Sunday, July 13, 2014

Educational Leadership Condundrum

Lately I haven’t been sleeping too well. To be more accurate, I haven’t been staying asleep too well.  Falling asleep isn’t my problem; staying asleep has been.  For the past couple of months, I have been getting less and less sleep, and I think I know why. My brain is in a constant state of flux; an internal struggle is waging in the educational lobe of my brain. I fall asleep because I am tired; I don’t stay asleep because I’m afraid I know who’s starting to win the war- and my heart doesn’t like it. The struggle is this - Do I do what my professional training knows what is best for the whole child, or do I play by the rules set up by the political winds of the educational game? I find the differences between the two to be growing. Thus, I don’t sleep very well anymore.

The rules of game simply state students and schools are judged by onetime events. You see, the political powers that be have defined academic success as passing a test or passing a series of tests to graduate high school. For the student, it all boils down to a test. For the school, it all depends on testing - averaging the sum total of the tests given. It doesn’t matter that some students are homeless or abused or hungry or scared. It doesn’t matter that schools are facing teacher shortages, outdated textbooks, ancient buildings, rising costs, and declining per pupil revenues. The game refuses to take into consideration poverty and parental involvement; the two things research has shown to have a significant impact on learning. The game simply states students are only successful if they pass the test, and a school is only successful if 90% of the students pass the test at a time arbitrarily set by the politicians.

My professional training tells me something else. Learning is not time dependent - I wholeheartedly believe learning is an individual process without an expiration date. For some, the concept can be learned quickly without effort. For others, the concept doesn’t come as quickly, or it comes with a great deal of effort. My professional training tells me some students can find English Literature fascinating while Geometry is a waste of time. Some students argue with logic while others use emotion. My professional training tells me students from broken homes or from abject poverty or from situations of abuse and neglect need more from their teachers than test prep. My professional training tells me to love the child, give them an early foundation, and later expose them to things to foster interest and cause them to think and explore and expand the world around them.

I know brain based learning; I know the brain takes new concepts and builds upon previous knowledge. In other words, do children need to know math facts like double digit multiplication before they can do Algebra? No, doing Algebra is a behavior that can be taught just like a mouse can be taught to run through a maze. However, a student must know their math facts before they UNDERSTAND Algebra. There is a difference.  Do students need to know dystopia before they comprehend the utopian world of books like The Giver? No, students can comprehend the meaning of the words, but do the words resonate with them; is the underlying theme relevant to them? There is a difference between giving a book report over the main idea, the characters, and the setting and being moved to emotions of joy, sorrow, and empathy.

So the battle rages on - often times in the wee hours of the morning. Do I play the game to obtain the academic success for students and my school as outlined by the rule makers? Do I cast aside the political definition of academic success and follow what my professional training and my heart knows is the best course for the long term educational well being of the child? I am falling asleep quickly because I’m tired. I’m tired because I am trying to accomplish both tasks at the same time. This is the conundrum of educational leadership, and it’s exhausting.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Brave New World: Testing or Thinking?

An argument against High Stakes Testing Accountability:

My argument against high stakes testing accountability is simple; it doesn’t work. To put it more precisely, high stakes testing accountability isn’t increasing student’s ability to put to use the knowledge they are learning.  This is the crux of the problem: the purpose of education. Why do we want our citizens to learn? Is it so that they “know” the answer when confronted with a question? Or is it so they can use their education as a foundation to interpret, analyze, design, and create? Let me put it this way; do we want our children to grow up to be a nation of Jeopardy champions and crossword puzzle experts, or do we want our children to find the cure for Alzheimer’s, compose a symphony, or argue a case before the Supreme Court?  For me personally, I want my daughter to become the 1st female President of the United States. Which brings me to another failure of accountability measures based on high stakes testing; intangible and necessary qualities such as persistence, perseverance, intestinal fortitude, motivation, and leadership can’t be measured. If we want to improve our schools, then we need to move away from the idea that “all kids can learn” and move toward the mantra of “all learners can apply what they know”. Taking a test at the end of the year guarantees learning stays stuck in the “knowledge” arena and not the application mode of education.

The test not only fails to measure what technocrat reformers want it to measure, it has a drastic negative impact on instructional practices. The test changes the goal for both the student and the teacher. The accountability piece incentivizes the prioritization of the false educational goal of test score outcomes. Teachers and students both willingly accept the segmentation of skills and standards as learning outcomes instead of how those newly learned skills and standards can be applied.  Some examples of this negative focus:

  • Deciding to use text passages and multiple choice quizzes instead of novels and Socratic discussions in English Literature or Reading classes because passages and questions are what is on the test.  
  • Taking students out of electives such as Art, Music, etc. so they can take a remediation class so they can take a remediation class so they can pass the state test.
  • Putting off field trips until after April 24th because that is when testing is over.
  • Doing away with World History as a sophomore social studies elective so U.S. History objectives can be taught for 2 years before students have to take the test.

There are many, many more examples of the negative impact caused by the high stakes test and the accountability that comes with it. What I don’t understand is why reformers keep doubling down on high stakes testing. It does not measure the critical thinking and problem solving skills reformers scream is missing from American students. It perpetuates a decline in the application of knowledge everyone thinks is essential to the 21st century. Let us stop the madness of moving in the wrong direction of educating America’s youth.  Let the teachers and the educational experts move from an “all students can learn” to “all learners can apply” model of education. Put the accountability piece where it belongs - with the parents and the local community. Let’s teach our students to think instead of to test.