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There’s never enough time to blog and reblog all of the interesting resources we find during the week, so we decided to start a Best of the Week List where we share all of the education-related blogs, articles, apps and resources we come across every week.
Reading and Language Arts
Technology in the Classroom
Originally posted at Curriculum21.com/blog
Follow Mike on Twitter: @fisher1000
Digital Learning Strategies now available from the ASCD Store
This is the first in an ongoing series of posts inspired by How I Work, a bi-weekly series on one of our favorite sites, Lifehacker. As educators, we like to know how other educators work, how they live, and how they play, so every other week we’ll be featuring a new interview with a new teacher. This week, we’ll hear from Marc Hamlin, an English Language Arts teacher from West Greenwich, Rhode Island.
Location: Exeter- West Greenwich Regional Senior High School, West Greenwich, RI 02817
Desired location: Eventually, I want to move on to teaching at a local community college. I want to “age with the profession.” I can’t say I’ll have the same relevance or world view of a 15 or 16 year-old when I’m in my late 50s-early 60s.
Current work title (administrator/teacher/school technologist, etc.) Also, what grade do you teach?: It’s interesting. I taught ELA at my school for the first 8 years of my career. Then, I had an opportunity to teach educational technology for 10 years. It was fun, but 10 years of teaching in “The Bunker” (room with no windows) can really warp your perception of reality. Then I went back to my first love, ELA, and here I am, but with a strong technology skillset. I’m all about integrating technology into lessons to improve learning.
Area of expertise (subjects you teach or have an interest in): ELA, computer technology, web design, computer networking and network design, relational database management systems (RDBMS) with languages like MySQL.
Do you have a specific long-term career goal?: Yes, I want to start creating instructional videos on YouTube. I really think it’s now, not the future.
Languages you have studied or currently speak: Well, It’s funny. On my father’s side, they came from France and Belgium. On my mother’s side, they came from French-speaking Canada (Quebec). But the language was taken out of them when they went to school (My mother spoke French until she went to school.) They were told not to speak French at home. It was all about assimilation, then.
As a consequence, I speak the French I learned in French class- “Un petit peu.” I feel I’ve lost a good deal of my cultural heritage as a result. When I look at Hispanic students, I think, “Yes, learn English, but don’t ever stop speaking your language. Once you lose that, you lose your cultural treasures.”
The project you’re most proud of: The “Sweded Video Project” is my very favorite. Inspired by the Jack Black/Danny Glover/Mos Def film, “Be Kind, Rewind,” the project centers around creating stories (or adapting stories read during the semester) to a five-minute “short attention-span” theater.
Imagine breaking down Moby Dick to 5 minutes. It’s breathtaking. It’s not merely about how we tell stories, but why, after all these thousands of years, we still gather around an electric campfire to hear and tell each other stories. And unlike other group projects, each student has a clearly defined job, with a “deliverable” at the end of the process. That part is 70% of the project grade. The video is only 25%. They make a movie poster using Photoshop to promote their movie- 5%. We have a large-format printer that allows us to print to poster size. We put these posters up in the hallway to promote their videos. Then, we roll out a red carpet at “premiere time” and “movie day” becomes a party, a human coming-together. I’d like Arne Duncan to put that through his testing regime and see what he comes up with.
Favorite technology gadget for the classroom: I’m a big fan of BYOD (bring your own device). As long as your platform isn’t too esoteric, most devices can play nice-nice with web 2.0 tools out there. I’m now exploring a site called exittix.com to facilitate some formative assessment strategies in my classroom, but we’re not 1:1 yet. Until then, 5-up (hold up five fingers, students self-assess their competency before and after a lesson) will have to suffice.
And I’d be crazy not to mention the impact Edmodo.com has had on my classroom. Parents, students both know what is expected of them, and when. Not to mention the fact that I don’t lose out to snow days anymore. And it’s a place for students to distill what they think about a work or a topic before they are asked to comment, at night, in a thread.
Next conference/professional-development event you’re planning to give or attend: I’ll be attending something called “Writing Strategies to meet CCSS” which is supposed to be good. I’m going with my department on 3/17. If it doesn’t work out, well, there’s an Irish bar across the street from the conference site. So after the conference, I may have to go in there for a debriefing.
