Guiding student voice

Every parent that I know goes through this see-saw moment with their babies. There is such excitement, anticipation, and drive to get that baby to start talking with real words.

Then inevitably, there comes a time (somewhat quickly after) when the parent wishes that the child would learn to not talk so much. This usually occurs sometime during stretch of hearing the word “Mama” loudly… and on repeat… for minutes at a time.

It’s common. It’s real. And it prepares us well for this new era that we’ve embarked upon where capturing student voice is becoming a goal that is gaining popularity as a way to make the learning experience for students more personalized and relevant. I’ve seen this work well. I’ve seen students who otherwise were detached reengage because they were given a chance to more authentically speak, think, and create. (It also did wonders for my ability to effectively teach proofs in Geometry.)

But, just like literally everything else in education, it only works when it’s done right. This is true of instructional tech, explicit instruction and inquiry instruction, standardized assessments, etc. The better the execution, the better the results regardless of how well-meaning we might be.

Capturing student voice to personalize the educational experience and give students more ownership is not different in this respect. If you want your students to realize the full benefit of this, you’re going to want to figure out how to do it right.

Case-in-point: Let’s travel to Barrington High in Rhode Island where a few dozen students gathered on a fall Friday to lend their voice to a decision that the district was considering to delay start times at the secondary level to better align their schools to research that suggests quite strongly that starting school at 7:30 AM is a bad idea for adolescent learners. (stuff like this and this and… there’s more.)

Read the article, of course. But, in short: a district committee had made a motion to move secondary start times back a half-hour to support student achievement. This group of students organized a rally to voice their dissent in hopes of influencing the decision.

According the article “[The junior class president and lead organizer of the rally] and others said that pushing back the start of the school day would be far more disruptive to their lives, noting that it would cause all sorts of scheduling problems for extracurricular activities, including sports.”

So, here we go. We are capturing student voice. We have an authentic audience. The article was written in The Providence Journal which is a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper.

But now we are forced to show our students the authentic response to individual voice. Capturing student voice in authentic ways is only part of the story. Once the voice is captured and shared, the response is authentically assigned as well. And, like we all have learned, when you speak, sometimes your voice gets honored. Sometimes ignored. Sometimes corrected.

This is for lots of reasons. Sometimes your voice isn’t loud enough. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s too loud. Sometimes your voice isn’t well-informed enough. Sometimes it is. Sometimes your voice doesn’t doesn’t reflect a perspective that decision-makers find valuable. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it does, but you have to convince people of that.

And often, you don’t have control of those factors unless you are a decision-maker. So it goes. And that’s okay.

And the student group has chosen to chime in on quite an essential question for us as educators: If later start times for our secondary students produce higher levels of academic success while at the same time putting strain on our extra-curriculars (Montgomery County (Md.) reported a 30% drop in after-school activity participation the year it rolled back start times), is that something that school leaders see as a reasonable trade off? Will their communities agree with them?

It’s not cut and dry. Schools don’t exist to create sports teams, but sports teams are good for kids. Many schools have struggled to create viable robotics and maker-space curriculum pieces, so many places have those as extra-curricular pieces.

And the short article juxtaposes two conflicting perspectives. From the end of the article:

“School Principal Joseph Hurley said the students were asked to stay on the sidewalk — not school property — and to not disrupt the flow of traffic as students arrived for school.

“They’re exercising their rights,” he said. “They are being so respectful.”

“It’s not fair,” said junior Kannetha Brown. “They should have come to the people this issue affects the most. They still haven’t listened to us.”

There’s all sorts of interested nooks to explore about this situation. Including the statement by Brown, “They should have to come to the people this issue affects the most.” There is plenty to explore about that statement alone. Also, a student who is having a statement printed in a newspaper feeling like she’s not being listened to.

But regardless of the outcome or the level of satisfaction, isn’t this what student voice, authenticity and personalized learning is all about? To get these situations out of the textbook and in the hearts and minds of the students? Are these students fully engaged in their school community? Are they organizing? Leading? Collaborating with each other?

Absolutely. And what should their reward be for their efforts? Not a guarantee of success in their endeavor. And as this situation drags on, (the article cites an agreement to delay implementation of a time change) the students will learn perhaps the most valuable of lessons moving forward.

