The same set of questions

I’d like to unpack this statement a bit.

Those who know me will not at all be surprised to find out that my thoughts need more than 140 characters to explain. Particularly when it is me explaining them.

When we think of teacher accountability, explicit instruction, “non-negotiables” and the like, it can tricky to express how we are expecting all teachers to “do the same things” without making it sound like all teachers literally need to be doing the exact same teacher moves in their classrooms.

Cookie-cutter, robotic, prescribed teachers isn’t the goal. However, there are some things that all teachers need to do. I’ve found that this seems to make the most sense as a list of questions. As my colleague Matt often says about the Positive Behavior Intervention Support framework: “It isn’t a program to be followed, but rather a list of questions that need answers.”

The implication in that statement is that each teacher has the freedom and flexibility to answer the questions however they see fit. That’s where the individuality comes in. They only thing a teacher wouldn’t have the freedom to do is NOT have an answer.

So, for example, in general for any given activity, you might envision something that looks like the picture on the left (credit: Wesley Friar) or the picture on the right (credit:Writing by Design) .


both photos used via Creative Commons licensing 

Neither cooperative learning or guided individual practice are an absolute good or bad. So, the quality of the choice to use one or the other comes in the pairing with the desired outcomes. It’s the answer to the questions.

What are you expecting the students to learn by the end of the experience?

How does your strategy best support that?

Where does that learning target fit in the bigger picture of your course?

All teachers should be able to answer those questions for every lesson.

This doesn’t mean that every lesson has to have a hard content target. It could be that the catapult activity on the right has a learning target of team-building, problem-solving, and effective collaborative creativity (as opposed to being able to model the path of the ball with a quadratic and solve math problems using the model). But then those are your learning targets and they need to be explicitly understood as such because of the next set of questions.

How are you going to verify whether or not each student reached the learning target?

What are you going to do for the students that haven’t reached the learning target by the time of the assessment?

Anything worth making a formal learning target is valuable enough to ensure success for ALL students. This generally easier yet for content goals that are easily memorizable (Depth-of-Knowledge 1, if you’re familiar with Webb’s DOK Framework.) Name all fifty capitals is pretty easy to assess.

As learning goals get more complex or individualized, they also get trickier to assess. As a result, it seems that fewer teachers are asking their students to do complex things. Or at least that is the perception. “Boss says that I need to be able to verify my student growth using data, then I better choose learning targets that are easy to track data on.” This is one of the reasons that “data-based decisions” has taken on some negative connotations particularly among teachers who have powerful non-content goals for their students.

But this sets up a false set of adversaries in the struggle for school improvement. There’s no need to examine this as “things you can take data on” vs. “things you can’t take data on.” Instead, we need to be asking ourselves HOW do we assess our activity’s effectiveness in achieving the goals we have for it?

How do you assess whether a student is growing in his/her creativity? How do you assess student’s ability to collaborate effectively? These are powerful questions. And, quite frankly, it seems like the design challenge involved in answering these questions might appeal quite nicely to the minds of the educators that are advocating for these types of learning targets.

And in all this, we need to remember who we are fighting for. We take data because we need to know if our programs are helping our students grow the way they need to. Our students are too important to allow them to learn amidst ineffective programming. As a teacher, in many cases, I could decide to increase direct instruction an additional 15-minutes per day or add a weekly stop to the school makerspace or have the students start blogging. But, the reality of those changes and updates is that they need to be done FOR something.

And while I support teachers’ abilities to make decisions about what bits best in their instructional plan, all teachers should know what the different pieces are for and should be expected to evaluate whether or not those different pieces are doing what they were designed to do for the students.

Changing the conversation about testing and data

What if I told you have I know of schools that run through their first grade students through just over an hour of math and reading exercises while recording their results to get a sense of their strengths and weaknesses? These exercises are done a little bit at a time in the first three weeks of school. They do this so that they can make accurate decisions about the ways that each of these students will be properly challenged. This way, each young person gets exactly what they need to grow as learners.

