Tag Archives: standardized testing

What Really Makes a Great School

So, I talk a great deal about my amazing students, my incredible staff. All true. Today I am grateful for my unbelievable parents. Last night, I shared a situation at our PTA Meeting and 5th-grade performance, I shared a situation with them and asked for their support. Their commitment to our school and community is unbelievable. This might be a given if you were talking about a roomful of people from the same backgrounds. I have families from all walks of life, all different viewpoints. One thing is undeniable-they love our school. I had a situation where an outsider made some judgments based on paper scores and a school rating website. I asked them to be more vocal about Degan and they stepped up to the plate.

And just as a public service announcement, STAAR is only as good at telling you about a school as you compare apples to apples. It doesn’t tell you that my current fifth graders entered 1st grade with only half knowing their letters and sounds. (Because some of these kiddos just didn’t have the opportunity to have quality learning experience before coming to school and not because their parents didn’t love them with all their hearts. It’s all about access to resources!!). I can tell you that these same students were only about 61% passing STAAR on math as third graders. These same kids were over 70% passing in math last year and after our first district benchmark was over 90% and ABOVE the district average.

Before you judge a book by its STAAR scores you might want to dig a little deeper to see the untold story. Does the TEA accountability report tell you that? Does it tell you how my diverse students wrote their own performance? Does it tell you how they “circle” and as a group work through their issues with each other and show value? Does it tell you about how innovative they are and how they use technology to create products to show their thinking or that one of my students is creating a documentary on being an NEU school and how that has affected her? I mean really, if kids could pass the test when they walked in the door does that prove a school is good versus one who grew kids like I described?

Oh, don’t worry. We are taking care of STAAR too. Not with test prep or drill and kill. But rather by deep learning. My students will accomplish whatever they dream of because they are amazing, they have incredible teachers, and because of our parents….they are the best in the world and support their school. They aren’t afraid of diversity and are willing to do whatever it takes, too.

Game On- Level UP!

As I prepared for the 2017-18  school year, I had lots to consider:  my learning the past year as a part of the Texas Principal’s Visioning Institute, the feedback that I received from my students, staff, and parents through various data points, the past that had resulted in the path Degan was on, and the aspirations that we had for our students. The question that kept ringing in my head was “How in the world do I create a vision to help us move forward with all of this to consider?”

My campus had been fortunate to experience lots of success and recognition for the accomplishments we have made with transformation.  At the same time, we have also experienced some pretty big hits to culture. It’s hard to put this much energy into getting our flywheel moving. I think we all thought after three years, it would be starting to have its own momentum.   It’s not very comforting to hear that real change takes three to five years when you are in year four.  How would we keep moving forward? What would be our rallying cry for this next push to transform learning in meaningful ways so that our students could be successful?

The answer was actually in the data.  It was clear that as a campus we had made great strides in understanding what it was students were to learn and proven strategies to ensure that learning.  We understood our changing demographics and could relate to them and build meaningful relationships.  Yet, we were still short of the goal.  What our data showed was that we needed to evolve in how we were having teachers use technology and that teachers wanting to design more engaging, innovative work, but they needed time and practice to make this happen.

Then it hit me.  It was time to get our “game on”, literally, and level up learning for our students.

I love the mental image this theme created.  It acknowledges that first, our work, like games should be fun!  It should be challenging enough to keep our interest, while still being attainable.  We should receive feedback that adds value and helps us shape our decision-making to improve our processes.  We need to feel a part of a network in achieving the goal.

I am so excited about this year.  Today, we had our first professional learning and we made connections to the work of Jane McGonigal and her book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.  While not everything in learning has to be digital, it recognizes that games release some of the control to the gamer and allow them to test out theories to achieve the goals.  My teachers had the chance to explore how to incorporate some of these concepts into their learning design today.  Today teachers created and shared some cool new ideas.  I can’t wait to see the impact in the classrooms with students!

For my afternoon learning, I got to reconnect with the Texas Principal’s Visioning Institute.  Listening to Alan November just reinforced my belief that my campus is on the right path.  When we only focus on testing, we don’t have fun.

Our current generation of students has never lived without technology in their lives.  They spend 2-3 hours a day “gaming”.  According to McGonigal, over the course of their school years from fifth grade to graduation, they will likely spend as much time on games as they do in school.  We have to prepare these new learners for a new future.  That may mean that as adults, we have to “learn” how they learn and incorporate it into the knowledge we want them to gain.  It’s time to level up and do things differently than we have always done. GAME ON!

 

Celebrate Success (Even When It’s Someone Else’s)

It’s pretty easy to celebrate your own accomplishments.  I mean, you know your journey.  You know what you have been through to carry out the goal.  However, it can be harder to celebrate the success of others.  It got me thinking.

  • Do we not celebrate the success of others because of the competitive world we live in?  Maybe we don’t celebrate because we are fearful that someone else’s success diminishes our own.  Maybe it makes us feel a little safer with our own status.
  • Do we not notice? Let’s face it, it’s a fast pace world we live in. Maybe we get so busy, we just don’t see anything going on with anyone else because we have hyper-focused on our own circumstances.
  • Do we doubt the impact our “congratulations” mean to someone else?  Maybe we think that the other person will question our sincerity or even value our acknowledgement of what they have accomplished.

