Thursday, May 25, 2017

A Year of Silence, Explained

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My last blog post was over a year ago.  There is a reason: Nothing has changed.

Policymakers are still pushing for bad education policy, teachers are still yielding their authority to data, and students still cannot win.  All my previous posts are still (unfortunately) relevant today.

Have I given up?  Absolutely not.  I have been fighting in my own classroom.  I have been doing my best to mitigate the effects of bad policy, I have been asserting my authority to assess students, and I have been explaining the big picture to my students so they can scramble for a win if they choose.  This has not been an easy year because it is difficult to undo 10 years of institutionalization within a system that dehumanizes and devalues every person within it. 

In Atlas Shrugged, the main character was offered advice whenever faced by difficult decisions: check your premises.  This year, I have checked my premises.  When working with students, I operate under the premise that school sucks.

From the very first day of kindergarten, school gets it wrong.  On day one, students learn quickly that their value is not determined by their own exploration or understanding.  They learn quickly that their value is determined by an adult.  They do not own their own experience, it is determined by a score, a mark, a grade, a sticker, some external validation that is judged by someone other than themselves. 
Knowledge itself is absolute and concrete, but the evaluation of knowledge is not.  Knowledge can be gained through an infinite amount of methods and experiences.  From day one, those methods and experiences are narrowed down to a small finite set and paired with a strict timeline that determines winners and losers, judged by adults.  Students lose the intrinsic motivation to inquire, explore, and question that they were born with.  From day one, they are programed to perform then wait for validation.  They are programed to ask “is this correct?”  They are programed to silence their natural inquisitiveness. 

No matter how creative a kindergarten teacher gets, no matter how much care and effort is put into their work, the teacher still must assess the students with a score.  And the students know it.   They know they are scored, ranked, compared, and judged.  They know because the teachers (not all, but most) talk about how important the scores are, their parents and guardians talk about how important the scores are, every element of the media stresses the importance of scores and grades.  No matter how a senate hearing is viewed when there is a disagreement between “growth” and “proficiency”, it’s still a judgement based on scores that dehumanizes students and teachers.  This message is driven home at each grade level and with increasing emphasis as the years go on.  At the very beginning, school emphasizes external rewards at the cost of each student’s self-worth and intrinsic desire to understand the world.

Sooner or later, students value their scores over what they actually understand.  The students who score well will think they have knowledge.  By the time they get to high school, students who score well will spend most of their time asking “Does this count? Is this right? What’s my grade?”.  They will do work for the sake of doing work because they know that work counts for a score.  They won’t understand the bigger picture of curriculum because they are too focused on individual assignments.  They figured out early on that understanding isn’t necessary and they can simply forget anything they learned because what they know is not as important as what they score.  These students can score well in any classroom, but they may or may not understand what they have done.  And it doesn’t matter to them, their parents, or their school because they can provide the necessary scores that look good. Once they are confronted by anything that is difficult or complicated, they will stress out or freeze up or break down.  They will not know how to handle difficulty.

Since scores are extremely important to all elements of educational policy, schools and teachers make critical decisions based on them.  Test score data is all the school cares about.  From the teacher’s standpoint, passing the class is what they care about.  The teacher feels pressure from a variety of sources (self included) to make sure students have a minimum score required to pass the class.  Many times, this pressure is applied regardless of what the student knows or has shown.  In some cases, a student can show no work or demonstrate no understanding and still pass on to the next class or grade because of these pressures.  Appropriate interventions for helping students understand things are not as important as passing scores.  By the time they get to high school, the students who do not score well in school early on will have one of two views:  they will either think they are incapable (stupid) or they will know that they don’t need to apply effort since they will be passed on (lazy).   When confronted with anything challenging or complex, they will either feel they have no need to attempt it or they do not have the ability to perform well. 

In most cases, students have predictable reactions to difficult tasks.  They either don’t attempt them, panic, or give up.  They equate difficult tasks with impossible tasks.  These reactions are a direct result of what was initiated on day one in kindergarten and amplified throughout school years. These reactions are logical since students sacrifice their intrinsic love of learning for extrinsic rewards bestowed upon them by beneficent adults.  The problem is that when students behave in the logical way the school trains them to behave (stupid and lazy), we then turn around and beat them up for it.  We label them, we reprimand them, we punish them, we place all the responsibility on them.  There are some students who can continue striving for success in this environment, but for many students, they just can’t win.  We beat them up for behaving in a logical and rational manner. 

