And the Children Shall Lead
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.