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Failure to Launch Learning

May 14, 2012

Photos courtesy of Tom Collett.

“Last week, our class launched a rocket.”  

Sounds fun, doesn’t it?  I wish my class launched a rocket.  When I was a kid, we did have some great experiential and project-based learning experiences – but no rockets.  Unfortunately, that sentence about rocket-launching isn’t quoted from an actual student or teacher, nor did it orginate from an actual classroom.   It’s simply a random, isolated sentence on a worksheet, used by third-graders to prepare for their standardized tests.

While walking to work the other day I was browsing through my Public Radio Player app on the iPhone, and decided to check out a podcast of the Tavis Smiley Radio Program (May 4, 2012).   I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but as it turned out, the program featured a segment on education.  More specifcally, Smiley has begun a radio follow-up to his televised reports on the educational experiences of Black males in the United States, titled “Too Important to Fail.  In this podcast, there was a segment for which a producer from Smiley’s program had spent a school day shadowing a third grader, Don’jae Adams, at Oak Street Elementary School in Inglewood, California (neighboring Los Angeles).  Smiley doesn’t hint at any particular conclusion or lesson we should derive from learning about Don’jae’s experience in school, but I came away discouraged.

With minimal introduction, Smiley lets the segment begin, and the producer explains that the show’s focus on a third-grader has to do with studies that suggest this year is the key to future success in school.  We also find out that 90% of the students at Oak Creek are economically disadvantaged.  The report does not mention that the school is one of many in the state that have landed in the gap between state and federal accountability systems.  By California’s system, the school is meeting its growth target.  It is above average for all elementary schools, in the seventh decile overall, and in the top decile for ratings of comparable schools.  However, the school is also in the second stage of program improvement (PI) under the provisions of No Child Left Behind, having made adequate yearly progress in only 12 of 17 categories.  So, whatever the qualities of the school overall, we can understand that the Oak Creek administrators and staff might be worried about this year’s test scores.

As the program begins to immerse the listener in Don’jae’s school day, we hear his teacher review the day’s agenda and begin the Pledge of Allegiance.   Then, we are told, the test prep begins – with the actual state tests to follow later in the week – “using grade-level Kaplan test work sheets.”

“Last week, our class launched a rocket.”  When I heard the teacher read this sentence, my mind flashed momentarily to images of students actually launching rockets.  Imagine how much more these students might learn if rocketry was something they could experience, rather than the the subject of a non-contextualized sentence with no relevance to anything in the classroom or the students’ lives.  I’d consider it likely that some of the students have no idea that there are rockets students actually can launch, and they might very well have been wondering what that sentence actually means: how could school children launch rockets into space or up to the moon?

As you can see from the pictures below, students really can launch rockets.  These pictures were provided by Tom Collett, a 2012 California Teacher of the Year, and sponsor of a middle school rocketry program at Newark Junior High School in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Now, some clever readers are thinking “launching rockets won’t teach students how to spot the subject of a sentence” – and that’s true.  But launching rockets might give them a reason to care about the subject of a sentence.  Because a student who launches a rocket for school purposes should certainly then write about it.  And if they’re learning to write, they’ll not only need to talk about sentence structure, but they might want to; they might care about why sentence structure matters.  After all, they’d be writing about something personal, meaningful, and relevant.

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But it doesn’t matter in test prep.  No authentic meaning or purpose, no discussion.  The sentence could say anything, because all that matters is that Don’jae can choose the subject of the sentence from the four choices provided.  The sentence is not part of anything, and the next sentence will have no connection to the rocket sentence.

Then, we hear Don’Jae reading about Benjamin Franklin flying a kite in a lightning storm to test his theory about electricity.  But again, it’s apparently test prep, not part of any study of science or history.  Couldn’t students read something without multiple choice questions at the end, perhaps because they themselves could be sending something skyward, to conduct their own experiment?

Students could.

If you have the time to watch this TED video by Brian Crosby, you should (right after you finish reading).  Instead of reading about Benjamin Franklin for test prep, imagine reading the same passage and then going out to launch your class weather balloon to an altitude of 100,000 feet.  Would that motivate you to do more reading and writing?  And to care about it for more than the minute or two it takes to bubble in the answers to someone else’s questions?  (And thanks to Brian for giving me a little sliver of TED cred at the end).


So, back to Don’jae’s day at Oak Street Elementary.  As if the morning of test prep wasn’t inspirational enough, after lunch, there was an “awards assembly” – though in the portion we hear in the program, the principal “stressed the importance of good test scores.”

“All we can do is ask you to do your best…”  he tells his students.  Okay, not bad.  But you don’t hold an assembly and stop at that.  A moment later, the pressure ratchets up a bit: “Those tests are meant to be hard.  They challenge you.  So you have to be detectives to get all the answers right.”  Get them all right?  Or if not, you’re not a good enough detective?  Sorry, am I being a bit picky here?

But then, he adds, “This is your time to show the state, and show everybody – ’cause again, your name’s on that test.  So, it’s not my name, it’s your name.  So everyone looks at you and said, ‘Look at this person, how smart they are.  Look at this person – that means they struggled here.  So do your best.  It’s a reflection of you, your parents, your teacher, your principal, your school – it’s everyone.”  Now, there’s too much on the line.  I know what the principal is trying to do for the kids, and I know what he’s trying to do for his school.  I’m sure he’s a fine person, but he’s caught in a messed up system – because the tests don’t show “how smart” Don’jae is.  To the extent that the test reflects the child, parents, teacher, principal, or school, it’s a rather small and imprecise reflection, and it shouldn’t be that significant.  And we certainly shouldn’t lay that much on a little kid before they spend days being examined with a rather shoddy test.  We shouldn’t run a school, district, or state according to the results that little kids generate on these lousy tests.