My premise this year is that school sucks.  If that's the case, why do I still teach?  Because why not!? This is the way I continue to fight.  I do my best to have students unlearn what we have institutionally taught them.  I do my best to have them ignore scores and focus on learning.  I do my best to have them prioritize their understanding over their grades.  I do my best to convince them that “it’s hard” does not mean “I can’t”.  I do my best to show them that I truly believe they are capable of learning anything they wish to learn.  It’s been challenging for me because I see how difficult it is for students to view school this way.  I see how tightly students cling to the narrative that school exists to judge them, that they are recipients to whatever school bestows upon them, that they are not in control of their own learning. Since my last blog post, I have also seen how the direction of education policy is only making it worse.  And that should explain my silence.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Why Teachers Should Support the Opt Out Movement

When a student “opts out” of a standardized test, the student actually participates in it.  He’s not breaking the law, he’s following the statute that mandates participation in the statewide assessment program.  She’s not skipping it, she’s simply refusing to offer data.  It’s an act of civil disobedience that makes a statement saying education policy is broken.  What we are doing to students, teachers, and schools is wrong.  I am more than a test score.

The Opt Out movement is causing a bit of a ruckus, and I love it.  I believe all teachers should love it.  I have made previous claims of a teacher’s authority to assess student knowledge (here, here, here, and here), and I believe it is our professional duty to refine and redefine how we do it.  Current education policies strip away our authority to assess student knowledge and we have yielded that authority without issue.  We need to have an issue.  A serious issue.  The Opt Out movement helps.

When a student “opts out” of standardized assessment, the student is giving the teacher the assessment authority.  The student is saying “you don’t need this test to see what I know”, “my teacher knows what I know”, “my class performance will tell you what I know”, and “you should trust my teacher, because I do.”

Those who disagree with the movement say the most insulting things about us, and we need to begin to see it this way.  A member of our district’s school board was quoted in a local newspiece saying "As a parent you want to know your child is learning while they are in school."  We hear the same question over and over:  “How will we know how our child is doing?”  “How will we know how our child compares?”  As teachers, we should feel highly insulted by these questions.  This is a slap to our face and we don’t even know it.  This is our job!  This is our profession!  This is our livelihood.  We are the ones who can tell you how your child is doing.  We are the ones who can tell you how your child “compares” (not sure why that is important anyway, see the above video clip).  We are the ones who can tell you what your child knows, what your child struggles with, what your child needs, and where your child excels.  Our job is to know these things about students.  If my colleagues need standardized tests and data to tell them these things, they are not good at their job.  If one of my colleagues is relying mostly on data spreadsheets and numbers to tell him about his students, he is not suited to be in the classroom and he should find a new job.  He’s making me look bad.  I take pride in my work, and so should my colleagues.

I understand why a teacher would not support the Opt Out movement.  Some of my colleagues simply do what they are told.  Some of my colleagues are non-confrontational.  Some of my colleagues are used to the way things are.  Some of my colleagues are concerned about employment contracts and pay.  We have a test-based accountability system.  We have VAM scores that impact our evaluation.  We spend almost every “Professional Development” workshop on high stakes testing administration and management.  Most of our faculty meetings concern tests, test data, or testing schedules.  Our professional environment is centered on test scores.  Some of us even judge ourselves based on our student test scores (I used to...USED TO).  I understand why a teacher would have difficulty detaching herself from this environment to focus on our professional authority.  I understand why a teacher would view his students the way the school views them: by a score.  I do not fault my colleagues (as long as they are professionals). 

I do, however, implore them to take a step back.  I want my colleagues to ask themselves if this is currently the profession they dreamed of, or if the trajectory of the profession is in line with their aspirations of being a teacher.  Are we doing right by students?  Are the education policies we are forced to implement the best for our students’ futures?  I ask my colleagues if they are pleased with high stakes testing and test-based accountability.  I ask my colleagues if they would like to see a change.  I ask my colleagues if they have courage.  I ask my colleagues if they are willing to do what is right for the future.  I ask my colleagues if they are willing to fight for a worthy cause: to return education to a process of learning and discovery. 

