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And the Children Shall Lead

February 28, 2011

I have been to rock concerts and I have been to town halls.  But, on an overcast morning in downtown Los Angeles, at one of this mega-district’s newest public high schools, I was about to experience an interesting hybrid of the two.  It was a seamless combination of celebrity and the cerebral, pomp and the circumstance, all in the name of education.  A human soundtrack of chatter, laughs, and greetings filled the auditorium at the Edward A. Roybal Learning Center, which was packed with students, educators, community members, elected officials, and media.  At the front of the room, several large TV screens played interviews with people sharing stories about the difference teachers had made in their lives.  As cameras flashed, and the crowd cheered, boxer and local hero Oscar de la Hoya took the stage, followed by recording artist and actor John Legend.  Students jumped, waved, and yelled, “We love you!” to both legends.  Although a bit down the celebrity meter for this crowd, but still stars to many, the balance of the panel arrived on-stage:  U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, several teachers, and two recent high school graduates pursuing education degrees.  All had gathered to discuss important issues concerning our education system.

The opening remarks focused on the need to have high standards and systems of accountability at our schools so that each student is provided with access to a challenging curriculum and authentic learning experiences.  The prepared remarks hit all the familiar, yet important, themes of the current national discussion about the state of our education system.  There were follow-up questions by the moderator, and cogent responses.

Yet, when the floor was opened to the audience, the questions from the students went right to the heart of the issue.  They were direct and frank.  They challenged the extent to which political rhetoric and policy are matched with real support for students and teachers.  They questioned how well existing accountability systems help their teachers do their jobs well.  They wondered why they should enter such a challenging and challenged profession.

As we continue to talk about the role of assessment in our education system, there are some key aspects missing from the conversation.  To start, what do standardized summative assessments really tell us and are they the best way to gauge learning and improve teaching practices?  Even opponents have trouble framing the issue and proving their point.  For example, many teacher associations criticize proposals to evaluate teachers based on student test scores, but a recent evaluation funded by a state teachers association praised the effectiveness of the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA) by pointing to the increase in API scores.  Aren’t API scores student test scores?

There is a fundamental imbalance in the time we spend and the weight we place on the state mandated summative assessments.  These finite evaluations are too often used as the single barometer to determine whether a school or teacher is successfully teaching students.  The scores, obsessively poured over each fall by teachers, schools, districts, politicians, and policy-makers have been used to point fingers and place blame.  In so doing, we all miss the most important data right in front of us each day:  the students.  What is the learning that is taking place in our classrooms?  What are the formative assessments that we are planning and implementing, and how can teachers use these assessment results to guide their practice?  What are the questions our students are asking?  What are the areas of confusion and how can teachers clarify and expand student understanding of these concepts or topics?

It seems basic that improved learning and achievement cannot happen in an environment that places such extraordinary weight on a single exam, especially if we do not dedicate adequate resources to build the capacity of our teachers and students.   In addition, this weight we place on our standardized summative assessments often undermines the skills and dispositions we need to develop in our students.  As a society, we need to cultivate a new generation of artists and engineers, authors and inventors, not just students who study these fields and the accomplishments of others.  We need to provide the requisite resources to create school environments that provide teachers with the time and tools to reflect on their own practice of instruction.  We need to ensure that teachers have the opportunity to deconstruct and analyze the formative assessments and relevant learning opportunities we provide our students each day.  We need to give our students the opportunity to take intellectual risks, make mistakes, and learn alongside their teachers.

American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer John Dewey talked about the role of the teacher as a “partner in the learning process, guiding students to independently discover meaning within the subject area.”  In our schools, and in the assessments we use to measure success, there needs to be a greater emphasis placed on this authentic data.  If students in a high school auditorium, amid celebrity and excitement, are engaged enough to know the difference between rhetoric and practice, the importance of proper support for students and teachers, and the need to find accountability systems that provide relevant and useful data, the rest of us should be as well.  Then again, if these students are able to ask such nuanced, sophisticated, and challenging questions, and take intellectual risks before such an august panel, maybe things aren’t as hopeless as they seem to some.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 28, 2011 9:26 am

    I just came back from a conference in San Francisco entitled ‘Learning and the Brain”, and the one point that all the neurosurgeons, PH.D guest speakers from Ivy League schools, Stanford and gathered pundits made in common was that creativity trumps paper and pencil assessments every single time, whether there is any assessment component or not. These experts were completely disenchanted with the multiple choice style evaluations that our students are being subjected to. In an age where computers, electronic devices and cell phones abound, there is no excuse for not bringing life and vitality back into the classroom by teaching the kids where they are plugged in. It is a sad state of affairs when children are being asked to regurgitate tired old axioms, and that is the measure of their success. Look it up in Google and move on to more productive measures of youthful creativity. The testing proponents are the true fossils of the educational universe. Mr. Villaraigoza should spend a little more time in the classrooms he champions, and a little less time preening for the cameras.

  2. David B. Cohen permalink*
    February 28, 2011 2:06 pm

    Kelly, you raised a key issue that everyone who cares about these issues should understand:

    “Even opponents have trouble framing the issue and proving their point. For example, many teacher associations criticize proposals to evaluate teachers based on student test scores, but a recent evaluation funded by a state teachers association praised the effectiveness of the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA) by pointing to the increase in API scores. Aren’t API scores student test scores?”

    First of all, I would note that the state tests were primarily introduced to measure schools and school systems, so it’s not entirely problematic to trumpet QEIA results with school test scores and resist application of those tests to evaluation of teachers. In fact, that’s precisely the critique from AERA, NCME, and APA – that you can’t take measures validated for one purpose and then apply them for other purposes without establishing the validity of that secondary purpose.

    But that’s secondary to your larger issue, I think. If we are going to tear down the tests, we have to be careful about building claims of success around test scores. We have a conundrum there. On one hand, I can almost feel a certain defensiveness in the QEIA issue. After all, schools qualified for that intervention based on test scores, so they better show results with test scores to justify the expenditure. Still, you and I both know that schools with sustained growth and consistently high test scores are often places where the tests themselves hold little value and the focus is on better quality teaching and learning. So, for anyone hoping to prove something about school quality, it’s certainly worth thinking very carefully about whether or not test scores are really measuring that, and if so, how those test scores should be presented and understood in the larger discussion.

  3. March 1, 2011 5:48 am

    I’m most intrigued by the student comments to which you refer. Did anyone listen to them? How did the policy bigwigs (apparently John Legend thinks he’s a policy bigwig as well, as I recall him also going on Oprah as an education policy “expert”) react when students exposed the gaps in their arguments?

  4. Jen R permalink
    March 2, 2011 9:26 pm

    Thanks for this post Kelly. I agree with Mark – how did “they” respond to the students’ questions and concerns. Honestly I have been a bit disgusted by everything going on around the country and how teachers are getting slammed. Your blog has reminded me to filter through the rhetoric and focus on our students. I particularly like your comment… “We need to give our students the opportunity to take intellectual risks, make mistakes, and learn alongside their teachers.” Thanks!

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