How many hours per day do you usually work?: As a teacher of ELA, I often work 10 hours per day. At 48, I can’t work as long or as late into the night as I used to. When I first started, I’d be up until 12, 1 am…Now I have rules for myself. Like, “Don’t bring home more than you can evaluate in one night.” Otherwise, that “teacher bag” can become something of a nemesis.
Are you an early-riser or a night-owl?: It’s also seasonal, and generational. Used to be a major night owl back in my younger days. Hated mornings. Now, I’m in bed by 9:30-10 p.m. because I’m up at 5:30 for work. I like to get in early- 6:30 or so, plan, think, and pray that God gives me the wisdom and the words to help every single kid I encounter. I pray for certain students who I know are in turmoil. And I pray for good cycling weather.
Do you have any pets or kids (names and ages)?: I have one kid. She’s black, has four legs, never changes clothes, and she’s an obedience school dropout, but I love my dog Holly, a black lab-weimaraner mix.
Next city/country you want to visit: I’m headed to England and Scotland in April with a group of students on an EF Educational Tour. Just got back from Paris, France in November (Thanksgiving). Paris blew my mind. It’s a jaw-droppingly gorgeous city.
Favorite vacation place: It’s simple enough, but hard to get there (from the northeast, USA)- Maui, Hawaii. Went there a few years ago and did not want to come home. Don’t ever go there during February break. It will seriously mess you up for life. It really is paradise on earth. Why anyone would want to live anywhere else is beyond me.
Favorite book: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is my all-time favorite. You hear about “Macondo” and the house of mirrors and you wonder what is going on, and why all these people in the novel have the same names over the generations, and then, in about the last 50 to 100 pages, it hits you, and you can’t put the novel down until you’re finished. And then your mind explodes with reverence for Garcia Marquez’s genius.
Favorite song: Right now, Joe Pug’s “Hymn 101.” He’s picked up Dylan’s crown, shined it up, and it fits.
Do you have a Twitter account we can follow you on?: I have a twitter account: @mrhamlinewg but because Twitter is blocked in our school (I’m behind the Iron Curtain) I don’t use it very often. Yeah, I need to get writing.
Many educational scholars and practitioners, including me, have written extensively about teaching students from underserved populations. The focus of this work has included has included students living in poverty, from diverse cultural and racial experiences, and who are English learners. These are made more relevant by an ever-increasing population of students and families living in poverty, the significant rate of school absenteeism among our nation’s poor, and an increase in racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity among the nation’s populace. While it’s critical to understand underserved student populations, it is especially important to look at the type of language and literacy that are needed to perform successfully in school. Some students come to school with a deep foundation in the language system that is used in school while increasing numbers do not. These differences represent what many refer to as the achievement gap. We might think of it as an academic language gap between students who come to school with this foundational language and those who must learn it while simultaneously attending school.
In the United States, the federal definition of the abilities that an English learner must obtain to be considered proficient in English sheds some light on the type of language and literacy that is needed by ALL of the nation’s students. It includes the following:
(i) the ability to meet the State’s proficient level of achievement on State assessments;
(ii) the ability to successfully achieve in classrooms where the language of instruction is English; and
(iii) the opportunity to participate fully in society (U.S. Department of Education, 2004).
An important characteristic of the federal definition is that students must be highly fluent and competent in the language that is used in school and across all subject matters to be successful in it. To remedy the differences between students who carry academic language like a literacy suitcase wherever they go (in school, at home, and elsewhere) and students who are learning academic language while simultaneously attending school, we must intentionally transform the ways in which we build programming, policies and practices for the nation’s students (Zacarian, 2013).
To do this calls for a four-pronged literacy framework (Zacarian, 2013) in which we understand academic language learning as a
(1) a sociocultural process that must be grounded in our students and their families’ personal, social, cultural, and world experiences;
(2) a developmental process that calls for understanding the literacy levels of each of our students and targeting instruction a little bit beyond that level so that it is obtainable and reachable,
(3) an academic process that is built on our students’ prior learning experiences and where the learning goals are made explicit; and
(4) a cognitive process in which higher-order thinking skills are intentionally taught and practiced.
We also have to understand that each of the four prongs is akin to an electric outlet in which all of the prongs must be plugged in for learning to occur. When we do this, we have a much better chance for closing the achievement gap and better ensuring that our students can flourish in school and beyond (Zacarian, 2013).