Not working this time doesn’t mean not working forever. If it doesn’t work this time, analyze why not. Make an update. And try again. That’s the heart of maker thinking, the NextGen Science, the Common Core SMPs, and more I’m sure. Students, if this doesn’t work out the way you wanted it to, then remember to fail forward.

And should that disappointment come, let’s just hope the school has adults who are ready to guide these young people in turning their frustration into productive reflection. For in that is the essence of turning immature voices into productive ones.

Modern stresses on classical systems

I was impressed by a lot of what I heard at #macul16 in Grand Rapids a few weeks back. (For those of you not in Michigan, the MACUL Conference is one of the biggest EdTech conferences in the Midwest. 4300 educators came together for three days of learning…)

But I can’t help but feeling like a wave has crashed on the shore. The overall messages sounded different than in previous years. Don’t get me wrong, there was still plenty of enthusiasm, but it wasn’t enthusiasm for technology proper. It seemed like the presenters were often asking: What kind of resources do we need to use to create the kind of cultures that will, as keynote speaker Rushton Hurley put it “make dynamic learning the norm?”

This was epitomized by Michael Medvinsky in his excellent talk about Culture of Thinking. The message was clear. FIRST decide what type of learning you want to see the students do. THEN decide what type of resources it will take to create an environment that is conducive to that type of learning. When the education system starts to process through those ideas and concepts, it can create stress in some very interesting areas.

What do we want the student learning about? Remember, we can talk about the TYPE of learning we want, but we still have to have some predetermined baseline for the WHAT of the learning. The maker movement and genius hour movement of recent years have inserted the importance of student-chosen learning time into the broader conversation, but the content we expect for EACH student by design says something about what we value as a culture. We need to take that message seriously. (I started hearing the term “passion-driven schools”. This actually makes me a little uncomfortable. More on that later.)

How do spaces like the library, the computer lab, and the cafeteria (before and after lunch time) play into our goals for our culture and environment? Come on a journey with Ann Smart and Kellie De Los Santos to see how the school library can be re-visioned. Also maybe Shannon McClintock Miller who models some fairly down-to-earth, but nonetheless super impressive redesigns for the position of librarian. Consider, too, that cafeterias tend to have tons of open space, high ceilings, varied structures for sitting, leaning, kneeling, doing work. And they are typically really, really empty during the school day with the exception of lunch times and overflow before and after school. In some places, this isn’t true as the cafeteria is also the gym, but in places where the cafeteria sits empty much of the day, what could be done with it that isn’t? What opportunities are being missed?

What’s the future hold for things like grades, calendars, credits, class rankings, GPAs, and so on and so on? The school environment is hanging on to a variety of structures that are throwbacks to a time when the industrial model of schools made a lot more sense. But modern changes are putting pressure on a lot of different things. Some of which are not getting discussed much in the conversations I’m hearing.

Case-in-point: I recently had a conversation with a teacher who had a variety of digital coding, IT, network security courses ready to roll out, free of charge, to students as young as eighth grade. He and I had a long conversation about how to get these courses in front of the students who’d be interested. And the primary sticking points? Well, first, the courses were typically projected between 40-60 hours to complete. That’s 8-12 weeks in most schools. (Schools normally work on 12-week, 18-week, and 36-week cycles). Second, what would the student receive at the end? A certificate from the course designer. (Schools usually operate in grades and credits.)

And I really feel like this isn’t small potatoes. (More on this later, too…) But this simple conversation about a perfectly reasonable idea did a great job bringing up how unprepared our structures are to cope with the flexible scheduling and grading practices that modern learning is going to increasingly require.

An idea like that? It changes the game. No cohort. No grade. No credit. And what do you do with them when it’s time for them to start something new in week 8 of a semester? (The same thing you do with the student who are ready two weeks earlier?) These absolutely aren’t insurmountable barriers. In fact, these are fairly solvable problems as long as schools are starting embracing a new vision for words like “course”, “learner”, “completion”, etc.

