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.