This article should be referenced as: Zacarian, D. (2014). Understanding the achievement gap as an academic language gap. zacarianconsulting.com. It has been drawn from from Zacarian (2013) Mastering academic language: a framework for supporting student achievement.
We are discussing the history of education in one of my courses and thus exploring teaching philosophies (such as progressivism, essentialism, existentialism, etc.). As part of our discussion, I asked the students to identify advantages and disadvantages of each philosophy. A student shared that one drawback for using real world conflicts (the social reconstruction philosophy), was that it was “uncomfortable”. When probed further, it was determined that fear, anger, or sadness could result when discussing controversial current events and thus hinder the learning process for students. For instance, it may be frightening for students to discuss how the homicide rate for the first two months of 2014 (in some states) is slowly approaching the total homicide rate for the entire year 2013. Similarly it may be alarming for students to acknowledge the news story of how the “knock-out” game (an assault act that may end in death) targets unsuspecting pedestrians for no rhyme or reason.
I agree that discussing current events has its challenges, but I could not deny my discomfort with my student’s “uncomfortableness”. Maybe omitting real life events from classroom discussions is the best thing to do in terms of safeguarding student’s feelings?
I tend to think that it is within these “uncomfortable” topics that teachable moments are made. I wish to help students learn from the uncomfortable current events that surround them every day. For instance, the ‘Stand Your Ground’ law (the right to defend oneself during times of conflict) has been in the news after two separate conflicts resulted in the death of African American teen boys. In response to the two cases, strong emotions about racial relations and the legal system have ensued. The following curriculum ideas illustrate 9 classroom activities that may help students use the highly publicized law to reflect on themes such as effective communication, conflict resolution, and sensitivity to differences. Although the activities were developed with the ‘Stand your Ground’ law in mind, they can be adopted for use with any current event:
1. Discuss the term “threat”. Explore the different types of threats (physical and psychological) that students may hear. Debate various mechanisms to address threats such as bully awareness strategies. Websites such as bullyhelp.org and stopbullying.gov are great resources for this.
2. Ask students to journal about consequences that may ensue from defending oneself such as:
a. Physical consequences
b. Emotional consequences
c. Short-term consequences
d. Long-term consequences
3. Encourage the students to visit websites that focus on conflict resolution approaches and present their findings to the class. The National Crime Prevention Council offers great resources for this.
4. Invite the students to share funny videos (they can search online using Youtube or Vine) regarding problem solving strategies that are imaginative and outside of the box.
5. Hold a contest for students to find the best quote that illustrates reconciling differences.
6. Request students bring in song lyrics (or play a clean excerpt from the song) that emphasize themes in negotiation, compromise, or appropriately communication of differences.
7. Ask students to read, write, or respond to blogs that highlight uncomfortable conversations about conflict management. Invite teachers to share their experiences for how they learn (blogs, or professional development) to use current events within their curriculum.
8. Offer incentives for students to get involved in conflict resolution on a local level. Assist students in contacting the local police office or the local legislative office to gain further education regarding local rules and policies for those engaged in conflict.
9. Help students get involved in conflict resolution outside of their community. Assist students in a letter writing campaign to support the families of individuals that were unable to successfully defend themselves in times of conflict.
*Please note that this article was originally posted on teachersnet.gazette Vol. 11 No. 3
Much Ado About Nothing is a comedic play by William Shakespeare that chronicles two pairs of lovers: Benedick and Beatrice (the main couple), and Claudio and Hero (the secondary couple). By means of "nothing" (which sounds the same as "noting," and which is gossip, rumor, and overhearing), Benedick and Beatrice are tricked into confessing their love for each other, and Claudio is tricked into rejecting Hero at the altar on the erroneous belief that she has been unfaithful. At the end, Benedick and Beatrice join forces to set things right, and the others join in a dance celebrating the marriages of the two couples. (Much Ado About Nothing. Captured from Wikipedia. February 28, 2014.)
What is currently taking place across the United States regarding the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), Much Ado About Something, does not bring to mind a comedy; rather, it brings to mind a tragedy. Before I continue, I must state that my post is not an “I’m on this side or I’m on that side” commentary. It is simply a personal and professional reflection based on working intimately with the CCSS and scores of teachers K-12 across this country and overseas coupled with what I have observed regarding those who are making “much ado”. My hope is that I mirror Benedick and Beatrice’s desire to set things right.
