Posts Tagged ‘school reform’

One Person’s Voice

December 14, 2011

Bell Curve – The Shape of a Lie: Standards Based Education – what is it?

Last week I saw colleague Pender Makin, Director of The Real School in Falmouth, and she shared that she had been part of a recent conversation discussing standards based education. I asked her to write a blog post on the topic. Not only did she write the following post but she started a blog called Alternative Education – Topics and Solutions for Nontraditional Learners. Pender is not only an educator who takes action making a difference for students but, as you can see for yourself, is articulate and passionate! I urge you to pass this link onto your colleagues to read this post and of course, provide feedback by commenting below the post.

To be more competitive globally – in an authentic way – our public education system must abandon the illusion of competitiveness based on academic comparisons among students and their peers. Competition in schools is great when it comes to the debate team, the spelling bee, the soccer field, the jazz band finals … Athletes and mathletes alike should enjoy activities and venues for demonstrating their exceptional skills (and for receiving recognition for their specific superiority).

When it comes to the classroom, however, our goal is to help all students to meet state and national (or even international) standards in academic content and skills. And to do that, we have to let go of our desire to rank, sort, classify, and line students up from best to worst, using peers as benchmarks.

True standards-based education in a competitive, capitalist society is a very uncomfortable concept, when you think about it:  A hockey dad learns that his daughter (the center on the school team) meets a standard in Geometry.  By how much did she meet it?  Who met that standard a little bit less than she did? Would that be considered an “A+”?  Or would it be a “D-” because she dragged her achievement across that line between not meeting the standard (an “F”?) and barely making it (a “D”?)???  What do you mean someone else “exceeded” that standard?  By how much??  Who gets to be on the Honor Roll?  How do we find the Valedictorian? Who will salute her?

We crave that bell curve – a nice normal statistical distribution that lets the world know that some people are great, most are average, and some just don’t measure up.  A mother might reasonably feel that her son’s “A” in English Literature only means something because other kids earned B’s and C’s – or lower. Cognitively, we want everyone to achieve the standards – but viscerally, we want to know who’s the best.

Even after decades of school reform aimed at embracing a standards-based approach, many educators and administrators (and MOST community stakeholders, families, parents…) are unable to relinquish that white-knuckled grip on the idea of measuring students against each other rather than against the learning standards.  Most schools go so far as to explore and experiment with changes to curriculum and instruction to support standards-based learning (usually taking a diluted form involving “standards-referenced” practices), and then abandon ship entirely when it comes to exploring standards-based assessment and reporting.

“Standardized testing” is an insidious term that creates abundant confusion here – the root word, “standard”, does not refer to “learning standards” at all.  The “standard” in “standardized” simply means that the assessment is implemented in a consistent way (same or similar questions, same format, same testing conditions, same time limits, etc).  There is no reason to standardize an assessment if the goal is to measure student achievement of the learning standards!  Certainly, many “standardized” tests are also criterion-based (meaning that the tests measure the degree to which a student demonstrated knowledge/skill in specific learning standards); however, the only conceivable reason for “standardizing” a test at all is to ensure a norm-referenced comparison among test takers (in order to score student against student, in accordance with The Curve, the results of which guarantee that comfortable illusion of some high achievers, some low achievers, and a whole lot of mediocrity in between).

The entire distribution curve itself is, of course, completely relative.  When nobody “meets the standards” on an assessment, the curve simply slides down until there are excellent scorers who don’t meet the standards and average scorers who are well below the standards.  And if everyone meets the standards … well … that would squish the bell flat.  There would be no hierarchy, no Top Ten, no Honor Roll… Imagine.

People do not demonstrate their knowledge, skills, expertise in standardized ways in this world.  We synthesize, modify, extend and express ourselves uniquely; we move at varying paces with inconsistent enthusiasm and aptitude under the very non-standard, organic, fluid conditions of “real life”.  True standards-based assessments will take into account the multiple pathways through which students can gain knowledge and skills, and the multiple formats by which they can demonstrate their achievement.

Our purpose is not served in the ranking and sorting of students; we are less competent (and less competitive) when we placate ourselves with the comfortable, familiar bell curve illusion.  All of our students need to meet the content-based and skills-based standards we’re serving up in our public schools – and this requires us to knock it off with the competition already when it comes to learning, because everyone has to win.

Middle School as Boot Camp for Life?

October 17, 2011
CCC camps in Michigan; the tents were soon rep...

Civilian Conservation Corps Camps in Michigan

Want an interesting read about what middle level schools could (and should be)? Take a look at “How to fix the mess we call middle school” by Washington Post education writer, Valerie Strauss.