What are your thoughts about these schools? Would you say they care about their students? Would you say that this is a nice approach to education?

Pause here for a moment…

I’m going to start this blog post over again. This time I’m going to tell the same story in different words. I want to see if different words paint a different picture of these schools. Keep in mind that the second set of statements are equally accurate.


What if I told you that I know of schools that will give their first grade students eight different standardized tests by the end of September? They do this so that they can record a bunch of data about the students so that they can group them based on the data on those tests.

Sounds a little bit different, doesn’t it? Eight standardized tests sounds like a lot. (Even if the longest of them 8 minutes long. Some are as short as 1 minute.)

So, we’re faced with a decision. Is the first one unrealistically rosy? Or is the second one unnecessarily cold? Your bias will determine which of those viewpoints speak to you most. My bias certainly is.

What isn’t based on a bias is that “standardized test” and “data” have become hot-button, divisive words. And there’s been some backlash. That backlash is captured by posters like these.


Sharing encouraged by Marie Rippel

The message is that our young people are more than a few data points. And that, no matter how much data that we collect, there are important elements to these young people that no test can reveal. That is absolutely correct and if you don’t agree, I’m curious to hear your argument. Post it in the comments and we’ll explore it together.

But that doesn’t mean that the poster (and the related sentiment) are safe from push back. First, there are some things on that list that tests actually could measure. It would be fairly reasonable to collect some data on “determination”, “flexibility”, and “confidence” provided we could all agree on the definitions and manifestations of them.

But secondly, that poster includes items like “spirituality”, “wisdom”, “self-control”, and “gentleness”, which are items that different groups would argue aren’t really the job of the American public school system. That isn’t to say that these groups wouldn’t consider these valuable qualities, just qualities that the schools aren’t on the hook for teaching.

To me, this is an important point. Because there’s a variety of other things your garden variety standardized tests don’t measure. For example, they don’t test a student’s ability to drive a car, their ability to write a cover letter or resume, or their ability to cook a decent meal.

These fit largely into the same category as the items on that poster. Important qualities that are common among successful people, but not qualities that are tested on any of the standardized tests that the students take in the K-12 education. Yet, I’ve never heard anyone use their absence as a support to discount the value of the tests. What makes these qualities different that the ones on the poster?

It could be that the American public and teaching professionals agree that those things are not the job of our public schools. It isn’t their job to teach young people how to drive a car or write a resume, or cook a meal. So, clearly we should be inspecting their ability to do so.

So, would I be safe in assuming that if we could all agree on the job of public schools, then some of the fervor over tests would cease?

Would the authors of that poster be more satisfied if we were collecting data on students compassion?

What are the jobs of our public schools? Frame your answer from the context of what should all students be expected to do when they leave the educational systems after spending 13 years in it.

And how are we going to know if the system is doing it’s job? Listening to a discussion regarding those questions sounds like a huge upgrade compared to listening to hours of endless back-and-forth about whether or not to test, how to test, which tests to use, or what to do with the results of the tests.

What are our goals and how are we going to know if the system is doing it’s job? It’s fine by me if testing students isn’t part of that. But, our educational system has a vital job to play and somehow or another, we need to develop a way to inspect what we expect from the system.

Perhaps the first step of that is coming to consensus on what we expect.

A toolbox that is truly full

When I think of a math activity that really flexes it’s muscles, I’m reminded of the activities that could reasonably be solved multiple different ways with no method being preferable on the surface. These are tricky to create (or to find and steal). They are also somewhat taxing on your students (especially if they aren’t used to this kind of problem-solving). It requires a more intense, higher-order level of thinking.

photo credit: Jo Fothergill - Used under Creative Commons

photo credit: Jo Fothergill – Used under Creative Commons

Many schools are reaching the stage where students are carrying around smart devices. Increasingly schools are issuing them (we are up to 4 districts in our country that are now 1:1). Also, in many districts, students can be trusted to bring smart phones in with them. With all of these devices available, it seems like we could integrate a new set of tools into our tool box for consideration. We should design activities that allow the students some control over what mathematical techniques they choose to employ. But increasingly, it’s making more sense to also allow the students some control over what tech tools they are making use of.

