Sunday, November 29, 2015

How do We Unstandardize Testing?

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in on a fireside chat with Dr. Pam Moran, our Albemarle County Public Schools Superintendent and twenty-five or so teachers across grade levels, school administrators, instructional coaches, and the like. The chat was a closing session to our division-wide professional development day, Making Connections. Participants talked about many local and national school-related topics in this informal setting, and the conversation drifted toward assessment.

It seems like almost all of our chats, fireside or not, can lead us to state or nationally imposed standardized tests. Anyone following these conversations is bound to see that change is once more upon us. While assessment has been driven by politicians, state departments, philanthropists, and – depending on how you look at it – educators for the past couple of decades, it is certain that the next generation of American public schools will enable and foster assessments determined by  perhaps – again – educators, parents, and believe it or not, children. For a terrific read on this topic, I recommend The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing – But You Don’t Have to Be by Anya Kamenetz.

I bring this up, because during Pam’s chat, Andrew Wymer, a terrific Physical Education teacher at Burley Middle School, made a comment aligned with Kamenetz’s prediction about students’ self-assessment in the near future. Kamenetz refers to testing for accountability as a motor built on mistrust. This motor is running out of gas in terms of political support, but what will come in its wake? If we seize this momentary lapse as a chance to do what is right for students, we will balance assessment and put the “test” in the hand of the student to exercise Daniel Pink’s defined drivers for learning:autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Essentially, what will be the context for these drivers and the content mastery that students measure? Andrew said, and I paraphrase, that the context should be the student’s health and well-being. We have far too long made the so called core subjects the center and even the basis of our work. They are important, but only as far as they fuel curiosity, learning, and purpose in the context of the child’s well-being. We treat healthy living as a curriculum, and it is squeezed in around the edges of academics. How might we redesign schools so that each student’s health and personal development comes first as the educational container with everything else fitting into and supporting it? Why not? Keep the math, science, civics, and language arts framed within the whole and individual child. From there, help students learn to assess themselves against competency measures while periodically participating in low-stakes “tests” for school responsibility to impart the guaranteed curriculum. 

It will take a lot of smarts and hard work to make these changes, and I think it’s a more sustainable, rational, and balanced approach. Designing learning and assessment in this way is more divergent, less predictable, and hardly standardized – kind of like high quality learning?

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Whatsoever You Do...

          Ever since my dad passed away a few years ago, his younger brother Ray and I meet for lunch three or four times a year. My Uncle Raymond turned eighty this year, and he is one of the wisest people I know. We talk about faith and books; we reminisce about my dad; we talk about our careers; and we talk a lot about education. When we part, Raymond always braces my shoulders, looks me deep into the eyes, and tells me in his bass-toned voice, “Matthew, you are doing God’s work.” It’s hard for me to convey the positive impact his words have on me.

          The last time we met, Ray said something I’ve been pondering: “Matthew, people say that we are what we think we are, but when we are small – children – we are and become what the people important to us tell us we are.” Of course, the flip-side of this comment is that “big” people are equally defined by how we treat those who are small, the least of us. We cannot be great and mistreat the people who depend on us most, often children.

          One of my favorite metaphors from Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is his -explanation of the “trim tab.” He illustrates the idea that tall orders of change begin with the smallest of changes, similar to the way an ocean liner’s ten-story tall rudder is first pushed by its tiny trim tab; the whole ship then begins to veer. I believe it. I also believe that the direction we take as a society, in particular as public schools, is defined by how we treat the smallest of us and those who depend on schools the most to meet their learning, social, and physical needs. Are all the responsibilities to transport, feed, accommodate, and nurture children of all strengths and challenges unfair? I don’t think so.

          American public schools exist to share with all. Our schools are like a ten-story rudder guiding the nation to a better place, a smarter society, a world-driving economy and democracy. It all starts when we first reach out to take the hand of a four- or five-year-old who needs us, and we do our best for the least.