Whether it be politicians, parents, or people in educational circles commenting, I most-often hear them not making comments about the standards themselves – the basic, no-frills standard statements that convey what students need to know and be able to do. For example, let’s take a Reading Literature standard for Grade 7:
CCSS.RL.7.7 Compare and contrast a written story, drama, or poem to its audio, filmed, staged, or multimedia version, analyzing the effects of techniques unique to each medium (e.g., lighting, sound, color, or camera focus and angles in a film).
This standard, here as it appears in the CCSS ELA Progressive Continuums App I created to aid teachers in collaboratively designing systemic curriculum that uses italic font to represent learning from a previous grade or grades and boldfaced text to indicate new learning in a grade, speaks directly to 21st-century (modern) learners needing to not only become literary literate, but media literate as well, as my colleague, Heidi Hayes Jacobs, promotes in her new book, Mastering Media Literacy (Solution Tree, 2013).
Before one can compare and contrast, one must know these two literacy forms as stand alones, which generates interesting conversations with teachers I work with as we develop content and skills because they were not taught media literacy when they were growing up (even younger teachers). Our conversations usually result in the seventh-grade teachers realizing they need to become deep learners themselves to best design content and skills associated with media literacy. And, as you can visually see represented in the standard above, comparing and contrasting written works to media is in italics, which means this process and learning about media-based versions has been learned in at least one previous grade (actually, starts in Grade 4 and is expanded on in Grades 5 and 6). Therefore, not only do seventh-grade teachers say they need media-literacy professional development, but fourth, fifth, and sixth grade teachers share they want to be included as well.
Common Core State Standard RL.7.7 is not saying specifically what must be read, what must be watched, or what the focus must be when read and watched, which is what I find many unhappy-with-the-CCSS commentators are up in arms over (excuse the film pun). While myriad companies and non-profits have developed recommended reading/media lists, units of study, and lesson plans that “are align to” the CCSS, these resources are not the standards. These aligned documents, programs, textbooks, etc., are how tos (instruction and assessments) based on someone or some group’s interpretation of the standards. For example, based on this standard, groups can have a wildly different take on what is an appropriate text versus movie/staged production for seventh graders – one group choosing a very liberal text and film and another group select a very conservative text and staged production.
Regardless of the selections, it is not the standard that is making a selection, human beings are. If studied closely, standard RL.7.7 is asking students to be critical thinkers and reason deeply regarding the nuances in a selected text and audio-visual representation, which is exactly what 21st-century students need to be doing – critically thinking and problem solving as well as reasoning and providing text and media evidence for their claims (e.g., requirements also found in standards RL._.1, RI._.1, W._.1). And, if we are truly trying to engage learners and wanting them to own their own learning, how about allowing students to select the text and film or staged production they will analyze?
What I often find interesting is that if you ask someone who is knocking the CCSS (let’s say in reference to a unit of study that is for some reason “inappropriate”) to tell you specifically what standard or standards he or she does not like (e.g., W.7.1a. Introduce claim(s), acknowledge alternate or opposing claims, and organize the reasons and evidence logically.), the person will hem and haw and can’t state the standard. And, when shown the aligned standard he or she most often comments that the standard is fine, it is the reading or film selection, the activity, or assessment item or task that is not liked. Evidence once again that it is not the standards themselves that is truly the concern.
With this said, I need to make one comment at this juncture: the CCSS are not perfect. There are definitely some flawed standard statements, but the flaws are minimal when compared to the total number of CCSS K-12.
The bashing or knocking of the CCSS, which is getting louder in some states with each passing month, is frustrating to me as a curriculum-design consultant who has worked extensively with the CCSS since they were in draft form and officially adopted in 2010. I know the standards inside and out from Kindergarten to Grade 12. I have spent hundreds of hours of meaningful conversations with teachers concerning the vertically articulated standards. These teachers care passionately about their students’ learning as they develop collaborative, systemic curriculum.
