There are three basic pieces of learning in a formal school setting: curriculum, instruction, and assessment. If we are going to make an impact in the area of school reform, it is important that parents, and anyone interested in educational quality, understand how these three pieces work together. Simply put, curriculum is what we teach, instruction is how we teach it and assessment is knowing that learning has taken place.
The first step in creating learning opportunities is to establish the curriculum. Contrary to what many people have been brainwashed to believe by publishers, this does NOT equate to a textbook. When we establish a school’s formal curriculum we ask the question, “What do we want them to know and be able to do?” For our K-12 system, we start with high school graduation. What do our high school grads need in order to be ready for college or career? Then, we work our way backwards, establishing benchmarks for each grade level, so that students can stay “on track” toward graduation. Like most things related to education, curriculum has become highly politicized. Schools become caught in the middle of highly charged debates around issues like evolution, sex education, book banning, vocational education, and a whole host of other topics. We sometimes lose our focus on the key question: “What do they need to know and be able to do in order to be ready for college or career?”
The second step in the process is to determine how we will know if our students have reached the benchmarks we have established. This is the huge discussion we continue to have around testing. Many teachers argue that students’ creativity and thinking skills have been compromised by schools and systems that “teach to the test.” The problem here is that the assessment mechanism that has been adopted across the country is probably the least effective in truly measuring the kind of learning that will lead to success in college and beyond. The typical multiple choice tests do not do a great job of measuring a student’s ability to think critically or creatively. Teachers find themselves teaching kids the tricks to getting better scores on these tests. In my days in the classroom, I found myself trying to explain to my fourth graders why they had to pick the incorrect answer on the math sections involving estimation. On our state test, one of the choices in estimation questions was frequently the correct answer to a math question. However, the test-taker was required to choose the sort-of-right answer to get credit. How do you teach kids that the correct response is not really the right answer? Students who are especially bright find it very difficult to navigate through the mine field of potential responses regarding literature, science, or social studies. “If you think too hard, you will get it wrong,” I would say over and over again. What is needed is more authentic assessment. This type of assessment already exists and is being used quite effectively at many schools across the country. Schools that use it find it is a better gauge of what kids know and are able to do. The bonus is that it saves a tremendous amount of money. Any conversation about school reform must include assessment.
Finally, once you have determined what the students need to know and be able to do, and the correct way to measure it, you can determine how to teach. The answer to this question is...any way that students will learn best. Teachers need to have a great variety of approaches at their fingertips at all times in order to reach all students. The important thing is to keep students engaged. If you walk into a classroom and see kids with their heads down, or just staring into space, they are not engaged, and the teacher needs to adjust. I have seen incredibly effective teachers who sit behind their desks and engage students in quiet conversations. I have seen others who have kids involved in physical tasks involving great movements. Some teachers are performers, and others just get out of the way so kids can do all of the work. There is no right or wrong way to reach kids, as long as you are reaching them. A great school administrator will select teachers with a wide variety of approaches, personality, and life experiences. This type of diversity is critical to the success of a diverse student population. There is little or no correlation between state teacher certifications and the ability to reach kids. Many policy makers and educators are coming to grips with this problem. We require public schools to only hire certified teachers, yet we now know that such certifications have little or no relationship to teacher effectiveness. Any attempt to improve the quality of instruction must be coupled with changes in the credentialing of teachers.
So, you want to improve schools? Then you must see the relationship among these three pieces. Everything that impacts one piece, will influence the other two. In order to be effective, any school reform efforts much address all three.
The lady asked me if I could show her what a house looked like. She was quite condescending and I was in no mood for her games. It was a beautiful day and I really wanted to get out of this windowless room and into the sunshine. So, I responded, “You mean you don’t know?” This was my first experience with IQ testing, at about age 7. I am not sure how the poor woman survived my disrespect, or really assessed my abilities. But, my mom told me sometime later that they wanted me to go to some other school. She decided that I was better off where I was, and that suited me just fine. As I got older, school became less and less relevant for me. By the time I got to high school, I felt as if I would jump out of my skin every time I had to endure a class. I schemed and plotted of ways to get loose, using up every possible tardy and absence the school district would allow. I joined student government because I discovered that I could get free passes out of class. My grades depended on what I thought the teacher deserved. If I liked the teacher, I would provide the teacher with “A” work. If I didn’t, I would get a D - on purpose. This was my way of punishing bad teachers. In my warped brain, I thought I was punishing them if I got bad grades. I knew I was smart, but it wasn’t really important to me. Years later, when I was in college, I happened to see my IQ score from all those years ago flashing on a computer screen, and was stunned at how high it was. Things came very easily to me, but I never really put it together with the concept of IQ. This was fascinating to me at this time since I was struggling to learn who I was and what I wanted out of life. So, I started reading articles about “gifted” children and realized that I was one. I had all the telltale signs: daydreaming, constant questioning, preferring the company of adults over kids, gaming the teachers, and somehow always feeling just a little bit “out of step” with others. I learned that the traits I had did not always translate into high success in life, and that most kids who are labeled as “gifted” turn out to be very normal adults, who lead very ordinary lives.
So this week, I was fascinated by an article in New York Magazine (http://nymag.com/news/features/63427/
) that describes the tests administered to four-year-olds in New York City to determine giftedness. These tests act as sorting devices for elementary schools, allowing only high scoring kids to access most high-end private schools, and competitive public schools. I was horrified to see the descriptions of the same test I took all those years ago. I was even more horrified to learn that when given at the age of 4, as is the practice in New York City, the test can be way off. So, kids who really need an accelerated program are often denied one. When given at this young age, the tests tend to skew results based on socio-economics.
To me, this business of putting kids into kindergarten, based on the calendar, and putting them into programs based on tests, makes no sense at all. Teachers really do understand who is ready for kindergarten. For some this may be at age 4, and for others not until about age 6. Yet, our society has set arbitrary dates for the start of formal schooling based on chronological age, and what is convenient for the system. We really don’t need tests. Turn a young child loose with a qualified early childhood or kindergarten teacher for about 15 minutes, and she can tell you if the child is ready. Create systems with flexible pupil progression, allowing kids to move forward then they are ready, not when the calendar says it is time. We really don’t need to put kids in specific grades each year. They can function quite well in multi-age classrooms that are structured in a way that is developmentally appropriate for them. I am not suggesting anything new here. Maria Montessori had this brainchild way back in the early 1900’s. I used this way of progressing children at my school in Florida called Renaissance Academy with great success. This allows gifted children and those on the other end of the spectrum to flourish together in a nurturing, humane environment. What a wonderful world it would be if we could provide all kids exactly what they need to learn, at the moment they need it!