Monday, January 24, 2011

Putting the "F" Word Back in Education

Smokey Daniels, a well-known literacy guru, was talking about schools at a meeting my staff and I were attending. He stood up and said, “I think we need to put the “F” word back in schools. I mean we need “F” (pause for effect), “U” (another pause), “N” (relieved laughter and clapping).

He’s right, of course. Kids and teachers could use a little more of the “F” word.

When second semester began at my school my school this year you couldn’t find a student in math, science, social studies or English classes.

Instead, the kids were concocting “healthy” cookies in the food lab, banging out ironworks with a blacksmith from England or arguing the finer points of law in mock trial teams.

Me? I was teaching the finer points of fly tying and casting.

It was all part of our annual “intersession” program, a time between the first and second semesters where teachers offer courses based on their expertise outside the academic areas they usually teach and where students learn new skills and activities.

Most of all, it is fun. In this era of high- stakes testing and “accountability,” I have been dismayed by how fun has been taken out of school like air from a balloon. More and more we’ve heard about kindergartners losing recess or play time to test preparation or field trips to cultural sites being scrapped in favor of drill-and-kill drudgery. Time-on-task is measured in minutes, and it squeezes out the occasional classroom diversion or story book read out loud. It’s all in the name of keeping up with some illusive ratings game involving international comparisons of our kids.

Here’s the funny thing: most of those international hot-shot countries aren’t as obsessed with test scores, time-on-task, and all the other stuff we here hold up as the only way to improve schools. Instead, those countries spend time and money on the front end providing for the health and welfare of kids, preparing a strong teaching force and funding their schools in an adequate and sensible way. Then, they stand back and watch all the good stuff happen — probably with a few “intersession” programs like our school uses.

Yes, it’s true that test scores are up in China. Yet employers there say they cannot find employees who can solve problems and come up with creative and innovative solutions. Some of that country’s well-off parents seek to export their children to America for school. Look, China does a great job with cheap, exploited labor producing mass quantities of look-alike goods. Good for them. But that’s not a future I want for my kids.

Historically, it was not kids who had been in school the longest and taken the most tests that led and changed America. Rather, it was the farm boys and girls who knew how to fix tanks with bailing twine and set bones with torn shirts who won World War II. And it was backyard tinkerers like Homer Hickam who launched rockets and created computers. They went to school and took tests, of course. But they also were allowed time to work with their hands and their imaginations.

I am not calling for a return to the “good old days,” a time when some children were consigned to less-demanding classes and other children were not even allowed through the school house door. But I do think we have lost something in our unending quest for lofty standards, more rigor and higher test scores.

That something is the joyfulness of play, and the creativeness of curiosity. We have separated our children from the very world that sustains them. They will be poorer intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually for it.

People smarter than me have pointed this out. Deborah Meier has written how physical and imaginative play is the important work of childhood. Richard Louv has warned us of a “nature deficit disorder. " Sustainability educators have pointed out how children have been disconnected from the physical world which makes their lives possible.

All of these folks are on to the same thing—the best way to engage our children in school is to make sure schooling includes the “F” word.

Our intersession week is one way to do that. And we hold on to it in spite of pressure to cover more content and take more tests. (A confession: tenth-graders spend part of intersession learning “test-taking” skills as a way of making sure they can tackle the state exams. After all, we do live in the real world!)

Amidst all the talk about No Child Left Behind re-authorization, national standards, new tests and budget shortfalls, I suggest those of us who are in the front lines of education – those of us who are actually in the schools -- keep asking the same question: Where can we sneak in a little of the “F” word?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Meet the New Test -- Same as the Old Test

In a recent Washington Post piece, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan repeated a refrain we have heard far too often about the subject of testing.

In a nutshell, Duncan admits that No Child Left Behind and its reliance on standardized, fill-in-the-bubble, multiple guess tests both dumbs-down and narrows instruction. Surprise, surprise.

The Secretary goes on to promise that new consortiums working on assessments will produce “a new test” he claims will “measure what children know across the full range of college and career-ready standards, and measures other skills, such as critical-thinking ability.”

Allow me to express a bit of doubt. For starters, I hope he doesn’t define “new test” as “one test” because that will never accomplish what he claims he wants: an assessment that measures a broad spectrum of student abilities. Further, unless these new tests are uncoupled from the high stakes they currently invoke—such as punishments for schools and teachers—they will be just another standardized, easily scored exam that tell us little about what is really going on in our classrooms.

I am thinking about all of this today because it is the first of two days of our semester performance assessments at our school. At the end of each semester, teachers engage students in extensive, half-day performances of what they have learned. The idea is to have them show what they know through performance rather than filling in bubbles or choosing the right answer from a list of choices.

Here are several examples:

We give our American Government students two opinion pieces that take opposing view points on the recently passed health-care legislation. They are first asked to read the pieces using a literacy strategy called text-marking, and they are assessed on how well they have read. Then, using resources they accessed in class and information they glean from work in the media center, they are asked to draft their own position paper and submit it as an opinion piece for the local newspaper. Finally, they will engage in a Socratic Seminar discussing both the pieces they read and their own writing. A team of teachers using the rubrics students have used all semester long will evaluate each piece of the work.

Chemistry students begin class with a paper-and-pencil activity in which they balance chemical equations and solve for missing quantities. They then move to the lab where they will find a station with the requisite materials to conduct an experiment. The task: complete the experiment and produce a full lab report that includes the hypothesis tested, the results gained, and implications for further research.

And in physical education our students spend the first part of the period using a web site to determine their metabolic levels and basic data. Then they select a candy bar from their teacher’s desk. Now, the kicker: they are asked to design and then perform a 60-minute exercise program based on what they have learned this semester that will work off those calories!

I could go on, but you get the drift.

We are not perfect at this work. That’s why we take time after the assessment days are over to review how the assessments went and, most important, what we learned about our students’ abilities. What we find impacts our teaching next time around.

Compare this kind of assessment to our students’ experience with the Ohio Graduation Test, which is used for both state and federal accountability reporting. Each test -- reading, math, writing, science and social studies -- takes the same amount of time. But rather than ask students to do something with what they know, these tests ask them to regurgitate what they have heard. In fairness, there is some writing on the tests, but most of it still involves selecting the right answer from a list of givens.

Add to this shallowness the fact that our faculty never gets to see full student results or the writing samples and how they were graded. It does little to inform teaching except to let teachers know they should spend more time on The Boxer Rebellion, photosynthesis, or two-step equations, or similar inferences based on aggregate scores of the entire class.

Duncan applauds NCLB for disaggregating data—but bad data disaggregated is still bad data. And let’s be honest. All this so-called “data-driven decision-making” talk should really be called what it is: test-driven decision making. Ohio’s school report cards consist of 26 “data” points, and 24 of them—92%--are test scores.

By the end of this week we will have mountains of information on our students, their achievement, and our teaching. All schools could have the same information. The New York Performance Assessment Consortium has demonstrated time and time again that performance assessments, teacher-designed and evaluated, have led to higher rates of student success both in and after school.

I wish I could believe that the new Congress, in some yet to be found bi-partisan spirit, would end the reliance on standardized tests—much like the higher- achieving nations we point to with admiration. But when Duncan continues to talk about one standardized, high-stakes evaluation, I have more than a few doubts.

In the meantime, our school will continue to use what we learn about our kids through performance assessments to improve instruction and prepare them for the years after high school -- years where what you can do will count for a lot more than what you can memorize.