What “Dancing with the Stars” Teaches Us About Balancing Growth and Proficiency

What “Dancing with the Stars” Teaches Us About Balancing Growth and Proficiency - TLG-IMG-11012018

What do Olympic Gold Medalist Mary Lou Retton, NFL legend DeMarcus Ware, radio personality Bobby Bones and grocery store manager Joe Amabile have in common? They are some of the “stars” that take to the dance floor every Monday night on ABC’s hit show, Dancing with the Stars (DWTS).

A few of these names may be recognizable – and others, not so much. However, they are all considered “stars,” regardless of their level of public recognition or the experiences they bring into the competition. Some bring obvious advantages, like their athleticism. Others are starting out with little to no related experience or exposure to the dancing profession. Yet when they begin to two-step around the shiny dance floor in Los Angeles, they are each a star.

Taking a little down time after a busy day at NWEA, I turned on DWTS and realized that the stars are not unlike students in our nation’s K-12 school system – they enter with varying degrees of opportunity and diverse strengths, but all are seeking to master the content they are taught.

Sitting closely on the sidelines watching every sashay and spin, the DWTS judges get ready to assess and provide feedback to each of the competitors, one by one. They assess each star on how proficient they are in performing their assigned dance. Did they meet the professional standards necessary to accomplish the quickstep, the foxtrot, the jive?

The scores tend to come out as one would expect: the Olympian (46/60) and athlete (47/60) were more proficient right out of the gate than the radio personality (39/60) or grocery store manager (35/60). If Bobby Bones and Joe Amabile were solely scored on their level of proficiency to do the quickstep or the foxtrot, one of them would have been instantly eliminated after week one. But neither was.

That’s because DWTS recognizes it is not solely about how proficient one is at dancing the quickstep or foxtrot in the first week. They recognize that it takes time (for some, more time than others) to become proficient in the dance, and that hitting “meets” or “exceeds” on the judge’s dancing rubric is not the only indicator that they should be using to assess these stars.

DWTS recognizes the importance of growth and other indicators of quality in their overall assessment of the stars. Because of this, the network provides an opportunity for the audience to vote each night, and how they vote plays a pivotal role in the results. It wasn’t always this way. In fact, in seasons 1 and 2, competitors were eliminated based on the overall ranking of the stars. Recognizing the flaws in this system, from season 3 to present, each week the judges’ scores and the audience votes are combined.

The DWTS judges rate how proficient each star is at a particular dance, and the addition of the audience input brings another important perspective on the performance. Why weren’t Bobby Bones and “Grocery Store Joe” eliminated in week one, when they had the lowest judges’ scores? Because the audience assesses the stars on other metrics, such as growth, personality, and resilience. The network and the audience recognize that, while proficiency matters, growth and other indicators matter just as much, if not more, when evaluating success.

Balancing growth and proficiency is not a struggle contained to school leaders – it’s all around us, even on the dance floor. For many years, the education system was rooted in proficiency. With the passage of ESSA, educational entities can now recognize the importance of additional metrics, such as growth and other non-academic or school quality indicators (graduation rates, attendance, and arts, to name a few).

States and districts are beginning to take advantage of this and create accountability systems that include multiple measures and weight them more equitably. Has the sweet spot been found? Perhaps not yet, but we are getting there. For example, in my home state of Illinois, academic growth accounts for two-thirds of core academic indicators in the state’s ESSA plan. As more states and districts adopt policies that yield more accurate, multidimensional views of student and school success, we will be better equipped to identify both promising practices and schools that need support the most.

No one is going to do it perfectly right out of the gate, but we need to continue to try. DWTS did not get it right the first time – and retooled. They are in season 27 and stronger than ever – and so is Joe. It is currently week six, and Joe received his highest scores from the judges and votes from the audience that helped him advance to week seven – proving that sometimes those who come in with fewer advantages or experiences can grow so much that they surpass their counterparts, like Mary Lou. But, in the end, they are all stars.


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