I tell my colleagues:  we have an opportunity to change the policies.  We have an opportunity to restore authority to our profession.  We must support and encourage students and families to participate in the Opt Out movement.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Advice To New (and old) Teachers

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Recently, I was visited by a former student who is graduating from UCF with a degree in Elementary Education.  I’m extremely proud of her and I’m excited for her future.  I wanted to give her some advice for the career, and I’m not one of those “Don’t Do It” people.  I sincerely believe we need more people to choose teaching as their primary career.  But they need to know something before making that decision, and this is what I told my student:

You. Don’t. Matter.

As long as you understand that you do not matter to your employer, you have a chance at making it.  Upward mobility, effective mentorship, relevant training to perfect your craft, and investment in your long-term service as a teacher simply do not exist.  You are entering an industry that does not care about you, an industry that continues to de-value you, an industry that blames you for what is labeled as its failure. 

The interview process may not feel this way.  You may be questioned by smiling faces with great personalities that seem to show a dedication to students, but understand that the administrators making your hiring decision will not be at your school very long.  The principal that hired me over the summer was at a different school to start the year.  The administrative team that hired me was completely turned over by my 3rd year: the principal, four assistant principals, and three administrative deans.   In my 9 years at the same school I have never seen the same team for three years.  Every freshman that started at my school has graduated with a completely different administration.  This will be true for every freshman.  The decision-makers at the school that hires you, as nice as they may be and excited as they are to have you, simply will not be there long. 

Once you are hired, you will notice you are required or expected to perform many tasks that generate reports.  You will go through training that is called “Professional Development” but it will have nothing to do with developing your profession.  You will learn software, data entry, report generating, and effective ways to reduce yourself and your students to the most convenient data points possible.  You will be trained to produce data.  You will be trained to turn yourself into data.  This is all the school needs of you.

The district that hires you only needs a warm body in the classroom with the students.  As long as the district can show that you have credentials, have attended certain training, and completed certain certificates, that’s all that matters.  The school can then show the parents that the students are in “good hands”. If you leave, you can be conveniently replaced by worksheets until another warm body completes the checkbox process.  You are a replaceable part.  This is how you are viewed because you don’t matter.  We have a teacher shortage, we have a recruitment and retention problem, but there’s no alarm, there is no panic. 

To the school, district, and state you are a very significant financial liability.  You take up much needed budget space that can be better used (in their eyes) for technology, facilities, or other resources.  To them, you are a facilitator.  You are not the instructional resource your training led you to believe.  You don’t need deep content knowledge, your curriculum could be written for you.  You don’t need to map your delivery timeline, that is provided for you (even though you have to re-write it yourself in a template and call it “Lesson Plans”).  You don’t need to know how to assess students, there are tests written to give you that information.  You. Don’t.  Matter.

To the United States, you are the reason hungry and tired students don’t perform well on tests.  You are the reason the U.S. consistently ranks in the mid to high 20’s on international education rankings.  You are the biggest problem in education.    To the country, you are whiny and needy and lazy.   You should never complain about being a teacher because you get “summers off”. 

So then, why teach?  I know I don’t matter to my school, my district, my state, or my country.  I understand that completely.  I teach because I want to matter to my students.  If I can matter to my students, I will be able to live a fulfilling life.  I want to matter to the students that hate school.  I want to matter to the students that don’t think they can do anything.  I want to matter to the students who are hungry to make an impact on the world, or those who are just hungry.  I want to matter to the students who aren’t “good at math”.  I want to show them a glimpse of their infinite possibilities and perhaps inspire a few to continue their search for their own potential after I meet them.

It would be great to feel like I matter to my employer, but it’s no comparison to knowing that I matter to my students.  So my advice for new teachers (and old): understand how you are viewed, embrace the fact you don’t matter, and try every day to matter to students.  You may stick around a bit longer.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Teachers: own the assessment of your students

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"Be the change you wish to see in the world." - Ghandi

I have been silent lately because I am working on perfecting my craft this year.  It is my first time teaching Geometry and I am excited to apply all I have learned to a new academic concept while continuing to implement new practices to enhance the student experience.

I have written before about the importance of owning the assessment of student mastery.  I am a firm believer in my profession, and I know that one of the most important tasks we have, if not THE most important, is to assess the knowledge of our students.  The challenge is to do so in a way that appreciates the child, fosters inquiry, and supports continued learning. As teachers, we have endless ways to do this: from watching students interact with one another to administering formal assessments.  (Side Note:  the formal assessments I give are both formative and summative.  I call it "summormative" since it's never too late to show learning.)