That is a nerve-racking idea for some, especially since as soon as students start dabbling in technology that the teacher is unfamiliar with, they become their own tech support. There is a very real (and perfectly understandable) anxiety over students using technology pieces that the teachers aren’t familiar with. But we could flip that on it’s head.

First, we could model some of the tech pieces that we are familiar with.

Consider an activity where in the students use a Google Form to poll their classmates, then enter the data into a Desmos sheet to do the analysis. The formative assessment of the analysis could be done on Socrative or Google Forms.

I mean, this is a standard math task: Gather some data, represent it visually, analyze, and produce a product to submit to your teacher. What makes this different it two-fold: First, some of the more annoying parts are going to be relieved by the technology (namely recording the data, plotting the points, and drawing/calculating the best fit line… those are also the parts that create barriers to our students with special needs). Second, you are giving the students meaningful experience using their technology for something that makes their school work easier and more productive. (Imagine that… both easier and more productive… both…)

One of the goals of an activity like this is the students gaining an appreciation of the roles of each of those different technology pieces, in the same way as we give them specific prescribed practice with the math skills to gain comfort. But it should stay there in either case. At some point, the students need to build in a working understanding of each of the tools in their tool box – math, tech, or otherwise. (I was even vulnerable to whining… the right kind… used at the right time. Proper tool for the proper job.)

Then, when we unleash our students to solve a problem by any means necessary, with a proper foundation underneath them, we run a much lower risk of them choosing something completely off-the-wall. Students might replace our technology with choices of their own, but if they know that we have a standby that will work, then often the replacement is something they find more useful… and it might be something we’ve never seen before… and they might be able to teach us how to use it.

And never underestimate the power of allowing a student to be the expert in the room once in a while.

Full disclosure: The data that I plugged into the Google form came from here. Many thanks to who is named as the owner on the site.

Should we test them? or not test them? (Hint: Those are the wrong questions…)

This time of year in Michigan, standardized testing is on everyone’s mind. This year is a little more frantic than others, I’m afraid. Michigan’s Department of Education is piloting the online version of a new state test. In my role, I’ve spent a lot of time contributing to support all over the state trying to help concerned educators prepare themselves and their students for this transition.

Besides that, every Michigan HS Junior is given a chance to take a college entrance exam. Since the inception of this practice, this exam had always been the ACT. Then, just after the new year, news broke (somewhat out of nowhere) that Michigan was going to switch to giving the SAT.

Now, each of these tests has a whole machine surrounding it. There are practice tests, prep sessions, special activities put in place to prepare for both the look and feel of the testing items as well as for the content. In many ways, “teaching-to-the-test” has become a foregone conclusion. This is especially true in districts who are working very, very hard to improve the test scores for evaluative or punitive reasons. (More on this later.)

All of this fervor can really make a guy wonder whether or not this testing is worth all the hassle. Are we doing good things to education by instituting all of this testing? Are frequent assessments the right way to go?

And I think those are the wrong questions.

Consider a person who is hyper-interested in his or her weight. Like dangerously so. This person steps on the scale several times a day. And makes aggressive changes for the sake of gaining or losing 10 or 20 lbs very, very quickly. On what can we blame this problem?

Lots of things, I suspect. This person may have a background with some experiences that need to be reconciled. This person may have anxiety issues that need to be resolved. This person may be in a personal or professional relationship that puts unrealistic pressure on his or her appearance. This person may spend too much time focusing on and associating with other people who have similar habits. There is a culture that he or she has become a part of that feeds into this point-of-view.

