Menus Subscribe Search

Soft Measures

• August 21, 2009 • 12:00 PM

You don’t always need a standardized test to know a school is in trouble. Just look in the boys’ john.

Whenever I evaluate a school, my first stop is the boys’ bathroom because, without an unflushed urinal of doubt, it is every school’s least common denominator. Its sticky floors, calcified wads of toilet paper and juvenile-yet-timeless graffiti (“Here I sit broken hearted…”) are generally not what a principal shows off. Then again, I once visited a school run by the Knowledge is Power Program — which focuses on preparing students in underserved communities for college — and found fresh cut flowers next to an automatic recycled-paper-towel dispenser. At another school, there were toilet targets. (Apparently, research shows that they increase accuracy by as much as 70 percent.)

My all-time favorite positive indicator, though, was a school that posted weekly “Stinky Animal Fun Facts” in the stalls and on the walls. For example, did you know that dung beetles, using polarized moonlight for navigation, roll up balls of No. 2 to use as nurseries for their babies? This school’s educators saw even the potty break as a teachable moment.

In today’s data-driven world of No Child Left Behind and high-stakes accountability, administrators and lawmakers tend to obsess over hard measures. Adequate Yearly Progress determinations and School Performance Scores are based on precise formulas — formulas made up of clean, cold and supposedly foolproof numbers. In this highly calculable place, soft measures are rarely factored in. Nonetheless, after my “inspection” discovers the good, the bad and the ugly of the boys’ john, I usually have a good sense (or scent) of how a school is doing. Though I wouldn’t necessarily hold the bathroom test up against SAT scores as a measure of school success, I do consider it a telltale sign of either problems or promise.

Here are a few more “soft” indicators that a school might be in trouble:

• The faculty parking lot fills just minutes before class and empties immediately after the final bell.

• The entrance is distractingly disheveled. Plants are dead or dying, the marquee is missing letters, cigarette butts speckle the lawn.

• Classroom windows and/or the vertical slits on school doors are covered over with dark construction paper. Trust me, it’s seldom for purely decorative purposes.

• Children clutch long pencils with ground-down erasers. If this is the case, chances are students are more concerned about making mistakes than taking chances.

• When you ask students, “What are you learning?” they respond, “Chapter Eight.” And then, when you ask, “Why are you studying Chapter Eight?” they say, “Because our teacher said so.”

• Students continually ask, “Will this be on the test?” (The unstated premise: “If not, we’ll just ignore it.”)

• Civics teachers don’t keep up on current events. Science teachers aren’t excited about the latest scientific breakthrough. English teachers don’t read for pleasure. Physical education teachers are overweight and/or smoke.

• Adults frequently YELL belittling language. Or: Like a restaurant with bad acoustics, the school’s overall sound quality —whether too loud or too quiet — is just downright unpalatable.

• Administrators are unwilling to let credentialed visitors roam. Instead, they insist on “giving a tour” of the usual, safe suspects.

• Teachers read newspapers and take cell phone calls during professional development events.

• Teachers play solitaire on their computers during planning periods (or class). Or: the Web sites most visited by teachers include eBay, ESPN and Monster.com.

• Teachers and staff talk more about their latest degree or certification program than what they are doing with the kids.

• Administrators speak solely in the future tense (“We are planning to…”) and dwell on process rather than outcomes.

• Classroom maps still show the Soviet Union, Rhodesia and British Honduras. Computers are shrouded in a patina of dust. Bulletin boards haven’t been updated since the Eisenhower administration.

• There are more athletic trophies on display than academic accolades or exemplary student work.

• In the course of a single day, you hear reams and reams of unsubstantiated jargon and excuses — lots and lots of excuses!

All of these indicators are potentially fallible. No single one warrants CSI-like scrutiny of a school. I rely almost exclusively on hard evidence when evaluating a school. Still, soft measures can and often do matter. As David Whitman notes in his 2008 book, Sweating the Small Stuff, for troubled schools to improve, they need more than just better curricula and teachers. They need to teach kids how to behave in the learning environment — and even the bathrooms that are part of it.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Folwell Dunbar
Folwell Dunbar is Louisiana's academic adviser for charter schools. His work has appeared in Teacher Magazine, Independent School, Technology & Learning, Our Children, Middle Ground and other education publications. A graduate of Duke and Tulane universities and a former Peace Corps volunteer, Dunbar has worked with low-performing, underserved schools throughout the country. He can be reached at fldunbar@cox.net.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.


September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.



September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.


September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.


September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.


September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.


September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.


September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.



September 16 • 7:23 AM

Does Not Checking Your Buddy’s Facebook Updates Make You a Bad Friend?

An etiquette expert, a social scientist, and an old pal of mine ponder the ever-shifting rules of friendship.



September 16 • 6:12 AM

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn’t have any extra emotional impact.


September 16 • 6:00 AM

What Color Is Your Pygmy Goat?

The fierce battle over genetic purity, writ small. Very small.



Follow us


How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.