The title may not draw you in, but ignore it and start reading. Strauss argues for a type of school that responds to the needs of every young adolescent…not more test prep…”but a cross between summer camp and the Civilian Conservation Corps camps with plenty of physical activity, structured groups and time with peers, with a little formal education thrown in.”

Strauss suggests that middle school be a “boot camp for life” with more physical activity, hands-on, and minds-on learning. Also, a focus on  service learning to teach responsibility and give young adolescents the opportunities they crave, to do something meaningful for others. Other excellent ideas include more attention to the arts, focusing on issues relevant to this age group (nutrition and obesity for example), learning about financial literacy through running small businesses, and much more.

All good ideas, yet hardly new. Collectively, this type of school would look very different from  the “keep ’em in their seats, quiet, and answer the questions at the end of the chapter” 1950s school model that is the “default” setting for K-12 schools in the U.S. (By the way,  in the last 10 years, NCLB,  the standards’ movements, and a focus on assessment has seriously impeded students’ learning.) Do you ever wonder why we all-too-often fall back on a model with no proven record of success?

We won’t take everything Strauss says literally, but her ideas give insights into the developmentally responsive schools for young adolescents we’ve been talking  about for 50 years. Many Maine middle level schools have programs built on these same principles…where students are actively engaged, excited about learning, and ready to make a difference in their schools, towns, and communities. Aren’t these the attributes and skills that we want all our kids to have…and know…and use?

One more thing to remember. Young adolescents and their unique needs don’t go away when we house them in buildings with younger and older students…not called middle schools. Changing the grade configuration of a school isn’t the answer. Strauss hits the nail on the head…”The sustained experimentation with middle school-age students has continued because schools have failed to meet the emotional and academic needs of adolescents.”

We know what makes a difference…do we have the will to provide the schools our young adolescents need?

Classic Middle Link: Bring a Donut; I Have an Idea!

November 24, 2010

Here’s the second installment about Outcomes Based Learning and RISC from Bill Zima, Assistant Principal at Massabesic Middle School and MAMLE board member It was originally published in Middle Link, the MAMLE quarterly newsletter.  Bill’s first installment can be accessed here.

It was one of those dark, bitter cold January mornings in Maine. I had challenged our middle school teachers earlier in the week that if anyone could help me understand why some of our students fail, I would buy them a donut and we could talk. The usual explanation I hear is that students are not completing their homework, or that they have a difficult home situation, but I was interested in hearing something different. A teacher came to me that morning and said, “Bring in a donut; I have an idea!” During our conversation over hot coffee and Boston Cream donuts, it came out that, as a system, we were not able to help students understand why they were failing. We could not point to specific knowledge they missed or skills they needed to work on to improve their thinking and deepen their learning. That cold morning, I became aware of the importance of creating learning targets for all students.

Richard Dufour advocates that professional learning communities specifically state what we want our students to know and be able to do. Bob Marzano concludes that an effective strategy teachers can use to improve student learning is to give feedback around specific learning targets. Cris Tovani writes about the importance of explicitly modeling specific literacy skills to the students. RISC has standards-based design as one of the four tenants of their model. I have read these authors and countless others, but it was not until that cold, dark morning that a light brightened the forest of ambiguity that surrounds education reform and I realized that our middle school had not gone through the process of creating a document and a system to specifically state what we expect of all our students. The work began immediately.

We produced a schedule for PLC meetings by that afternoon. Each grade level, content area group, for example seventh-grade science, would have a chance to meet and begin the process of identifying enduring understandings for their curriculum. At the first meeting we read an article by Marzano and discussed the importance of creating learning targets. We were going to move away from the textbook driving the instruction and create a viable curriculum based on learning targets. It was important for all teachers to understand why we were taking the time to create a framework of skills. Once the purpose was established, we could move into the work.
The middle school had made a decision to move to a standards-centered instructional model from an activities-centered model before becoming associated with the RISC cohort so we spent a great deal of time discussing the why behind the shift. I believe our task would have been easier and completed in a more timely fashion if we had begun with the RISC model and focused on creating a shared vision and defining a moral purpose for change.

Using the Maine Learning Results, examples of other school’s work and ideas from national organizations, we began unpacking the standards to get at what we wanted our students to know and be able to do by the time they left our middle school. It was important for the teachers, the experts in the classroom, to have a voice in how the curriculum is structured. Our goal was to get to a single, measureable target that encouraged higher level processing. A review of thinking models aimed at explaining how people learn is typically represented by three distinct parts; input, process and output. As we created our frameworks, we noticed it was easy to create targets that had students go straight from the input to the output. An example of this type of target is a ‘defines words’ or ‘lists the major components of a story’. While knowing the vocabulary is important, it requires little to any neural processing. Having the background information is the input into the thinking process and should not be considered the final step. We began using Marzano’s and Bloom’s taxonomies to assure our students were processing the new information at the appropriate cognitive level.