The scale that he or she steps isn’t the problem (provided the scale is accurate). The scale is the tool that provides the information. The information is then getting abuse by the recipient. The solution to this problem is NOT to dispose of the scale. The abusive recipient is still going to seek for information and they will find it in perceived tightness of clothes, or calories consumed or duration of a workout.

What we need to adjust is the response to the information.

Right now, we are asking our schools to step on the scale too frequently, and making too much of the number we get.

Look, changes in policy and curricula often show effects slowly. And we should look for slow, sustained improvement. This is evidence of a cultural change that is becoming a new standard. Just like the dieter who is looking to lose 50 pounds. A two-year journey losing a three or four pounds per month doesn’t make for an exciting, story. It doens’t get you on NBC Shows, but it’s healthy. It’s sustainable. It is evidence that a real change has taken place.

It is with this in mind that I will assert that the tests aren’t the problem with our educational testing culture. While I suspect that we are testing too much. If the person from the analogy has a scale in every room, then it might be useful to reduce that number to one, but it would be wrong to blame the tests. They are giving us information. And we in the educational community aren’t handling the influx of information very well.

So, I have some thoughts about this.

What if we only formally and decisively tested students every other year? When it comes to state tests that determine school ratings, funding, oversight, and evaluation, how about we get on an every other year plan. We aren’t looking for quick-hitting solutions. We are looking for culture changes. The most effective instructional and curricular changes take time to go from implementation to fruitful improvement anyway. So, if the 2013 testing cycle revealed content weaknesses in a certain area, then you have 24 months to implement an update to your system that will improve it. Then in 2015, we’ll see how it’s going.

Taking a standardized test well is NOT a meaningful life skill with which to send students away from school. I’ve heard this one from a variety of different angles. The “they’ll-need-it-to-get-through-college” argument, to the “managing-test-anxiety” argument, to the “we-need-our-scores-to-jump-30-percentage-points-in-3-months” argument. This has been the most troubling development I’ve seen. This goes beyond “teaching-to-the-test”. This is downright teaching test-taking strategies as though the skill of taking a test has any application. It doesn’t. Students need to take tests well because we choose to test them. When we change our focus, we change this skill set. It is completely dependent on our choice. EVERY SINGLE other skill we want students to leave school with are determined by appealing to some outside need. Critical thinking, basic math skills, reading, obedience, playing well with others, healthy eating, tolerance for diversity, etc. These are things that you can EASILY give reasons for students leaving school with these skills in their hip pockets. So, why are we spending one second teaching standardized teaching strategies?

I’ve never seen a school or educational department include students (or even suggest it) in the process of collecting or analyzing the formal and decisive testing data. Why not? When it is becoming more and more evident that there are huge gains to be made by putting students in a position to self-monitor and to train them to be competent in doing so, why are we allowing this opportunity to pass us by. (I don’t think our decision-makers trust young people as much as you and I do.) Perhaps while we are training them to be effective self-monitors, we see minutes that they could be spending practice math problems ticking away. It’s too bad that we have begun to operate on such a short-sighted view of efficiency.

Look folks, I’m not any more excited about this hyper-evaluative testing culture than anyone else, but I think that we need to take a step back from our repulsion and really look at what the problem is so that we can really solve it.

My Hopes for Education in 2015 – It’s about time.

2014 will be known to me as the year that I left the classroom. I left it for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which is that teaching is exhausting. It is tiring in every way that work can be tiring.

It’s physically tiring. The days are long. Teachers are on their feet a lot. They are always in a hurry. The breaks are famously short. My new boss asked “How long a lunch do you think you’ll take every day? Half-hour? hour?” I responded “I’m still on the teacher lunch pattern,” to which a listening co-worker chuckled in response, “Ah… the 12-minute scarf.”

It’s emotionally tiring. Teachers are constant fighting for goals that aren’t attainable. Even the most idealistic, optimistic, and resourceful teacher in the country will admit that expecting 100% of your students to reach their top learning potential is ridiculous. But that’s the goal. And it’s the perfect goal to have. The problem is that it isn’t ever going to be reached on a large scale. Which means that teachers are going to constantly be faced with failure, with students who aren’t going to make it. They are going to craft lessons that flop. They are going to hear students reject their favorite ideas. This happens regularly.