I got a what-if… What if we create a series of general elective courses that are designed in such a way that a student could enter at any time and be able to meaningfully join in. Maybe a phys ed, general art, theater, a project-based engineering course, and basic culinary. One for each hour of the day. Running both semesters. Courses with detached, independent units, something with a lot of DOING where the students who have been there longer are expected to model techniques for the new learners. Courses taught so that the successful completion of the course is judged based on the performance while there and not how long that time was. (That is, you can still earn an “A” for the semester having only been there two weeks. Even Our Lord realized how difficult that type of conversation can be.) It would be tricky. Especially at first. But not impossible. It will need to be designed intentionally, by people who are willing and able to do it well.

These questions have modern answers that bring with them a lot of potential stresses and unforeseen consequences. When you pile them all on top of each other, you just get a educational system that is ready to redesign itself from the foundations up. And I just hope that we’re ready for it. The proponents ready for the change not being as quick as they’d like and opponents ready to use their “yeah-buts” constructively.

Applying Growth Mindset to our Teachers

I enjoy reading/hearing discussions of education from the perspective of non-educators. Dan Carlin goes there occasionally as does Steve Dubner from Freakonomics and it was one of Dubner’s posts that captured my attention today.

The piece (entitled “Is America’s Education problem really just a teacher problem?”) explores the conjecture that has been expressed by a wide variety of people that the issue that our modern education system is dealing with really boils down to teachers. If teachers teach well, then the education goes well. If teachers don’t teach well, education doesn’t go well.

While I’m not prepared to validate the conjecture, I do think there is some value in exploring the power improved teacher performance might have to address some of our systems lingering issues. For example:

  • By focusing on teaching, we stick to factors we can control. Blaming the parent, the kid, the politician, the funding, etc. might be accurate and possibly satisfying, but we can’t control how those behave, so let’s not create solutions that require one of those “uncontrollables” to act a certain way.
  • By focusing on teaching, we stick to factors that are close to the students. Curricula, standards, college entrance tests, etc. are all going to have to be figured out eventually, but those are slow-burning solutions.
  • By focusing on teaching, we get a chance to explore a wide variety of the educational experience of the student. Instruction, assessment, feedback, engagement, classroom management, community relations, positive behavior supports, data collection and analysis all play a part in the work of the teacher. In addition, we can explore teacher training, recruitment and hiring, mentorship and development, pay, evaluation and union politics… I could keep going. That is an awful lot of the education sector that opens up when we start examining the work of the teacher.

And while I’m not in any position to put the salvation of the American public education system on the shoulders of the teaching profession, I would imagine if we give ourselves permission to examine the teaching profession, we might find some areas of improvement that would allow our system to better serve our young people.

Let’s also get out of the way right now that there aren’t any simple explanations to this problem and, as such, there aren’t any simple solutions. Also, let’s get on the same page about something else. From the article:

“When we say that U.S. students aren’t doing very well, and that U.S. teachers aren’t the best and brightest, let’s remember that we’re talking about averages. There are of course millions of American kids who get a great education in public school. There are of course many, many excellent teachers. We should also note that just because a future teacher finishes near the top of their high-school or college class doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be a great classroom teacher.”

American schools aren’t universally awful and it can also be a little tricky to predict what kind of student will end up becoming an excellent teacher. And while the system is complex and there’s a lot of moving parts, the teacher plays a central role in designing the experiences that students have during the school day. From the article (this quote is from David Levin):

When you think about the most important people in a kid’s life outside of their family it starts with their teacher. I mean for the obvious reason, right? You leave home, you go to school, and the teacher is the determinant of how that day goes. And even as the kids get older, when all the research says the peer effect is so essential, teachers have a huge impact on how peers interact in the classroom.

So, perhaps the most reasonable next step would be to make sure that each classroom has a talent teacher in it. Get rid of the lousy teachers and replace them with better ones. Right?

From the article (this quote is from Dana Goldstein):

And what I found is that this pair of solutions, driving people out, bringing new people in, it’s not enough. Because the demand for teachers is so high — we do need 100,000 new teachers every year to satisfy the labor market. So, what I suggest is, instead of starting with our fear of bad teaching, we look at teachers who are excellent at what they do right here in the United States, and we ask about how to create systems where we can replicate their best practices.