My passion and work has been, and will continue to be, dedicated to aiding teachers in designing curriculum maps with the students’ best interests in mind. The CCSS are our curriculum-design building “codes”, much as an architect uses codes to design blueprints, which Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Jay McTighe, and others have used as an analogy for many years. For the first time ever the largest number of independent United States have chosen to have the same building codes. This does not mean that each state, district, or school has to build the exact same home – one can choose to design a modern two-story, another a log cabin, another a green home, and another a ranch-style hacienda. The point here is that the infrastructure of the home design remains the same regardless of where the home is built. I grew up in the military and lived around the world before I was 15 years old. Today, given our ever-growing mobile society, chances of having a similar (and thankfully not exact) blueprint-based curriculum for a K-12 education is better than it ever was when I was in my formative years.
Academic standards are not the curriculum (Concept-based curriculum and instruction for the thinking classroom. Erickson. Sage, 2007. p.48). I whole-heartedly believe this is true. And while it absolutely takes time and commitment to develop a worthwhile systemic curriculum (oftentimes two to three years to fully develop and implement), I remind myself and others that curriculum mapping is a verb and the deep conversations and collaborations across grade levels immediately impact student in positive ways through teachers who are reconsidering the learning, teaching, and assessments while embracing what is new in the CCSS content and process standards. This immediate and on-going process validates why I have been involved in this specific field of work for over 15 years. Designing CCSS-based curriculum involves a two-phase process: studying and breaking apart the standards systemically to first develop learning based solely on what the standards (and critical ancillary documents, such as the CCSS Math Progressions) explicitly and implicitly require; and secondly, develop meaningful units of study that combine the learning, teaching, and assessment tasks based on a current program or encouraging teachers to create their own program.
Well, I may have not set things right, but hopefully a little bit right, in that it is not the CCSS themselves that are the problem; instead, it is CCSS-based interpretations made in the form of instructional choices and assessment practices, as well as one area I chose not to get into here: teacher evaluations.
As I previously mentioned, I will continue to work diligently with districts and schools who have a like passion – looking collaboratively and critically at the CCSS and systemically designing curriculum that aids their students in experiencing meaningful learning journeys K-12+.
(reprenting from Vicki's Rethinking Education blog)
APPR has created a tremendous amount of change in our districts and buildings. It has also increased the amount of work principals have to do on a daily basis, let alone the amount of stress. Staying positive is key to the success and survival of these demands. As a 13 year administrative veteran, here are some top tens I would like to share (In no particular order!)
1. Keep Your Door Open and Be Visible: Your staff, students and parents need to see you as the leader and you need to be accessible. Keep your door open, listen, listen, and listen even more. Give encouragement to your staff who are working hard to embrace a new curriculum and create engaging lessons for students. Be in their classroom, the hallways, the lunch room and the playground. Greet the buses and parents in the morning. Get on the announcements daily and say the pledge, your school pledge and your belief statement. It's powerful, it resonates, and starts the day on a positive note.
2. Use a Scheduler: If you don't write it down on your schedule to do a walk through, be visible, orthat observation, then it will not get done! I use Google Calendar and live by it. I have shared the calendar with my secretary who schedules my observations and meetings with staff when needed. Using an online calendar such as Google Calendar, iCal, or Outlook will help you organize YOU. The best part is that it notifies me of my schedule in the morning, and notifies me 10 minutes in advance.
3. Provide Mini-Observations: Teachers want feedback on how they are doing. When you do a walk through or mini-observation give them honest, constructive feedback. I like what Kim Marshall has listed in how to do mini-observations the right way: Unannounced, Frequent, Short, Face-to-face, Perceptive, Humble, Courageous, Systematic, Documented, Linked to Rethinking Teacher Supervision and Evaluation, 2nd Edition, 2013.) Marshall suggests to do 10 mini-observations on each teacher, throughout the school year.. That would be 1 mini-observation per month. In our district, we do 5 mini observations for tenured, 2 formal observations and 3 mini-observations for 1st year teachers, and 1 formal observation and 4 mini-observations for 2nd and 3rd year non-tenured teachers. What it has accomplished for me is having powerful, professional conversations about what is occurring in the classroom, asking questions of the staff, and coaching best practice. It is also building trust and it is so important to have those face-to-face conversations about what is working and what needs to be refined. It’s about growth and should not be about a “gotcha”.teamwork and improvement, Linked to end-of-year teacher evaluation, and Explained well. (Kim Marshall,
4. Share The Leadership: I am the sole administrator/lead learner at East Side, with a student population of 463 and about 60 staff members. There is no way I can do this job alone and I rely on the staff to help run the school. Give leadership roles to your teacher's. Give them opportunities to work together so they can manage the Common Core. They are the ones in the trenches and will help boost school morale and provide great education for our students.