The pitfall we face is when we sacrifice our professional judgement to the test gods.  One of the most vengeful and spiteful test gods is Multiple Choice.  A not-as-evil-but-still-kinda-bad test god is the Objective Raw Score.  I think all of us as teachers sacrifice to these gods in our careers.  The entire education industry forces us to do it (data, data, data!).  I used to do it, too.  I then took ownership of my professional abilities and I changed.  I want all of my colleagues to think about the way they assess students and see if there is a better way.  We cannot afford to blame "the test".  We can control the narrative of assessment and fight from our classrooms.

I want to show you a sample of my daughter's work from last week. This is about to get pretty mathy, but hang in there, it's only 3rd grade math.  Please look at my daughter's work from a 25 question math test (this is not the time or place to discuss grade-level appropriateness, I'm making another point here):

Her score is an 88% B.  This means she has B level mastery over the math concepts presented in this test because she was able to answer 22 out of the 25 questions correctly, leaving one to believe she has missed 3 concepts.  To me, it is fair to say that if you have missed 3 concepts you do not have "A level mastery" over the material.  A closer look at her work reveals the nasty influence of the test gods in the professional assessment of student knowledge.  I don't fault her teacher.  Again, we all either do it or have done it before.

In the first item that was marked incorrect, there is no evidence of my daughter's thinking.  There is only an incorrect response for the simple operation of 4 X 3.  Instead of 12, she mistakenly thought the product was 16.  Clearly incorrect.

The second item is where the fun begins.  Though this item begs for the student to perform the simple operation of 5 X 4 as the teacher recommends, my daughter's work (her evidence of thinking) shows there is another correct way to arrive at the answer.  In fact, her way of arriving at the answer pleases me more as an algebra teacher.  She is displaying evidence of understanding the distributive property.  You may wonder why she was adding 16 + 8.  That is a fair question until you look at the diagram.  If you see the way the counters are arranged, you should see why a student may want to add the product of the top line of counters to the product of the bottom line of counters.  The bottom line of counters is clearly 8, as a result of 2 X 4.  But then the question becomes: Where did she get 16?  Recall her first incorrect response.  The top line of counters in the diagram would be a result from 3 X 4.  What should have been 12 was once again 16.  So, in a problem that could have been as simple as 5 X 4, my daughter made only the mistake of thinking 3 X 4 was 16 (again) while correctly and beautifully applying the distributive property; a skill that will be much more beneficial to her than a simple math fact.

The third incorrect item is the funny one.  Again, a simple operation of 4 X 3.  Yet 16 was not a multiple choice item.  What did she select as her answer?  Certainly not 12.  She chose 6.  Any one of you who has ever taken a multiple choice test knows exactly what she was thinking.

On a third grade 25-item math test, she had 3 incorrect responses.  Yet a professional educator should be able to see that she made only 1 mistake:  4 X 3.  Since the god of Multiple Choice created this test, the teacher yielded the opportunity to see these mistakes more clearly.  Since the god of Objective Raw Score graded this test, the teacher yielded the authority to determine my daughter actually has pretty darn good mastery of the material (chip off the old block?).  Again, I do not blame the teacher. I am using this example to beg us all to reflect on our practice.

I am not asking the teacher to change the grade.  That's not the point.  The point is much bigger than this test or her teacher.  It's our entire profession and the way we approach assessment.  We must re-think the way we are assessing student knowledge and claim our authority to evaluate students accurately.

So, what do I do for my "summormative" tests in my classes?  The first thing I do is make sure the god of Multiple Choice is not invited to any of my parties.  If he happens to rear his ugly head, I will make sure he has insignificant impact on my ability to assess what my students know.  I need to ensure that I can see what my students are thinking on each item as they work toward their results.  My test items vary in complexity and value from item to item.  Some items are worth only 1 point, some are worth 5 points.  I am able to assess my students' work and thinking the very same way I could tell how my daughter was approaching the 5 X 4 item.  I can then give my students credit where it is deserved while knowing exactly where remediation may be needed as we move forward.

