25 October 2015

Testing Action Plan is Step in Right Direction

My sons' individual state test scores arrived in the mail last week. I found them in still sealed envelopes under a bunch of junk mail this morning. I didn't even know to look for them until a parent friend of mine at a dinner party Friday night mentioned receiving scores for her sons.

Conveying her frustration with all the test prep in our public schools, my friend said all the test prep seems to be hurting her sons more than helping them. I wished I had more positive news to share with her, but earlier in the week conversations I had with educators and parents from around the country reinforced her view point. Too bad the news release about the Testing Action Plan wasn't made public until the next day. Multiple friends who know me and my stance on the issue shared links to various press releases while I was out and about with my young athlete all day.

Convo #1: an educator shared his work in a school where kids have been "ability grouped" into high, medium, and low groups. Decisions about which group a child would be placed for all subjects in were determined based on 1 source of data (a mathematics placement test). As they reviewed their state assessment data and considered gaps, they noticed disadvantaged students and students of color were predominately grouped into the low groups and were being taught by the newest teachers at the school.

Convo #2: another educator told me her school reviewed state assessment data and decided (because of her state's emphasis on "novice reduction") that teachers must not worry themselves with the students who are already scoring proficient on state tests (kids like my sons and my friend's sons) because they will be fine. Therefore, they should "teach to the low kids" to ensure those kids can score proficient on state tests next time. Not only should they cater to the kids who struggle, they should do more test prep and become a skill and drill factory, taking away any sort of imagination, creativity, or personalized approaches to instruction.

Convo #3: a parent told me her elementary aged child is provided only literacy and mathematics instruction with limited opportunities to create and explore science, social studies, art, and music. He's offered daily worksheets, a fifteen minute recess once per day, and physical education only once per week.

Convo #4: a family member told me she worries most that all the test prep causes her children to hate school and to be disengaged. That's been a concern of my own for years now. I've seen in it in my sons over the years, and some years are better than others.

Lest this post be all doom and gloom, I'll mention the update on standardized testing we saw this weekend from President Obama and the United States Department of Education who released (after I heard all the above convos) a testing action plan. In it they articulate what should be happening and say "No one set out to create situations where students spend too much time taking standardized tests or where tests are redundant or fail to provide useful information."

I believe the testing action plan is a step in the right direction. The thing is--we have to change the way hold schools are held accountable, too, because as the system stands right now, schools feel compelled to jump hoops and play a game that raises their overall ranking in the state and nation. We must change the overall system of public education in America.

10 October 2015

Most Likely to Succeed Film and Book

More than a half-dozen times now I have watched Brian's eyes light up with an I did it--I created something that works expression, and I have watched Samantha's confidence shine as the all female play she directs garners applause from an audience of family and community members. I have also watched Scout's father, film director Greg Whiteley, acknowledge his daughter's feelings that "this whole thing called school is B.S."

The compelling storyline in the film Most Likely to Succeed speaks to me as a parent, educator, and community member. I've sat in parent/teacher conferences not unlike the one Whiteley's daughter and wife endured and even once was told by an administrator that I should have my son read boring books at home so he would be better prepared to read the boring texts on the state standardized tests. More positively though, I have also observed the I created something and it works look in my son's eyes when he built a computer.

As pointed out in the beginning of Most Likely to Succeed, our education system was designed in 1893 by a Committee of Ten men who wanted more efficient, compliant, and educated factory workers for the industrial age. A standardized education system with a teacher who dispensed knowledge provided what the economy needed at the time and guaranteed workers "a perfectly average job, with a perfectly average family, a perfectly average home, and a perfectly average life, and a perfectly average funeral."

We no longer need as many factory workers because more and more jobs have become automated. We have knowledge at our finger tips as we consider access to the Internet a basic right in our developed country. We need students who can think critically, communicate effectively, solve problems creatively, and collaborate productively to make our world a better place. Most Likely to Succeed does not offer a panacea for the issues in public education, but it does open eyes and convey a sense of urgency needed if we are going to make sure kids receive the education they need in our ever changing world.

In addition to seeing the film multiple times, I have now also read Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith. I am encouraged, empowered, and more ready than ever to continue my personal and professional mission of
 re-imagining public education.