5. Be the Lead Learner: Rather than being "the principal", be the Lead Learner. Joe Mazza, Lead Learner of Knapp Elementary School in the North Penn School District, PA, coined this term and it means to talk the talk and walk the walk. Say what you mean, mean what you say. Join your teachers in professional development. Share your learning and what you find. Get on Twitter people! (Social media networking is huge and you should be embracing this venue.) Gone are the days of the principal sitting in the office, managing discipline and minutia. We need to be visible, be a part of what is happening in our schools, and be in the classrooms.
6. Your Hour of Power: Tony Robbins says that we have to have a daily ritual of physical and emotional . This means having time for you. Are you experiencing an extraordinary life? He also says to put in some type of physical activity. I try to power walk the hallways of my school and examine student work displayed and in turn, see the pride in our students’ accomplishments. This also gives me an hour to reflect on the day and plan. Give yourself this hour to rejuvenate and reflect.
8. Climate and Culture: How is the climate of your building? Have you given a culture survey? Are you dealing with lots of discipline issues that boggle you down? Maybe it is time to implement a social and emotional curriculum such as Responsive Classroom or PBIS. If you don't address the social and emotional aspects of students and get to know your kids, forget about the academics. Programs such as these change the culture of your building not only for students, but for the adults. The social and emotional curriculum is just as important as the academic curriculum. Once you have the social and emotional curriculum in place, academics are a breeze. It is about the relationships we develop not only with our students, but also with adults.
9. Celebrate: Celebrate the joys of being a team, a school family. We just finished our Holiday stocking stuffing exchange and what amade for the staff. We also celebrate baby showers, weddings, birthdays, you name it. Again, as adults, it's about the relationships and working together to be the best we can be. I always say to the staff, "You are the best of the best." You say it often, and it starts to become a part of you, and we show our pride.
10. It's People, Not Programs: Todd Whitaker says it best that it’s about the teachers, the people, not the programs. “We can spend a great deal of time and energy looking for programs that will solve our problems. Too often, these programs do not bring the improvement or growth we need. Instead, we must focus on what really matters. It is never about’ programs; it is always about people.” (Todd Whitaker, What Great Principals Do Differently, 2003.) have new Common Core State Standards and those modules, but if you are not putting the time into your people, your staff and teachers, giving them time to plan, collaborate, reflect and giving them ownership, then it will be a tough road ahead. Empower your teachers and your staff, and you will have a better school. You know that if you have great teachers, you will have a great school. “The program itself is never the the problem.” (Todd Whitaker)
In the end, it is all about teamwork. As the lead learner, create those opportunities for collaboration, leadership, reflection and rejuvenation. You are the lead leaner and remember to remain positive!
The boxes arrived last week. Those boxes stacked high, full of Iowa Assessment test booklets, answer sheets, and directions for administration. They arrived and are sitting against the far wall of my office – not physically, but philosophically in the way. In two weeks, our students will take those tests. They will spend multiple hours over a course of a week filling in bubbles to demonstrate to the federal and state governments that they have grown academically in content areas like reading, math, science, and social studies. There will be no test on grit or perseverance – except their ability to complete the test without creating a pattern on the answer sheet. There will be no test on creativity – unless they do create a pattern on the answer sheet.
All of this will happen in the midst of a year where my district has truly pushed itself to know the learner better to grow the learner better. We have pushed hard to mold ourselves into what our students need, not mold the students into what we need. We have more teachers that ever using data to revise instruction, using standards-based learning, and thinking about competency-based education. We work toward a new goal of personalized learning in our district – and it is exciting, invigorating, daunting, and … the right work.
So, those boxes sit in my office while I have the pleasure of attending a convening hosted by the Nellie Mae Foundation and KnowledgeWork on the federal accountability framework in light of competency-based education. The convening was a great two days focused on assessment, core CBE principles, the role of the federal government in education, and the unintended consequences of building a new framework that is easy to understand (and which may do more harm to CBE than the current one).
