Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Case for Why Standards Based Instruction is Important….And Hard

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and to do these other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win." 
-- President John F. Kennedy, 1962

When John F. Kennedy spoke the words above, he set the nation on a path that was chosen, not forced upon us.  Sure there was the huge hit to our country’s ego because of Sputnik, but the when President Kennedy issued this challenge, he didn’t have to, he chose to do it.   While not as magnified, educators face hard choices every day…most accept the challenge, others do not.

Standards Based Instruction/Assessment is one such choice. First of all, standards based instruction is not mandated, it’s a choice.  Individual educators, campuses, and even entire school districts have accepted the challenge, “not because it is easy”, but because they believe it is the right thing to do to truly transform education.  Intellectually, we know it is important to monitor students work, but often the task can get overwhelming, especially when we frame it in the context of Standards-Based Instruction. Assessing this way is messy because it forces us to articulate what quality looks like. It is hard work and it can become frustrating. Yes, we have prescribed TEKS and a District Scope of Sequence, but neither of these mandates either “how” to teach or how to “assess” to a certain standard of quality.

Things to consider in a Standards Based system of learning:

Hard Choice #1- Sharing Learning Expectations:  Teachers and students both must understand what the standards are and how they will be expected to meet them.  Some teachers call these learning targets or learning goals, but the premise is that teachers and students understand what they are trying to learn together and they understand what it is will take to accomplish their goals.  In the best of situations, groups of teachers intentionally plan for these expectations before ever designing the activities for the students.

Hard Choice #2-Eliciting Evidence:  Too often in education, we make decisions with our gut, but in a Standards Based System we need evidence that students met the learning expectations.  Here is where it often gets messy….defining learning targets is easy compared to actually defining consistent levels of  quality with evidence of student work.  Teachers that engage in this practice have to have a lot of trust and confidence to begin looking at work together and calibrating their scoring of student work.  What “meets” the standard has to consistent across the classroom, campus, and district.

Hard Choice #3- Feedback: Teachers and student both need feedback to improve. To give quality feedback, every stakeholder involved (students, teachers, instructional coaches, supervisors, etc.) need to have a clear understanding of the learning expectations and a consistent understanding of what the evidence looks like that shows the standard has been met. However, the next step includes a very hard choice for many: giving honest, constructive feedback is essential in a Standards Based system.  If a person in not meeting the standard, they need to know why and what they can do to improve.  If they are meeting the standard, they also need feedback on areas of strength and next steps in learning.  Giving high quality feedback is difficult and takes time, but it also takes courage.

Hard Choice #4- Self Assessment: Once students understand the learning expectations, know what evidence looks like, and have been giving feedback on their own products, the are ready for self-assessment.  Students must be taught to articulate their own products based upon the standards.  When a student can assess their own work in an honest and consistent manner you can be assured that they understand the learning expectation and know weather or not they have achieved it.  Allowing students the time to do this is a choice we make in a Standards Based system.

Hard Choice #5- Peer Assessment: In a successful Standards Based system, teachers and students have found a way to share with each other about their work.  Students who can look at another student’s work and clearly determine and describe if it has meet a standard is learning at its highest level.  They are collaborating and understanding more than many of us could ever imagine.

Following these five steps in a classroom or a campus may sound simplistic, but it is not.  However, educators all over continue to choose to take the hard path because they know it is better for kids.  In the words of JFK, “that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win!”

Monday, March 3, 2014

Is it time to stop "TEACHING" and start "TESTING?

 It is annual rite of passage each Spring as students and teachers trudge reluctantly towards “testing season”.  Unlike many educators, I am not philosophically opposed to standardized testing.  Common assessments across the state do give us a certain necessary level of accountability that to this point seems unattainable (at least efficiently) in any other way.  We have to keep in mind it is “one measure, on one day”, but that doesn’t make the information we receive about the students invalid. What it does mean, is that we have to hold ourselves accountable to not making the testing results the only thing we use to determine a school, a teacher, or even worse, a students’ level of competence.  Society frames issues into things they can understand:  A student passes or fails; a teacher is deemed good or bad based on said student passing or failing; a school administrator is a great leader or a terrible failure based on this “one measure, on one day” all because we understand the simple concept of good or bad. 

It is because of this, that educators often put unnecessary pressure on themselves to have good test scores.  Yes, business leaders and others that judge schools by their test scores contribute to the pressure, but undoubtedly they are not the only scapegoats.  The moment we stop “teaching” and shut down our classrooms for “test prep” we send a message not just about what is important, but about what we believe. In our District we study the Principles of Learning, Teaching, and Curriculum. Those principles include statements like “we learn best with and through others” and “every student should experience a thinking curriculum”.  Do we really believe that innovation and collaboration are important? Do we allow for inquiry or demand the single correct answer?  Hard questions when you are faced with a system that judges you on a “one measure, on one day” assessment.  Let’s not blame the test however (I know for a fact a lot of very talented teachers wrote it), instead let’s keep teaching with authentic tasks and the types of experiences we TRULY BELIEVE are best for students.  It sends a powerful message that you have confidence in what you do…and more importantly, you have confidence in your students.