As Dintersmith and Wagner acknowledge in their book, we could have completely redesigned our education system, the position advocated by Ted Sizer founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, as we headed into the twenty-first century. Instead, our country chose to "push for incremental improvements and rely on policies calling for curriculum homogeneity, more pervasive standardized testing, and teacher accountability tied to student test score performance (26)."

Unfortunately, we are paying a price for this choice as "student and teacher engagement levels have plummeted in the face of a steady diet of test prep (27)." We've turned public education into a series of hoops to jump and games to play (just ask my 9th grader). The book is not all depressing though; the authors offer examples of how we can re-imagine school. Think about their suggestion of what we might consider as the purpose of education.
"The purpose of education is to engage students with their passions and growing sense of purpose, teach them critical skills needed for career and citizenship, and inspire them to do their very best to make their world better (44)."
If we decide this is our purpose, then we must respond as such and we must offer students--
choice, opportunities to learn from failure, lessons that require critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving. We must also teach students to communicate effectively both in writing and in speaking. I've written on this topic previously.

Dintersmith and Wagner don't stop their conversations with K-12. In fact, one entire section of the book is devoted to ideas about college degrees. They say they "don't subscribe to the view that a college needs to revolve around practical courses (169.)" Rather, they give college faculty, administration, students, and parents plenty to think about. As a liberal arts graduate, I was pleased with this perspective--
"Today, employers look for graduates who exhibit critical skills, ask great questions, and demonstrate perseverance and grit. These critical skills can be taught in traditional liberal arts pursuits as well or better than in business courses (170)."
Re-imagining public education has been on my mind for nearly as long as I've been out of college. It started in graduate school when I read works by Ted Sizer, John Dewey, Deborah Meier, John Goodlad, and Maxine Greene. I began teaching in a high needs school in North Carolina and committed myself to teaching with intentionality, even writing "purpose in instruction" at various places around the classroom as a reminder to myself to keep our studies, projects, and lessons meaningful.
Read about how I helped arrange Ted Dintersmith's visit to KY
I'm not alone either because I know dozens of committed teachers throughout the United States who work diligently inside our flawed system to provide students the deeper learning experiences they need. I also know parents who advocate for change and who work together on re-imagining the system. I'm optimistic about what we can do when we work together.

In the past nearly four years, I've used this blog as a place to share my voice about how we need to re-imagine curriculum, instruction, assessment, and the overall system. Blogging has connected me to others and taught me more about what we can do if we speak up and work together. We need to remember that all of our voices can have impact. We can, together, make a difference to bring the change we need in public education. We no longer live in 1893. We need a bottom-up approach led by teachers, students, and parents demanding change to the system.

I urge you to see the film and read the book Most Likely to Succeed because once you do I guarantee you'll be ready to join me.

01 October 2015

Students And Teachers Are More Than A Score

As the leaves turn beautiful hues associated with fall and students around Kentucky take some time to rest and relax with their families, test scores in our state are being released to the public.  Each year around this time I write yet another blog post about my hopes and fears or about stopping test prep approaches to teaching, or I write something encouraging everyone to change the conversation. As long as we continue emphasizing the almighty test score, there will be public demand for news related to scores and rankings.

Since the Kentucky scores were released at midnight, I awoke to my Twitter and Facebook feeds full of commentary from colleagues, friends, and news reporters. Of interest to me was this tweet by education reporter Toni Konz.

I appreciated her taking the time to reply to my suggestion that we share bright spots and stories from schools about more than test scores.

Her reply saying she likes to write those stories when she's allowed has me thinking that we have work to do as a community. If we keep demanding the ranking and we keep making decisions about where we buy our homes or send our children to school based on test scores, we are doing nothing to change the conversation, and we perpetuate the cycle of rankings based on standardized test scores.

Thankfully, I also had educator friends post today on Facebook with statements such as "let's remember the full picture" or "this is my least favorite day of the year...let's remember students and teachers are more than a test score..." I couldn't agree more and wished for a million likes on these posts.

We can do better. We can provide students more authentic learning opportunities like those we see in the film Most Likely to Succeed. We can do this. We must do this. Our children depend upon us!