Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Challenge the Vision

Image result for blurry vision
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

Image result for report card

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.