I also avoid the god of Objective Raw Score.  I believe this is where we, as teachers, sacrifice most of our assessment authority.  We don't need objective raw scores to know what good understanding looks like.  We don't need to nit-pick and bean-count points to know if a student has A-level mastery of our concepts.  If it's A work, score it as an A. If it's C work, score it as a C.  If we rely on "22/25 as an 88%, therefore a B", we may not only be missing the errors in our calculations as I have pointed out, we also may be giving students a false sense of their own comprehension.

I am trying something new this time around, thanks again to Alfie Kohn (he would say I shouldn't even need tests or grades).  I am allowing students to look over their own tests after I have marked up each item.  I again emphasize what the test was asking them to demonstrate.  I then ask them to give themselves a grade based on their own work, writing to me with: "I believe this grade should be a ________ because I clearly __________."  If I disagree one way or another with a student's self assessment, we discuss it.  Otherwise I enter a 95, 85, 75, 65, 55, 50, or 25.  If a student has not demonstrated a C level of mastery, I encourage them to continue learning the material until they can achieve that level and I use all the academic resources available to make that process as simple and convenient as possible.  I will change grades at any point in the year.  I tell students "your grade is as permanent as you allow it to be".

For the next unit in my class, I will ask students to forecast their test grade before taking it.  They already know what they are being asked to demonstrate, and they should not need MY test for them to know where they are.  I want them to truly think about learning, to embrace it, and to enjoy the challenge. So, I am looking forward to this experience with them.

I am still experimenting with methods of accurately assessing knowledge while encouraging students to reflect on their own learning, explore ways to deepen their understanding of concepts, and enjoy the process of gaining knowledge.  I do this because I am a professional.  I own my authority to assess student knowledge, and  I will not yield that authority to anyone.  If all my colleagues demand the same, our education environment could be drastically different.  We can create great change from our classrooms.

"Be the change you wish to see in the world." - Ghandi

Monday, July 20, 2015

So Close...

It certainly has been an interesting few weeks in the education policy world.  After a lengthy debate and many amendments, Congress has gone through with a re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act replacing No Child Left Behind with the Every Child Achieves Act.   In my home area of Central Florida, one school district attempted to convince the Commissioner of Education to abandon the statewide standardized assessment for a less expensive alternative.  

The discussion surrounding these two developments has been entertaining and frustrating at the same time.  The entertainment lies in hearing all the great arguments people have against the high stakes testing environment of education policy.  It's been exciting to hear and read more people become vocal about how children are being sacrificed in the mess of "rigor", "accountability", and "standards" as our nation and states struggle to find education policy that works.   It's exciting to hear advocates speak up for educators and give us more authority and a sense that maybe we are valued.

The frustrating part has been the underlying reason to address what has happened.  The arguments to replace what is here are the same arguments that brought us here.  It's mind-numbingly frustrating.  I'm only going to specifically address what happened locally because I thought it was going to be an amazing example of actual change, but it turned out to be disappointing.

On July 13, the Seminole County superintendent sent a letter to the Florida Commissioner of Education appealing to discontinue the Florida Standards Assessment.  I was extremely excited to hear about this development because I'm normally interested in begging my own district to raise a stink with Tallahassee when other districts attempt it.  But not this time.  I respect the Seminole County School Board and the superintendent, but when I read the actual letter I was deflated when I saw:   

"In supporting the Governor's initiative to produce college and career ready graduates, assessment tools need to be aligned to the  Florida Standards and the skills sought by businesses."
When the Orlando Sentinel posted an opinion piece supporting the "Seminole Solution", I again was ready to get my hopes up.  But then I read this gem: 
"Tests are an essential tool to hold schools, teachers and students accountable for results."
I was simply deflated.  These are the same arguments underlying the passage of the ECAA and have been the same arguments framing the national discourse on education.  We have to challenge this notion.  I previously wrote how I disagree with the entire discussion of education, so seeing this argument come so close to a great movement in my own state was quite disheartening. We have to understand that there is no testing solution.

I hear a lot of push for nationally normed tests, or accepted norm referenced tests.  Before we push for these, we'd better fully understand what norm referenced means.  It means that there will always be children who lose.  In norm referenced tests, there is no need to outswim the shark or outrun the bear; only a need to outswim or outrun your friend.  We cannot argue to replace one set of high stakes tests with another set of high stakes tests.  There is no testing solution.