In creating our scoring guides or rubrics, we used the learning target as the proficient, or score 3 mark. Once that was established we began to identify the simpler pieces that made up the learning target. These included vocabulary words and sub-steps. These simpler pieces became the emerging or score 2 marks. For a score 1 and a score 4, we used the same phrase on each scale for the appropriate score. Now the teachers had documents that contained what the target is, and what the simpler pieces are that make up the target. This year will be dedicated to producing assessments that aim specifically at the target and creating capacity matrices so the students will be able to track their learning progress.

In the next quarter, I will continue to look at how Massabesic Middle School is addressing the third pillar, student-centered, standards-based classrooms by reviewing some of the tools RISC uses to give students voice and choice.
If you have questions or comments, please email or call me. or 207-247-6121

Grade 7
Score 4.0 In addition to score 3.0 performance, the student demonstrates in-depth inferences and applications that go beyond what was taught.
Score 3.0 While engaged in grade-appropriate reading tasks, the student demonstrates an understanding of Persuasive writing by…
• Employing a variety of persuasive techniques to support an idea using facts, supported inferences, and/or opinions appropriate to the audience or purpose.
Score 2.0 The student exhibits no major errors or omissions regarding the simpler details and processes, such as…
• Having a single argument supported with opinions and minimal facts.
• Recognizing and recalling specific terminology.
Score 1.0 With help, the student demonstrates partial understanding of some of the score 2.0 elements and some of the score 3.0 elements.

Bright Futures on YouTube!

October 20, 2010

Last week, members of the Middle Level Partnership braved the wind, rain, floods, and power outages on the midcoast to meet at Medomak Middle School. What could have been so important? It was the creation of the first Bright Futures video! Medomak guidance counselor Chris DeGrof interviewed Jill Spencer and Mary Callan for the opening segment about the unique needs of middle school students.

We’d love to get any comments, questions, or suggestions for subsequent Bright Futures segments. Our goal is to publish a new Bright Futures episode each month.

Dropouts and Barn Doors

July 19, 2010

Here’s a recent Op Ed. Piece from the Portland Press Herald. What follows are some of my quick thoughts, which I posted online. I wonder if anyone on the dropout prevention group will see it. Hopefully they will take it as I intended it to be…Respectful. Here you go…

Our View: Dropout prevention very important state goal
A real boost in graduation rates would give hundreds of our young adults a brighter future.

Among the most desirable educational goals the state has set is the one calling for a substantial reduction in the dropout rate for high school students. Lawmakers in Augusta passed a bill this year that called for increasing the state’s overall graduation rate to 90 percent by the end of the 2015-16 school year from the 80 percent recorded in 2006-07.

That’s a substantial challenge, because studies show there is no single reason why students stop attending school before graduation.

They include lack of parental involvement in students’ performance in school (and often in their lives in general); repeated use of drugs or alcohol; violence against fellow students or adults in the school setting or outside of it; abuse by adults, either caretakers or not; bullying by other students; and lack of involvement in their situations by teachers and administrators. And that’s only a partial list.

In addition, the dropout rate varies widely by school system and region, with some systems already meeting or exceeding the state goal and others falling far short of it.

Dropping out is a significant social problem because young adults who fail to graduate from high school become more involved with criminal activity, are more dependent on state assistance and are more likely not to have health care coverage due to sporadic work histories.

So, a 26-member group of educators and other specialists are working on creating a program listing the most effective techniques for keeping kids from leaving school. They are due to submit their recommendations to the state by Nov. 1, with a report to the Legislature due by Jan. 10, 2011.

It’s an important task, and that report will deserve serious consideration and thoughtful implementation. Many students’ futures depend on it.

Here’s my thoughts…
A gentle reminder to the 26 member group…Closing the barn door on the dropout rate must happen before students head for the door. Just as planning for important life events begins well before they occur, planning for successful graduation must begin well before commencement. Two recent national research studies about high school graduation by the ACT and Johns Hopkins as well as Maine’s own Bright Futures report indicate this must happen by 8th grade and earlier. They echo over 3000 studies in the past 30 years indicating the absolute need for a high quality, comprehensive middle grades experience to ensure overall success in high school and beyond. ACT’s study, “The Forgotten Middle” states that success in middle grades is THE most significant indicator of high school success…more significant than type of courses, including AP or remedial courses. Success in grades 6-8 is more significant than academic or personal counseling that takes place in grades 9-12. I’m sure the planning group includes members who are well acquainted with these three documents as well as the extensive research surrounding effective middle grades. I look forward to seeing how the plan incorporates strategies for implementing comprehensive effective middle grades programs and practices in Maine schools to engage and keep all students in school until they graduate.

As Fred would say…That’s my opinion…I welcome yours!

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