The discussion on accountability traveled far and wide. Some of the main points and questions raised included:
I was excited by the opportunity to impact federal policy, yet realistic enough to know that it would not be done when the convening was complete. We must struggle with the enormous task of changing a federal mindset that accountability is one battery of tests once a year. This is completely antithetical to competency-based education and personalized learning. We must work to change this mindset and the system of accountability derived from it if we are truly to have an opportunity to meet every student where they are at and guide them to where they can be.
I know it will not be an easy fix, but it is the right work to do. We must persist, we must challenge, and we must ask the questions that change policy, challenge politics and improve the learning environments and experiences of our students. A student is not a series of data points. Each student is a complex combination of dreams, passions, fears, and possibilities. No test, or battery of tests, will ever fully measure all of that. But we can – and should – get a lot closer to it.
In my recent column in Educational Leadership, I drew upon some studies synthesized in a new book from Newsweek and New York Times journalists Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, which provides a slew of fascinating insights, including the importance of framing problems as challenges versus threats.
In sports, for example, professional soccer players are more apt to kick a tie-breaking goal when they are kicking to win—that is, to give their team the lead in a shootout—than when kicking in a sudden death situation to avoid a loss. In addition, Bronson and Merryman point to a study conducted at Princeton University, which invited two groups of students from high schools under-represented on the prestigious campus to answer questions about their backgrounds (to remind them of their outsider status) and then take a short math test.
The tests the two groups took were nearly identical, with just one subtle, yet important difference. For one group, the exam was a framed as an “Intellectual Ability Questionnaire;” for the other, it was called an “Intellectual Challenge Questionnaire.” The differences in performance were striking; the students taking the “challenge” test answered, on average, 90 percent of questions correctly; the students taking the very same test labelled as an “ability” exam answered, on average, just 72 percent of the questions correctly. In effect, framing the test as a threat rather than a challenge resulted in a two-letter-grade drop in performance.
Consider yet another study included in Top Dog. It found that the size of the venue in which students take the SAT test has a tremendous effect on performance—the smaller the venue, the higher the score. Certainly, many explanations might be offered for this finding. One likely culprit, though, is that being surrounded by a large group of fellow exam takers can be threatening. As Bronson and Merryman observe, “These kids know darn well that the entire country is taking the test that day; however, having so many at the same place, often in the same room, is intimidating. It’s a stark reminder of just how many other students are competing with you for college spots."
Bronson and Merryman connect these findings with yet another dot: business research that shows that companies whose CEOs create a “promotion focus” (i.e., set ambitious goals and encourage innovation) are more likely to outperform competitors than those led by CEOs who create a “prevention focus” (i.e., cautiously fixate on preventing errors).
In my column, I related these insights from Top Dog to the current environment in many schools, which for nearly half of all educators, according to a recent MetLife survey of educators, is characterized by high levels of stress, due in no small part to ongoing pressure to raise student performance while enduring budget cuts. In short, what many educators appear to be facing are tantamount to threat conditions that are likely not conducive to kind of the creative and collaborative thinking that is required to develop better learning environments for students.
That’s not to say pressure and competition are always bad. On the contrary, Top Dog identifies conditions under which competition spurs higher performance and even, surprisingly, creativity (for example the rivalry between Renaissance painters Michelangelo and Rafael). Along these lines, the pressure created by the last two decades of reforms hasn’t been all bad; it has focused attention to helping all students succeed, relying upon data to make decisions, and looking for bright spots and best practices.
That said, we need extrapolate only a little to question the current direction, and underlying theory of action, beneath the continued press to tighten the screws on the package of high-stakes testing, school accountability, and educator performance evaluations tied to student achievement scores (which, as I noted in a previous Educational Leadership column, researchers caution is fraught with concerns of its own).
For starters, if simple tweaks to tests, such as reframing them as challenges, reducing the number of fellow test takers in the room, or, as I noted in an earlier blog, offering students small rewards, can dramatically alter how students perform on them, one wonders if we’re really assessing what we think we are. Moreover, one might wonder whether the threat conditions we’ve created for many schools with high-stakes accountability are serving us well, or if it may be time to begin to reframe accountability in terms of a challenge condition that encourages educators to harness their collective ingenuity to create better learning environments for all students.
I’ll write more about what these efforts might resemble in future blogs and columns. For now, though, I’d encourage readers to absorb the many surprising insights from Top Dog (of which I’ve barely scratched the surface) and consider how this science of competition, adeptly captured in the book, might point us toward a more enlightened approach to school improvement.
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