Until we abandon the notion that children are data points we will continue this frenzy of testing, over-testing, accountability, and opting out. Our children are not numbers. We forget that children are people, and people are complex beings. The entire premise of education policy is built upon ignoring this obvious fact.  But we allow the argument without challenge.  Attacking a statewide standardized assessment to replace it with another test dodges the true issue that is hurting children: assuming they are simple.  Children, teachers, and schools cannot be measured simply or quickly. Our blind acceptance that they can be is what will keep harming our children, so we must argue this every time it comes up (even if it's part of a great fight).

I can only guess at how we know if education policy "is working".  Do we look at median household income?  Teacher retention?  Crime rates?  Childhood poverty rates?  Graduation rates?  Youth unemployment rates? Small business development?  Student loan debt? Number of issued patents?  National debt?  Voter turnout?  If we used these "metrics" it would be clear to see that we Left A Lot of Children Behind in our Race to the Bottom.

If we want Every Child to Achieve, we are going about it all wrong.  There is no testing solution.  Children are complex.  Teaching is complicated.  Schools serve a variety of functions that are sometimes difficult to measure.  If we want a solution, we need to let go of our notion of accountability and begin to embrace the notion of true leadership from teachers, parents, educators, and students.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Challenge the Vision

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I love the debates for all the subjects within the realm of education including testing, unions, student loan debt, and global comparisons. I have been finding lately that these debates in education lead to one source: our national vision for education. I want to challenge it.

Our vision began with A Nation at Risk creating an urgency based on competition against Russia and emerging global economies. We have since transitioned into leaving no child behind, and we are now focused on "college and career readiness".  

These have all sounded good from their inception, all have been used in campaign speeches and state of the union addresses. They have been the cornerstone of education policies and created a nearly one trillion dollar industry. These visions have crafted every sub-category of our educational debate. The US Department of Education wants to "promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness", the Florida Department of Education wants to "increase the proficiency of all students", and my own local school district wants to be the "top producer of successful students in the nation."

Who can argue with such great soundbites? I will.

"Achievement", "proficiency", and "success" along with other great buzzwords like "rigor", "data", and "accountability" have done wonders for elected officials, government appointees, and educational leaders (who are rarely, if ever, educators). Policies are crafted around these words, bills are written around these words, textbooks and curriculum packages are sold around these words, and students are forgotten because of these words. All these words fit under the current national education vision of "college and career readiness" and I am here to say that this vision is wrong and it is this vision that is currently hurting our students and will suffocate our future.

What is our purpose of education? Currently, the purpose is to fit children into college enrollment statistics or cubicles/uniforms that already exist. All the education policies of today, from the national level to the school level are doing this. Ask why I teach algebra to my students and one of those two options will be the answer. These two ends for children have created the education industry. In this industry created by our national education vision, college and career readiness can be analyzed and measured. Therefore, all stakeholders within the industry, from state chancellors to students, can be measured against the metrics and held accountable. New tools for success in these two ends, from tests to entire schools, are being created and used. Students are reduced to data points, teachers are rendered obsolete, and we can claim success based on two simplistic ends: college and career readiness.

The problem is that the current vision ignores 2 large issues. The first is the rate of change in the global economy. Advancements in technology, communications, and thought are making the world much smaller and competition much more fierce. The second issue is the disabling of the greatest advantage the United States has: innovation. As a country we were born, raised, and launched to prominence due to our spirit, creativity, and thirst for newness and adventure. We can regain all this by simply changing the vision of education.

What should be the purpose of education? First and foremost it should be about the students. It should be about what they can do for themselves and the future. Since none of us can predict the future, we need to abandon the focus on college and career readiness. With our current vision, by the time students graduate from high school their education will be obsolete. So, we should have an education vision that is adaptable, focused on the student, and ready for innovation.

Our vision should be about Learning and Knowledge. Yes it is vague. Yes it is difficult to measure. Yes it will look different for nearly everyone. Yet students are people (which we currently do not acknowledge) and people are complex. So, our education must be complex. We cannot fit students into molds. We must give them all the knowledge possible so they can learn to think and create their own molds. Can a test measure this?  No. Can a pre-designed curriculum deliver this? Not on its own. As much as I love Khan Academy, it works best when I am there to give a high five, or a touch on the shoulder. With this vision, we will need teachers. We will need our schools to support our students, not the other way around (which is what we currently have).