It’s mentally tiring. The targets are so often changing. The data doesn’t mean what the data says. Michigan went through a reform of it’s “cut scores” for it’s state test proficiency categories recently. It’s press release included this statement that is just… well… here you go: “The metrics are obvious: with the improved cut scores, for example, it most likely will show that our 3rd graders are not really 90 percent proficient statewide – but only 39 percent proficient.”

When 100% is your goal, 90% will work. It’s not perfect, but it’s darn close, but what happens when that 90% is actually 39%. Like, it’s not that your students got worse. They didn’t. They are what they’ve always been. You were just always told 90% were proficient and that was totally false because only 39% of them actually were. How on earth is someone supposed to cope with that reality?

At the risk of sounding long-winded, I’ll spare you the recent law changes to retirement, certifications, professional development, and other parts of the teaching profession that are frightfully confusing. (Ask any #MichEd teacher about the transition from CEUs to SB-CEUs to SCECHS… and ask them to explain how a 3-credit college course plays into that. It is terribly difficult to keep up with.)

This is tiring, tiring work for practically everyone who does it. And the incentives for excellence are purely internal for each teacher. There isn’t a lot of upward mobility. If you are a great teacher, you’ll be asked you do more, like chair committees and departments, mentor younger teachers, lead professional development sessions, these are good things. But they take time and they are hardly compensated appropriately based on the time commitments. Besides, there comes a time when money isn’t really what’s needed.

What teachers need is time.


Time to rest from the exhaustion. (And please think really long and hard before you allow yourselves to think “That’s what July and August are for”.)

Time for research. Teachers are smart people. They can understand all of the confusing (and ever-changing) requirements for retirement, PD, certification. It just gets a little tricky when they are doing all of this research after supper. When they should get a chance to turn their brains off.

Time for development. Good lessons and assessments are getting a little bit easier to come by with the increasing use of social media to share good stuff, but not every good idea fits in every classroom. It takes time to develop good resources, good curriculum, especially when one doesn’t exists. Fawn Nguyen and I agree on this point, and she says it better, “Let’s not follow that textbook that we hate — so what if the school had adopted it. Just because we inadvertently bought spoiled food does not mean we should consume it.” I made that decision when we ditched our geometry book in favor of something better. Something that took HOURS to find, write, and battle-test (and a lot of help from collaboratively-minded colleagues like Cresta Wright (@wrightc2) and Jennifer McCreight (@RealJMcCreight))

Time to analyze. Reading adolescent body language is tricky, tricky business. Using data to tell if your lessons work is a lot more reliable. But it takes time, because lessons rarely 100% work or 100% don’t work. Completely scrapping a lesson is a fairly quick process. Tweaking a fairly effective lesson is where real effort and energy are involved. Looking at the data to figure out where the lesson worked, where it didn’t and then updating it effectively can be a time-consuming exercise. It should be a time-consuming exercise, because there should be time to do this necessary work. But there isn’t.

And yet, as we move forward with reforms, we are still asking our teachers to do more and more and more and giving them less and less time to do it. One district laid off all their elementary art and music teachers and asked the classroom teachers to provide art and music education. Classroom teachers, already pressed for time, are being asked to spend larger amounts of time with students in their classrooms AND develop and deliver new lesson plans. While taking away time, they are being asked to do more.

What does success look like in a situation like that?

In 2015, I hope to see this tide start to turn. To understand that teachers NEED this time. They need it. They can’t do their jobs well without it and for us, as a community of motivated, highly-qualified educators need to start helping drive the creative processes that will help create time for the people who need it.

I have some ideas, in my next post I will throw out a couple of ideas. Please share your ideas. We need all the good ideas we can get.