“To transform schools successfully, we need to navigate the difficult space between letting go of old strategies and grabbing on to new ones.” Robert John Meehan
This quote struck me this week. It is true to have a real transformation in schools, we must master this balance of old and new strategies. This dual mastery is especially critical if we are to escape the constraints of a dysfunctional standardized testing cycle. We must find that optimum point of where critical elements of instruction intersect to have the most effect on student learning -“the sweet spot.”
As I began teaching twenty-five years ago, we ushered in the beginning of the demanding, rigorous, standardized testing era. The tests at that time were increasingly more complex than anything we had seen before. They were tied to accountability and a school’s performance on these tests was publicized for the world to see.
No worries. Teachers were smart. If the world said these tests were important, we could figure out ways to ensure students were successful. I remember as a young, fifth-grade math teacher using a strategy that could assist even a struggling reader to determine the correct operation to use to solve the word problem. In reading, we could pinpoint the critical information the students needed to answer the questions, even if they didn’t have the stamina to read the entire lengthy passage. I don’t think it was that we were trying to shortcut student learning. We could essentially teach our students to follow a set routine of steps in a strategy, and they could be successful. We were designing learning according to what society valued. What was being communicated was that “tests” and “following instructions” were what was important.
Over time, when have seen the shortfalls of this focus. Society has adjusted their perspective and decided tests based on this limited thinking were not important. We have realized that many students were crippled with no ability to solve a problem when they are not given a specific strategy or procedure. We unwittingly created dependent students who struggled to approach problems with creativity. As a result, tests have systematically been recreated to make those strategies from twenty-five years ago almost impossible to use. Words formally used as triggers are now embedded as distractors to see if students understand what they are doing. Tests are now designed to force higher level thinking. They don’t rely on one set strategy that the teacher can say, “just follow these steps.” It just won’t work. Regurgitation of facts or actions is essentially useless. To pass the “new generation” of high stakes assessments, our students must be proficient readers, mathematicians, communicators, and creative problem solvers.
Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. Is it needed for our students to prepare for the future they face? Absolutely! Is it easy? No way. Essentially, it requires teachers and students to
“unlearn” everything they relied on in the past. Everything that worked and deemed them a success previously is now ineffective to achieve the new bar.
For those teachers in elementary schools today, it’s like being told you have to quit a bad habit, but you will continue to be judged on performance. I liken it to giving up caffeine. Imagine you have been a heavy coffee or coke drinker. Now you are giving up all caffeine cold turkey. You know you need to do this for your health, but you still have to perform at high levels despite the fact that your body might be going through some withdrawal and experiencing caffeine headaches. Finding that balance of teaching students at authentic levels with high problem-solving and performing triage for gaps between the newer test versions and previous ones take talent, practice, and hard work.
Effectively teaching students at high levels with meaningful, real-life problem-solving while performing triage for gaps between the newer test versions and previous ones doesn’t happen overnight. Measures that previously determined students, teachers, and schools were high performers have been revised and now deem them lacking. It is not the people who have changed. It is the tests. It is the expectations. Even businesses acknowledge that systematic change takes three to five years. There is often an implementation dip after starting new methods. I would think that when you add young children to the mix, it can take a little longer. With that, we must be careful not to misinterpret or abuse test results. We are comparing apples to oranges. These new tests are definitely not like any test you took in school. It’s not in anyone’s best interest to make assumptions or broad generalizations, especially not the student.
This year is my third year as a principal. I have been amazed at how fast positive change in instruction is taking hold on my campus. I am blessed with a team of educators who know why they do what they do. They understand what we need to do to prepare our students. They have the grit to persist even when traveling this difficult road. We are starting to see glimmers of this new way of thinking in our students while putting in extensive work to overcome gaps created by previous approaches. They live in that sweet spot.
Yesterday, I read a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”
These words were written in a paper Dr. King wrote in 1947. Maybe this change in values of education represents the next swing of the teaching pendulum. Or maybe it has just taken us 70 years to find the sweet spot.