On Assessment: Destinations, Waypoints, and Setting Big Goals

The Ultimate Destination

Ever since my two year old daughter expressed a curly-haired interest in Minnie and Mickey Mouse, I’ve had what is for me, an unnatural urge to take my family on holiday to the Wonderful World of Disney.

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This is not an abnormal feeling for most. Walt’s wonderland has become the ultimate destination not just for families packed into minivans, but for all kinds of achievers, including Super Bowl MVPs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LxWNgufQrg4

While planning my family’s trip, one thing immediately became clear. Kissimmee Florida is a looonnng way from Indianapolis. Our journey (by car at least) would by necessity most likely include stops in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia.

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And of course, having a plan and knowing the route will be important. The road to Disney World after all, isn’t clearly marked as such. To get to get to the place “dreams are made of”  requires first following the signs to places like Louisville, Nashville, Chattanooga, and others. And then of course, moving on toward our ultimate destination.

But what if we didn’t move on? What if, on our way to Disney, we abandoned our plan and map, and started circling Marietta, Georgia? What if we got distracted and spent our entire vacation in Mufreesboro, Tennessee? No offense to the good people of Marietta and Mufreesboro-I’m sure both are wonderful places to live, but neither sound like a dream destination, and I doubt that I’d be able to get my kids excited about going there.

Getting Lost at the Pit Stops

Unfortunately, this seems to be exactly what is happening in schools today. Instead of setting big goals for our students, lawmakers have become obsessed with getting our students to the educational equivalent of Mufreesboro. Higher-level thinking and interdisciplinary projects have been replaced with multiple choice questions of mid-level difficulty (at-best), and page after page of standards minutia. And perhaps what’s worst is that even educators seem to have been brainwashed by this approach to education. My school’s principal was recently promoting Project Based Learning to some members of our staff, and I later listened as a veteran math teacher complained, “Projects just don’t work for math; there’s no way I can get through all the standards I have to teach if we waste a lot of time working on projects”.

And sadly, the mediocrity doesn’t stop there. The main, ultimate goal of our building’s school improvement plan this year was improve student achievement scores on the language arts portion of the ISTEP+ (Indiana’s State Exam). We spent hours brainstorming, planning and implementing a strategy just to possibly move the needle a few places, to make our numbers just a wee bit higher.

Not So Fast My Friend

Standards and lower level skills certainly have their place in education. In fact, they are vital. Students must learn basic skills before they can fully reach their potential as a critical thinkers. And schools should continue to try to raise test scores, and what’s more, educational leaders should continue to place these types of goals in school improvement plans. Schools must continue to disaggregate data to identify strengths and weaknesses and then remedy those weaknesses.

Using our example of a trip to Disneyland, it is important to notice that it is impossible to drive to Disney without first passing through some small towns in Georgia or Alabama. Big, exciting destinations always have smaller, less glamorous checkpoints that must be reached first. The same is true at school.

So I don’t have a problem with schools making student achievement on standardized tests a  goal, even a slightly important goal. My problem is that too many schools are making test achievement THE goal.

Making a school’s primary goal “a 90% pass rate on both the math and language arts portions of the _______________ (Insert your state test acronym here)” sells our students short because it is so middling, so ordinary, so mediocre as to inspire…absolutely nothing.

Setting High Expectations

If schools truly want to set high expectations for students they must begin with the end in mind. Just a short list of the things our students will accomplish after leaving our hallways will include the following:

  • building, planning, and navigating the first manned trip to Mars
  • creating an inexpensive, readily available cure to cancer
  • writing a Pulitzer Prize winning article or book
  • creating, developing, or discovering a renewable energy source to replace fossil fuel
  • explaining how light actually works (it can’t really be both a wave and a particle, can it?)
  • performing a symphony at the Kennedy Center (or writing said symphony)
  • negotiating real peace in the middle east

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Helping our students accomplish these things (and countless others) requires much more  than a test score. Schools must create opportunities for students to test the scientific method by creating projects and participating science fairs and physics competitions, to explore their creativity by writing stories, articles and essays, play music as a part of orchestras and bands, create artwork in different mediums and win prizes in local and national contests, and of course, interact and participate in high level discussions about real world issues.

These must be the goals that drive us, and we must share them with our students, parents, and communities. That is how we will get our students to Disneyland.

Test scores are just a pit stop on the way there.

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It’s Not About the Device

Many schools wrestle with the idea of technology in the hands of each and every student. Leaders wonder if the results of implementing a 1:1 initiative or “BYOT” policy will result in learning gains that justify the cost of devices, training, or both.

Further, leadership continues to wonder which device or devices would be best to use, or what policies would need to be in place to ensure that students used the devices for intended academic purposes. What teacher training is needed, and how much time will it take? I even hear the question “What will the students use them/it for?”

While each of these questions has some merit, I am both disappointed and flummoxed, because these questions alone suggest that we have missed the most important point of technology integration in schools and the 1:1 movement. Because the most vital part of this movement has nothing to do with an ipad, a tablet, or even technology at all.

