accountability is that we owe it to those we work with and for to respect them, their time, their ideas and opinions, and the resources they contribute to our joint efforts. This means that we owe them all a voice in what we do and how, and an accounting of what we have done with their contributions. The reasons that we operate as a learning community in the first place are that we are stronger and more versatile together than separately; that we all have something of value to contribute; and that we are all both givers and takers, teachers and learners. So, to borrow William Spady’s phrase, it is “politically wise, strategically smart, morally sound, and operationally critical” to extensively involve our stakeholders. Those who join us as stakeholders support us because they are “us”—they share in our vision and in ownership of our common endeavor. This would not be true if they were treated as peripheral to our activities or as unqualified to voice opinions on them.

    Because of this “group administration,” our programs evolve every year. They are refined to reflect things we’ve learned, but also to follow the passions of participants—who also change regularly. Because we do not set “criteria for success” that we know ahead of time we can easily meet, our results are often quite different from what we had originally expected. But, we can comfortably say that we have never failed.

    Everything we have done has had value, and often that value was something unexpected. For example, we began to recruit UM undergraduate volunteers when it became difficult to obtain enough faculty, staff, and graduate student volunteers. What a serendipitous “failure” that was! Without it, we would never have discovered what a life-changing experience this participation can be for undergraduate students.

    If we had not been unable to accomplish as much as we had hoped without requiring a long-term commitment from volunteers, we would never have discovered how important “coming back” is to reaching real effectiveness for both mentor and mentee. Yet, if we had been ruled by a rigid “evaluation plan” established before we began, these ground-breaking successes could have been seen as failures.

What a genuine and catastrophic failure that would have been!


B. Voices, part 4

Something really sunk in: my gosh, I’m not living up to my word. And somebody needs me.

- Science club mentor

I used to think I believed in some things. Now I know I believe in some things and, more, I am doing something about them. I’ve done some service now and then, a little here and there, a project now and then. This has been so different for me. Every week, and I’ve been doing it all year. I even did my winter schedule so I could stay with my kids. Do you know what I mean? I believe in some things. I really do. I like that. I struggled to. At first, if anything came up, I was ready to say, hey, I can’t go out this week. I really hated that about myself and it caught up with me. My coordinator left a phone message once: “We are counting on you. You knew this was every week when you signed up. We need you.” I replayed that message a few times. Something really sunk in: my gosh, I’m not living up to my word. And somebody needs me. This has been real. Real for me.

Why would this busy and successful woman meet every week with my daughter? Well, she just cared — no more and no less.

- Parent of a career mentee

My daughter came home with the mentor form to sign and right away I thought, what is with this? What do they want? Is this going to be some UM study or research thing? Then, later on, she started coming home and sharing things about what she is really good at and what kinds of jobs might be fun, or she talked on and on about her personality and learning style and how she was just okay with who she was. Then later she came home with this gift she got from her mentor, and I thought, what is up with that? Why did [the mentor] buy her this really personal gift? This is really sad, but it started to hit me that this program was just what it said it was — mentors for kids to help them learn more about themselves and what they could become. I kept thinking there was some hidden agenda or underlying motive for the whole thing. I mean, why would this busy and successful woman meet every week with my daughter? Well, she just cared — no more and no less. This has been a big lesson for me. Some of my daughter’s friends are sort of interested in my work. Now, I’m thinking I should take the time to talk to them about it and even take them to work with me. How are the kids going to know about work if we don’t tell them and show them? I think I thought that she should just find out at school or somehow, I don’t know. I spent plenty of years doing jobs I hated until I met someone who helped me see what else I could do that would be fun. Now what if I had had people coming and sharing and taking me places when I was a kid? I know my life would have been really different. I think we all think that somebody in school will lead our kids to the careers they should go into. Now think about that. That’s crazy. I guess the whole community needs to see this, we have to pull together and show our kids. This Kiwanis group, that is something, too. I thought: what is their agenda? Why are they doing this mentoring thing? I really didn’t know that groups were around like this. My daughter said they just serve — do community service things. That’s something.

I was too important to take the time.

- LS&A woman student

I was bitter, okay? My friend was doing this and she wanted me to do it. Then she climbed on me for not wanting to. I look back and think what a great friend she was, now that I am where I am. We have had so much fun doing Reach Out! together. We love our kids and talk about them all the time. What did we talk about before? Right. I guess I was bitter for all kinds of things — about who I was compared to who I told myself I was. Bitter that you guys made me commit to every week and all year. Bitter that she was doing this and that made me look bad and selfish and stuff. When my kids ran to see me every week, jumped on my back for a ride and had so much fun with our projects and stuff, I wore down. I changed. Now I get bitter that I didn’t do something like this before and I had the chance with my church at home and stuff. I just wouldn’t commit. Too busy. I was too important and had way too important things to do to take time to do this. I’m sorry about that, but at least now I know that this is important for me. For who I want to be. I listen to some other friends now and just can’t get over that that was me and my friend. My dad says I’m really maturing. Yeah, right. And I mean, yeah, right.

I had it in my head that you had to be one thing. That’s not true.

- Middle school career mentee

Doctor, lawyer, or teacher. Don’t laugh at me, that’s what I thought about when somebody said, “What do you want to be?” Career mentoring and going places really helped me out. Take a doctor: you can go into a million other things that are health-like or medical-like. Something like a PT or nurse, or give MRI’s and CAT scans, or work with hospice or have your own company that sends nurses out to help old people or people at home with really bad injuries. I didn’t think about that last year.

    It’s like we have lots of interests, or talents or things we might like to do, and we just might do many different jobs, you know? I had this thing in my head that you had to be one thing. That’s just not true. I liked Jerry and what he said last week about doing different things at different times of your life. I mean I never would have thought that he was a flight instructor, shuttled people in his plane like an air taxi, and then now works at St. Joe’s ER. I think this is neat and it isn’t something I had thought about.

I turned on myself. I couldn’t stand who I was.

- Engineering student

This will sound nuts to you but I turned on myself last semester. I couldn’t stand who I was. And why did this happen? Because of my kids and Amy [his coordinator]. Talk about a reality check. I wanted to be this nice and caring person but, okay, I wasn’t. I saw Amy being what I wanted to be. The kind of person I wanted to be. Then my kids. They brought out of me things I didn’t know about me. My girlfriend says I got more tender. Okay, that is part of it. And I like it. I’ve been in control of my life so far, you know? No one caught up with me long enough to make me think about who I really am. Reach Out! made me catch up with myself and ask some hard questions. I turned on myself, that’s what I say. And I took me down to who I was and stood up to what I want to be. I needed this program. I’m glad I hated to be a quitter, so I stuck with it long enough to look in the mirror. Good thing you make us commit to a semester. I won’t tell you how long it took me!

Camp group photo
Camp Discovery 2001 campers, counselors, coordinator, and Mike Conboy—helper extraordinaire!

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