That’s a lot of teachers. 100,000 new employees every year? That’s a ton. And as far as best practices go, there are a couple of pretty approachable frameworks that are becoming pretty common place (Bob Marzano and John Hattie are becoming household names for a reason), so choosing a framework around the teacher development programs in school districts shouldn’t be the hard part. So what is the hard part?

Perhaps the hard part is that many schools envision their roles as developers of young people. (I don’t disagree with this, by the way…) Schools are in the human growth business. I suspect every single school in the country has a mission/vision statement that includes a lot of student-centered language about growth, development, and the like.

At the same time, I reckon hardly ANY of those districts see themselves as TEACHER development institutions.

But why not? If the data, research, and logic trail all point to excellent teaching being a huge indicator of overall district excellence (read “district excellence” as lots and lots of young people learning lots and lots and lots of good stuff), then wouldn’t a constantly improving teaching staff be a pretty reliable pathway toward improvement?

But what might that look like?

  • Schools subscribing to professional journals on behalf of their teachers and developing norms that the articles are read and discussed.
  • Real, effective mentorship programs that nurture the growth of their young teachers instead dumping them into classes and schedules that veterans would NEVER stand for.
  • open door policies where teachers are expected to visit each other’s classrooms to support, watch and then ask questions about what they saw and heard.
  • peer observation and feedback sessions with the intention of supporting the growth of a teacher who is struggling in an identified way. (Perhaps learning walks a la Kevin Feldman.)
  • teachers who are taking college course work getting opportunities to showcase their projects, discuss the texts that they are reading, and lead discussion in staff meetings.
  • high school math teachers (for example) being invited into an art teacher’s classroom so that the art teacher can demonstrate a really effective technique. (I am not a big fan of “only a math teacher can help/support/advise/understand another math teacher.)
  • a principal making sure that as many possible people on staff are qualified to lead a classroom of students for an hour so if a teacher needs to observe, discuss, consult, or brainstorm there is a variety of paraprofessionals, interventionists, guidance counselors, administrators, and other personnel who can stand in and let the growth process happen. (I can remember one school I worked at where even the athletic director could manage a classroom.)

This mindset see schools as the last part of the teacher training process. What if we saw the schools as the place that completed the training? (Not unlike teaching hospitals that openly have developing doctors learning their craft with real patients.) Not only will you be serving to improving the skill set of the teaching staff, but when professionals are cared for, have a sense of ownership and autonomy, their motivation and morale tend to improve.

Schools have long understood their role in developing humans, but perhaps they’ve fallen short because they’ve behaved as though their only task was to develop the minors. Perhaps if we get to the place where our schools understand their role in developing the adults as well, then we’d start to see the improvement that we’ve been seeking for so long.

The Math Reading Classroom

In my previous post, I make a case for reading becoming a necessary component of the math classroom.

It’s interesting to consider what would it look like to integrate “the reading of mathematics” into a secondary math course as an essential learning target. “Essential” in the sense that we explicitly teach it, assess it and report out student status on it.

You’d start by creating a learning objective (or borrowing one that’s already written). Then you create some success conditions. Then you create an assessment (or series of assessments) so that you have a tangible experience in your mind when you are designing the learning activities.

In my mind, reading would need to be treated like one of the Common Core’s Standards of Mathematical Practice. It isn’t math content. The reading experience would be designed to a certain grade level, but in order to properly assess the reading, you have might need to back off the intensity of the math.

Obviously, word problems are nothing new. But this would be a different kind of word problem. Using the word problems as a READING assessment instead of a math assessment is not something I’ve seen before… or done before. Reading assessments look like a reading passage with some strategic follow-up questions designed to examine a student’s reading comprehension. Seems like a word-problem-esque scenario could take on that feel.

I imagine something like this:

“Danny and Sandy both collect bottle caps. Whenever they get together, they bring all their bottle caps with them. Danny has four Coke caps, three Sprite caps, five Mountain Dew Caps, and a Faygo cap. He’ll have more Mountain Dew caps when the 12-pack that his mom bought is gone. Sandy has nine Coke caps, five Pepsi Caps, and nine Mountain Dew Caps. Sandy wants more Pepsi caps, but that will have to wait because her Dad came home with a Pepsi 12-pack of cans yesterday.”