Google Handyman

A few months ago, my wife informed me that our washing machine had given up the ghost. After a quick inspection, I could tell that it definitely wasn’t working. This was a big problem, because at the time our budget barely allowed for repairs, much less new appliances.  And even getting someone out to look at the machine was going to be costly.

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Wishful thinking made me wonder if I would be able to fix the machine myself. My wife lovingly reminded me that I had no experience with plumbing or electricity, and in fact, am not mechanically inclined whatsoever.

Stubbornness prevailed and I found after a quick Google search that our particular model Sears-Kenmore washer had a tendency that caused its “lid switch” to fail.  A further search revealed YouTube videos showing an experienced handyman replacing the lid switch on a machine identical to our own in an easy to follow, step-by-step manner. And, even better, when the local hardware store quoted a price of $69.95 for a new lid switch, Amazon.com came to the rescue and delivered the part for a grand total of $4.95.

A few hours after the new part was delivered, after snapping the last piece of the washer back into place, I started a load of laundry in our newly fixed machine and felt my masculinity surge. I had done it!

In this way, a man who has in the past struggled for hours to change a burned out headlight was able to diagnose a broken washing machine, order the correct replacement parts, disassemble, fix and reassemble the machine at a cost that was less than the price of a book of stamps.

Just ten years ago, this would have been impossible. But, equipped with the right information, anyone can be an appliance repairman. And most importantly, as I had discovered, the information now is out there.

A Change in Thinking Required

       A change in educators’ thinking and pedagogy is required more than any 1:1 initiative or BYOT policy. Institutions like schools, universities, and yes, even electricians unions, used to be the gatekeepers of knowledge and skill. But no longer.  As I learned from my successful bout with our washing machine, the information to learn and accomplish almost anything is just a few clicks away. Educators need to realize that they are no longer the keepers or guardians of knowledge, and most of all, they need to help their students believe it. The most vital piece of knowledge a teacher can impart to a student is the belief and understanding that no matter what the student dreams of learning or accomplishing, the information they need to make their dream a reality is out there. And most of it is relatively easy to find.

It’s About Information, not a Device

Educators should give students access to technological devices like tablets and Chromebooks not for the sake of technology, but to give each child access to the cornucopia of information and resources available via the web.

The challenge will be helping students to see something that they now view as a messaging and gaming tool as a something more. Mobile devices are portals into the vast stream of information on the web, and students need to practice accessing this information, sifting through it to identify the most valid pieces, and finally, using those pieces to create their desired finished product.

The Possibilities are Endless

            It used to be a studio was necessary to produce a song, and an agent was needed to publish a book. No longer. A student can now easily create and publish a song and a novel on the same device and share it with thousands of others as fast as you can say “Tap”. Once educators equip all students to effectively navigate and utilize the information and resources available to them online, they will have given students the ultimate gift: the ability to teach themselves literally anything.

At the very least, they should be able to fix their own appliances.

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Attention Texas Lawmakers: The Matrix Has You

Lawmakers and citizens in the state of Texas recently attempted to inject ultra-conservative political thinking into educational philosophy when they announced their attempt to eradicate critical thinking from the state’s curriculum.

No, that wasn’t a joke. Critical thinking, or the ability to use higher order thinking skills to analyze, synthesize and evaluate new information, is prized as the summit of the educational process in every corner of the earth.

Well, almost every corner.

The Huffinton Post reported on the story:

The position causing the most controversy, however, is the statement that they oppose the teaching of “higher order thinking skills” — a curriculum which strives to encourage critical thinking — arguing that it might challenge “student’s fixed beliefs” and undermine “parental authority.


Read the full article here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/27/texas-republican-party-2012-platform-education_n_1632097.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000003

News flash: When fixed beliefs are challenged, we get ideas like the helio-centric solar system, The Magna Carta, The Emancipation Proclamation, and last, but certainly not least, Moneyball. When we fearfully maintain the status quo, we get all the not so good stuff that came before those things.

There is something to be said for discretion, for not diving rashly into the unknown without rhyme or rationale. I’m not suggesting that new ideas are sound on the basis of their novelty alone, because they are not.

However, if simple analysis and evaluation are a serious threat to an established idea or way of thinking, then it wasn’t that great of an idea to begin with.

The problem with championing conservative thinking simply because it is conservative is that this never yields any positive innovation. It is by its nature, against change. And I have to think that the driving force behind all this ideological feet dragging isn’t prudence, but fear, plain and simple.

It’s a fact that human beings are naturally resistant to change. However, our greatest and truest leaders have always been those with the courage to implement necessary innovation regardless of the outcry from the fearful majority.

One of the primary purposes of education is to give potential future leaders the tools they need to analyze, evaluate, and innovate a swiftly changing planet. Lawmakers need to stop telling educators what we can and can’t teach, and start asking how they can best help. They need to stop fearfully dragging us toward a romanticized past, and have the pluck to do what they were elected to do: lead us forward.

The Texas Republican Party is clearly lacking this kind of courageous leadership. If they get their way, future generations won’t have the skills, ability or confidence to make needed change either.

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