A ray of hope… at the end of the day, Don’jae explained what he liked about school: learning things you don’t know, like “how to times bigger numbers.”  And why would that be worthwhile?  Why try hard in school?  “So you could get your education and maybe one day you might start your own career, and you might start you own business.  Just be yourself and do your own thing, and that’s how you be a student.  And listen to the teacher.”

From the mouths of babes…

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Cheryl Suliteanu permalink
    May 14, 2012 9:00 am

    Every year I struggle with the big assemblies we have to acknowledge the test. My current school site has an awards assembly early in the year to recognize the kids that scored proficient or advanced – while their peers who scored lower have to sit and think about the fact that they didn’t do well enough. Jealous much? Embarrassed maybe? Ugh. Then in April, we have our STAR assembly where every grade level (including kinder and first who know nothing about it) make up songs, dances, cheers, and even little skits to “encourage” the school to do their best on the test. I think that encouragement like that is great – the kids get ramped up, they see it as something exciting… until a principal like the one at the Inglewood school takes it to an awful low by putting so much pressure on the students like the world revolves around this one test. Double ugh…
    Next year I am moving from teaching kindergarten to teaching 5th grade – a move I am looking forward to tremendously. I fully intend to facilitate the learning of every child in my class based on our state standards – including actual rocket launching. I still remember my 5th grade teacher Mr. Heath who had us all create rockets, bring them to school, and have a whole day devoted to launching our rockets out in the school field, then writing about it. If he were still alive today, I can promise you his students would get a rigorous education where fun and exploration are still the driving component of his lesson planning… and he would deplore the state of education today.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      May 14, 2012 10:20 am

      Thanks for your reading and sharing your comments, Cheryl. I’m glad you’ll have a chance to do some meaningful and authentic teaching and learning with your class next year – including the rockets! To be fair, I don’t know for sure what the curriculum looks like outside of this test prep segment we heard – but the idea of wasting time on that is so sad to me. If Oak Creek is like the other PI schools I hear about and read about, I’d wager they do a fair amount of this stuff. I might do a blog post on the tests themselves, using the sample questions. There are too many people willing to promote test scores as policy levers without knowing the poor quality of the tests – maybe they should take a look.

      As for those assemblies, wouldn’t it be cute to see skits and songs that promoted school unity, community involvement, character development, etc.? Put that energy to better use! Then I hear about test-day advice: get lots of sleep, a healthy breakfast, drink enough water, etc. And I think to myself, gosh, if those tips help academic performance, why aren’t they being mentioned all year long? If snacks are good for brain function, why don’t we provide snacks all the time? It’s kind of backwards, isn’t it, to put this extra investment into showing what you’ve learned, rather than putting extra effort into learning?

  2. May 15, 2012 8:42 am

    I appreciate your points Cheryl. It helped me look at this post a little different. Personally, I am one who sees potential in every kid. I’m not in education but through my church I spend time getting to know the youth and they open up about their struggles from time to time. Not every one of them is a star athlete or exceptional scholar but through patience I have been able to identify strengths in each them. This has helped me figure out how to appeal to them when teaching and help them realize the potential in their own talents.

  3. Joanna permalink
    May 19, 2012 1:15 pm

    I am a parent in a small community here in Southern California. Our schools here are all in the last stages of PI. For this coming year the School Board has voted to lay off 83 teachers, more than 20% of our educators. Our children will be in classes of 40-45 students. They will have subs rotating every 30 days. As a community we are rallying to get this reversed. It is amazing that this can happen to our children. We can’t find a solution against a board that serves their own best interest.

  4. Linda permalink
    May 23, 2012 5:17 am

    You are so right. We are not teaching our children how to think and how to engage in actually learning, but teaching to the myriad of tests the children in this country need to endure which in reality do NOT really show that they learned anything. Testing in this country is BIG BUSINESS and SHAME ON US. Most educators in Europe are agog at what we put our students through. However, I am sure you are aware of Linda Darling-Hammond and Diane Ravich who are trying to get REAL educational reform begun and not just trying to “bandage” what we have now. We need to totally dismantle what we have and begin anew; we must make children want to learn (but to me, does NOT always mean using technology and the computer) and to see the value in it with emphasis on our minority students as they will become the majority of this nation when they are into adulthood.

    I just retired from teaching, and have jumped on the bandwagon of these two to stop the insanity; and to be honest, I don’t see how the approach to the common core standards will rectify this. I do think we should have a national “common core” like most countries do, but they should not be in the hundreds like we tend to do, but be a more manageable number where our students CAN prove they have mastered them in a way that is NOT always a multiple-choice test. If you have not seen the Linda Darling-Hammond’s webinar on this topic that she gave, I think 3 years ago, I would be happy to send it to you.

    Thank you for all that you are doing both in and out of the classroom.
    PS. I think the title of this article would be an interesting one for this educational reform or at least a book about it when it is done. 🙂

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