Okay, this is not perfect and people who write test questions for a living would probably come up with something much better. But, this a fairly standard word problem set-up. So, what questions would we ask if what we’re really trying to do is assess a student’s ability to read instead of assessing his/her ability to do compute? Maybe questions like these:

From the evidence, which of the two do you suspect drinks more pop? Why?

How many more bottles of Mountain Dew do you think are left to drink at Danny’s house? Why?

After Sandy finishes the 12-pack of Pepsi that her dad just bought, how many Pepsi bottle caps will she have? Explain how you know that?

The reading passage is written at about a 6th grade level, depending on which index you use. The math in the questions is probably first or second grade. So, giving that passage and set of questions to a seventh grade class would only be valuable as a reading assessment. How well are the students comprehending the details of the situation? Details like Danny’s 12-pack of Mountain is eventually going to yield 12 caps and he’s already 5 caps into it. Sandy’s 12-pack of Pepsi will yield zero caps because the pops are all cans.

Asking those questions gives you a window into the ability that each student has to comprehend the text. But considering the possibility of assessing our students in this way leads to a couple of confrontation points.

First, I don’t know of any math teachers who have learning standards written for mathematical reading. Those would have to be developed. That’s not a small or insignificant step. We don’t want to get in the habit of assessing without clearly defined learning targets.

Second, our students usually skip word problems in their practice sets. We would have to build in structures that change that. Whether it’s taking some pages from the #FlipClass playbook, or using some cooperative learning structures, somehow the attitude around word problems would have to change. We don’t want to get in the habit of assessing things that we know the students aren’t practicing.

Third, if a student begins to fall behind, or regularly is assessing at a low level on the math reading assessments, most math teachers are not well-equipped to provide appropriate curriculum-based interventions in the area of reading. These exist, but math teachers are typically not trained in their use. We don’t want to get in the habit of asking teachers to do things they aren’t trained or equipped to do.

Confrontations aside, there’s a lot of potential here. Potential for student growth. Potential for interdepartmental collaboration. Potential for more holistic math classes. But as with all updates, redesigns and revisions, it needs to be done strategically, thoughtfully, and with the best interests of the teachers and students in mind.

Teachers: At what are you an expert?

This is the second in a series of reflections that came out of a fantastic sit-down with #MichED -ucators Melody Arabo (@melodyarabo) and Jeremy Tuller (@jertuller). Melody asked a question that followed up by mentioning that teachers have a really, really hard time answering: What parts of your professional work would you consider yourself to be an expert?

You see, the teaching profession makes it’s members uneasy by self-promotion. And it’s understandable. Teaching is a complex skill set. Teachers are renowned for having very, very broad sets of abilities as posters like this indicate:

Just a teacher

Technology adds even more lines to this poster. So, with so many different nooks and angles to the work, it can be very understandable that teaching is a profession that makes it’s practitioners feel as though their efforts are stretched a mile wide and an inch thick. It’s hard to feel like an expert at anything under those circumstances.

But we need to. We need our expert teachers to not only be aware of their areas of expertise, but also be willing to advertise it. There’s a lot of teachers in this state. Lots. Like… tens of thousands. It shouldn’t scandalize us that each teacher has strengths and weaknesses. And some teachers have lots and lots of strengths. Every profession has it’s hall-of-famers. I could name a few that I’d nominate for a public school teaching hall-of-fame. Duane Seastrom… Eileen Slider… (Did you just think of a couple that you’d nominate?)

And teachers have a darn good perspective on this. They know who the good ones are and what they are so good at. “Kids never act out for her.” “The projects they do for him are amazing.” “She gets amazing growth out of students with disabilities.” But chances are, those teachers aren’t blogging about it. Chances are they don’t have business cards that say, “Mrs. Taylor, instructional designer, classroom manager.” Chances are they aren’t promoting the practices that they use that work. Chances are they aren’t standing up in staff meetings showing 5-min video clips of the awesome things their students are doing. Because teachers don’t do that.

What is it about teaching that makes it’s practitioners uncomfortable declaring their strengths and advertising them?