In the current focus on "college and career ready", we are narrowing our potential, alienating students, and stifling innovation. Why do I teach algebra to my students? Because it is knowledge, it can be learned, and most importantly, it can be fun. It's not a means an end, it is the end itself. If we focus on Learning and Knowledge, we can set every student on their own path. We can teach students for the sake of learning, not some utilitarian design (be it a test score, enrollment requirement, or a job skill). We can ensure students have a love of thinking, a love of discovery, and what our world truly needs:  a love of creativity and innovation. But this can only happen if we Challenge the Vision.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Assessing Mastery

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If teachers are to assert their authority in the national discussion about education, we will have to begin by what we do in the classroom. The national culture of testing, data, and rigor has put us in a place we may be unaware we are in. We have no authority in student assessment. And this is dangerous.

All stakeholders in education have enabled the culture that places value on test scores regardless of a student's body of work throughout the year. In fact, the student's body of work throughout the year seems to be no part of the national conversation. I believe the reason is because there's only one measure of a student's body of work throughout the year: grades.

Nothing irks me more when I hear a politician, or even worse, a school administrator ask "how will we know how well they are doing?" It's called a grade, that's how! (but thanks for doubting my job) It's my job as a teacher to assess content knowledge and evaluate mastery for my students. But that part of my job is not taught to me, not discussed in professional development, or not part of my evaluation. Yet, the ability to assess content knowledge and evaluate mastery is a key component to my profession. And we have yielded that authority to The Test, yielded it to data.

We should have never lost that authority. There should be heavy investment in that authority.  The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) put out a report in June of 2012 that had documented the importance of GPA and its correlation with retention, graduation, and long term earnings.  Read the report here, or at least Page 3 and Box 1.1.  It is clear that a student's body of work through the year is the most important aspect of their education. Yet, teachers have yielded the authority to grade students based on in-class evidence (projects, discussions, teacher-created assessments) to the results of standardized or multiple-choice tests. Disclaimer: I would be okay with that IF AND ONLY IF the teacher either vetted or created those tests, especially in collaboration with other teachers.

I do not blame my colleagues for this. We are in a system that strives to de-humanize students as numbers, we have policymakers that place ever higher stakes on the outcomes of those numbers, we have school administrators that drive their staffs to improve those numbers, and so we have teachers that channel all their energy into creating the cutest and most "engaging" way to have students turn themselves into numbers. (See "when those scores came back, I about did the SUPER SUPER happy dance": authority yielded.) We are blindly enabling a dehumanizing culture, unaware of the consequences, and we have yielded one of the most powerful authorities we have: assessment.

It's time for teachers to reclaim the authority to assess content knowledge and evaluate mastery. How can we do that?

  1. Your grade should mean something.What does it mean for a student to pass your class? What does an A mean? A C? Does your grade truly reflect what the student knows of your content?
  2. Stop accepting fluff for a grade. We have to discontinue the practice of assigning points and scores for activities, behaviors, and projects that have nothing to do with our content.  Make sure you create or vet anything assessed to ensure its validity. It would be ideal to do this with colleagues. 
  3. Work together. Make sure you are developing your assessments with your colleagues, and MOST IMPORTANTLY how those assessments will be scored. In fact, try this: develop an assessment for your classes that your colleagues will grade. You grade their students as well. This obviously does not apply to multiple choice tests. 
  4. Your students are your data. If you are asked about data, talk about your students. Tell their stories. There is no better data than your students and their stories. You want to see my data? Talk to my students. No, it's not simple. Why? Because they ARE HUMAN, and humans are complex.
  5. Articulate your authority. Defend your grading policy.  When asked about validity or accuracy, stand up for yourself. You are a professional, your team is a team of professionals, you know what good work looks like, you know what learning looks like, and you know what mastery looks like.  

Here is a great model of assessing mastery, from Around the Horn on ESPN.

Notice how immediately the points worked. Sometimes they were taken away. Did you also notice that there was an opportunity for one "student" to demonstrate mastery at a later time?   How cool would it be if we did this in class?!

Teachers: you know what learning looks like.  You know what thinking looks like.  You know what mastery looks like.  Assert your authority, perfect your craft, and articulate your profession.  That is how we can start making change.  Remember: our students are people, not data points.