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.
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.
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
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.