I have my own half-baked ideas. (Comment opportunities for dissent, if you’re in the mood.) For one, teacher evaluations are really time-consuming and we really haven’t figured out how to do it yet. What are the best practices? How important is student achievement? How do you measure positive impact of a teacher on an unsuccessful student? These are really, really tough things to measure. This is a symptom of our inability to collectively agree on the exact role that the teacher plays in the education industry. I can all think of the teacher whose in-class practice is pretty good, but it completely uninvolved in the community. I can also think of teachers whose instructional and assessment practices aren’t stellar, but they do a wonderful, wonderful job of reaching out to the marginalized students and keep them coming to school. I can also think of teachers who are inept in supporting the struggling students in their classroom, but because they coach three sports help keep an different population of struggling students eligible so that they can stay active on their teams. All three of those teachers are playing roles that are tough to evaluate. Obviously, we want every teacher to be hall-of-fame quality at instruction and assessment, but how do you isolate the “mandatory” skill set?

From the other side, collective bargaining has put pressure on teachers to not really separate themselves in any major way. If we find ourselves with a handful of teachers who are exemplary teachers, it’s very short logical leap to those teachers deserving some sort of reward for being so good at what they do. Naturally, there’s a very reasonable desire on a whole lot of different levels to shield the teaching profession from this. We want this field to become more collaborative. Not more competitive. So, to protect against that the unions have stayed far, far away from emphasizing outspoken greatness of individual teachers.

That doesn’t mean that greatness doesn’t exist. It just means that greatness is staying contained. We don’t want that. We want greatness to spread. And given the technology, given the pressure, given the difficulty of being a teacher, it is becoming more and more reasonable for teachers to begin identifying the exemplary practitioners and trying to figure out what of their skills can be displayed and transferred.

There are three things that I believe to be true. 1. It’s possible for every teacher to be a great teacher. 2. Not every teacher is currently a great teacher. And 3. It is in the best interest of every student in America to be in the classroom of a great teacher just as often as possible.

So, I’ll ask again: What parts of your professional practice would you consider yourself to be an expert at? What do you do really, really well that you could demonstrate to mentor up a young or struggling teacher? What are the things you do that are so good that you’d be willing to share them on the open educational marketplace of ideas? Feel free to reply in the comments section. That way if you have a weakness in the area that matches with a person’s stated strength, you can reach out to them and open that conversation.

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.

It’s About Time – Part II

In my last post, I attempted to make a case that teachers are given too little time to do all their jobs well.

It’s one thing to say that. But one glance at the state of education will reveal that finding that time is going to take more than a smile. But there’s a difference between difficult and impossible. I’ve said before that teachers would likely do a better job if they only taught half the school day, but even I’ll admit that we are a long way from something like that being possible.However, if we are going to find this kind of time, we need think about changing structures and systems surrounding instruction and assessment and in that, I think there are some fairly reasonable opportunities.

1. For starters, we can stop reforming the reform efforts. Let an equilibrium set it. The confusion about retirement, evaluation, testing, professional development will naturally relieve itself if we just stop changing the game. (And when it comes to the state testing, well, I hate to put it this way, but all standardized tests are really, really flawed. So pick one, stick with it and move on.)

2. We can also start getting creative with our incentives. How about a contractual addendum that states that any teacher who mentors and chairs a committee or a department gets an extra time during the school day without students? Stipends are nice, but we need to talk about time. This starts to change the conversation. There is a lot to like about putting teachers in charge of curriculum committees, data committees, school improvement teams, and mentorships, but we have to respect that we are altering their job descriptions when we do that. They are no longer “teacher”. They are “teacher/district-level consultant.” and time should be built into the work day to complete the work of each of those roles. That is, if we really want them done well. The rise of instructional coaches should make this transition a little bit easier.

3. How about hiring a part-time, quality, substitute teacher to work 3 full days per week? (How about a retired teacher?) This teacher could get “signed out” like the media center or the COW cart, by any teacher who needs an hour to do school work. Maybe a couple teachers need to sit together and do data analysis. Have coverage available for those teachers, if the work is important. If that option isn’t there, the choice falls to either doing after hours (leading to exhausted teachers), doing it poorly (which diminishes the potential positive impact) or not doing it at all (which leads to authoritarian decision-making by school leaders).

This work can get done. I will agree that teachers have the ability to really influence an improvement in education. Whether or not we see that influence realized will depend on if we want our teachers to do a lot of work, or if we want our teachers to do great work.