Monday, February 23, 2015

Are High-Stakes Tests Becoming Dinosaurs?

About a year ago on this blog, I wrote a piece  entitled 364 > 1, in which I tried to emphasize the importance of high quality instruction day in and day out rather that placing all the importance on a one day, high stakes test.  To this day, it remains my most read post.  I assume that meant that many of the educators that read it agreed with me.  However, since that time, the emphasis and pressure for students and campuses to produce on a given assessment has increased even more if that is possible.  Our state’s accountability system found a way to disregard the many other data sources available (and mandated such as House Bill 5) to recognize schools that were “perpetually underperforming”.  In some cases, “perpetual” has meant that schools with traditionally high student achievement scores that took a ONE year dip and found themselves on the state’s “most wanted” list.  There are documented cases of schools with pass rates over 90% that made the list because they didn’t make enough progress based on a complicated series of statistics.  Seriously?

My grandfather, who was about as wise a man as I have ever known, never failed to make simple points with strange analogies. He grew up poor in West Texas but became, by all measures a successful business man, husband, and father.  I will never forget him telling me, “Dinosaurs are extinct, but jackrabbits still run wild.” When I asked him what he meant, he talked about how too many people become frustrated reaching for the one “big event” that will prove they are successful that they lose sight of all the small things that mean so much.  I can’t help but think that we have somehow turned high-stakes tests into Dinosaurs….big, bad, and scary.  However, if we remain focused on the little, day to day, activities that improves student learning, we will not only survive, we will thrive…just like the jackrabbits in West Texas.

Daniel Venables, in his book “The Practice of Authentic PLCs” creates a data triangle that highlights the importance of daily lesson planning, formative assessment, and feedback that have the largest impact on student achievement.  The message is clear.  The results of an End of Course exam or STAAR tests, while important, do little to change teaching and learning.  It is the attention to daily results based on learning targets, formative assessment, and observations with feedback that have the potential to change results.   In addition, if we don’t use the daily information we gather to change and adapt our own skills, we will, like the dinosaurs, become extinct. 

From bottom to top: What a teacher and students do on a consistent basis has more impact than any high-stakes test!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Never forget why you started…..

At a training this week, the facilitator asked us to share an elevator speech on “Why you do what you do?”  It sounded simple enough, but as I fumbled through the one minute time limit I realized what a challenge that really was for me to articulate.  I’d like to believe that a bunch of baseball scouts missed the chance of a lifetime by overlooking me in high school and that is why I went into education, but the reality is that I decided to be a teacher much earlier.  When I was in second grade, in a private school in New Orleans, I can distinctly remember thinking to myself day after day, “I could teach better than Ms. ______” (name omitted to protect the guilty).  I had a few detentions and even a couple of “licks” that year to prove that she thought otherwise, but I survived.  The next three years, I had male teachers.  For me, that was the perfect scenario.  They were great teachers and role models for me. I don’t know where any of them are now, but I know they impacted my life a great deal and confirmed that I wanted to be a teacher! A series of circumstances caused us to move a great deal when I was a kid (10 schools in 12 grades), but what I always remember is that it was a teacher or a coach that made me feel comfortable and kept me on track.  How I wish I could go back and thank all of them. Later, while in college I got a job one summer working at a camp for diabetic kids. One summer turned into nine and I loved every minute of it.  Living in a cabin with 20 kids for 3 weeks at a time is only for someone that truly loves it!!  Making their lives better was my passion. When it came time to "grow up" and get a full time job, I intentionally found a place where I could teach a self-contained classroom because I wanted to have my “own” kids each and every day in hopes of helping them in the way so many helped me.  I wanted to make a difference in kids’ lives.  That is why I started! One of the most rewarding things in my career is the number of them that are now teachers themselves!!

Fast forward a few years and I find myself farther away from students than I ever dreamed. The same second grader that thought he could do better than his teacher also couldn’t keep his mouth shut about how things should be done better and was eventually asked to prove it in a series of "promotions".  If I have learned anything in my first year in a new job, it is that I don’t have all the answers.  That is humbling experience for sure, but one that has challenged me to remember even more why I started.  I have to keep that in perspective and believe that while I no longer interact with students on a daily basis, my role now is to do the best I can to support the adults that do touch their lives.
Simon Sinek, has a wonderful TED talk describing what he calls “The Golden Ring”.  (see the link below) The premise of his talk for organizations and its leaders is “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”  My hope for teachers everywhere is that you never forget “why” you do it.  I know my story is not unique...we all had teachers that impacted our lives, but more and more, we are “selling” education to kids and parents. Today's students are more skeptical and/or curious than ever before. They must know why learning is relevant and that starts with your passion for what you do.  It shows in all your actions and impacts students and their parents.  Again, they don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it!

I became an educator because I loved being with kids and because of the many teachers that helped me during my life...I figure, I owe them.  So there you have it, my elevator speech.  Why do you do what you do?