Recently I had a colleague of a campus that had been through a tremendous challenge to help her campus meet some specified accountability standards.  While I had not directly experienced the steps and measures they had gone through to achieve the goal.  I knew it was certainly arduous.  Her team rallied. They invested.  They learned. They reflected and they grew.  Most importantly, they never gave up.  It was huge accomplishment when they achieved this task they had worked on for years.

As I watched them celebrate, it hit me how important it was that not only they celebrate for themselves, or be acknowledged by superiors, but that they be acknowledged by peers and colleagues.  I didn’t know whether my words would really matter to them, but it just seemed important.  When we live in a world where education is constantly under fire, we must stand together in good times and in bad. It just seems like it’s easier to acknowledge and feel pity for someone’s struggles. We must not compete against each other, but celebrate each educational organization as a part of the great big “whole” of public educators who make a difference for children.  That is why my teacher leaders did a twitter storm of celebration for this campus marrying their hashtag and ours to celebrate their success.

I don’t think it matters if you are a district, a school, or a teacher of a classroom.  As Susan Phillips says “Celebrate the success of others.  High tide floats all ships.” When you are in a battle, you unite your armies, not battle over who is the frontline or the support. Both are critical to winning longterm.  We must recognize that every success of any campus is asuccess for all public educators.  It’s a check in the win column to tell the world what a difference a group of educators can make in the lives of children when they have a common vision and purpose. Congratulations, Central Elementary! You have accomplished great things.  You have shown grit, growth mindset, and grace under fire!  You did it and you make us all look good because of that!

 

 

No Excuses (Especially on Saturday)

Two years ago, my campus learned about No Excuses University. It happened accidentally when a visitor to our campus said, “Oh, you’re an NEU Campus.” I had no idea what it the world NEU was, so I looked it up. Basically, it is the implementation of best practices for instruction, combined with a passion for the learning of all students. It is a fierce commitment to adults not making excuses about why a child cannot succeed in school, but rather doing whatever it takes to overcome barriers and ensure that all children (no matter their background, ethnicity, socio-economic status, or disability) are proficient or advanced in Reading, Writing, and Mathematics so that they can go to college if they choose.

In trying to be aligned to this belief, my campus has looked at the students who we believed were not quite ready to hit that “proficient or advanced” expectation and created what we call NEU Saturday. This is a time where selected students come to school on Saturday for two hours so that they have a little extra time to learn. I need to be clear. This has absolutely NOTHING to do with our state assessment. My commitment is not to a test, but to these children’s being prepared for their future. If we do that right, they’ll be fine on a test, but the test isn’t the driving force.

I love this! Learning isn’t about worksheets! It’s about relationships, relevance to life, and things that can connect with the learner!
Because we aren’t bound by constraints of tutoring for a test, we serve all grades. YES, all grades, pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. They come and a band of teachers welcome these children with open arms and celebrate the child’s commitment to his education. So many of my students are still learning that things don’t just happen to them, but through the choices they make, they have the power to change the direction of their lives. I tell each one of the students that they are the “chosen” ones. That their teachers specifically chose them to come to this special time because of the grit, growth mindset and commitment to no excuses they make every day.

We feed them a full breakfast. While I know it is big talk in Washington D.C. that breakfast doesn’t make a difference in education, that is just plain malarky. When people are hungry, they can’t think about anything, but their stomach growling and “hangry” is a reality. Many of my children rely on the food from school as their primary source of nutrition. It’s just a sack breakfast with cereal or a muffin, string cheese, juice, and milk, but knowing my students are getting one extra meal over the weekend makes a huge difference.

Then for the next two hours, I have an incredible staff that pours into these children. They talk with them, hug them, and provide them with meaningful learning. They do cool activities with Versa-tiles, read, and play games with higher-level thinking and strategy. There’s not one test prep material. Only opportunities for the students to think, discuss and problem solve in meaningful situations. The best part is that these students say this is the best day of the week and and ask to come back on Sunday, too!


There’s lots of criticism about public schools and their effectiveness. I haven’t seen that. Public education is the heart of our society’s future. It takes ensuring that all children have access to a quality education to ensure they have the tools to become productive citizens in the future. It is when we take off the constraints off and allow educators to do what they love and teach that this happens. They do whatever it takes because this is why we get into teaching: to see all children succeed. No excuses.

Why I Won’t Have a STAAR Pep Rally at My School

Pep Rallies before a standardized test have become a common occurrence in schools. A campus principal’s email can be flooded with people who want to get paid to be a part of these “pep rallies”.   I have been a part of this practice in the past, but since becoming a principal, I have been against this type of practice.  Why, because a ” STAAR Pep Rally” makes the important thing the test.  It sends the message to those people outside education that “the test” is what is important.  I am here to say a standardized test is the LEAST important thing that happens during a school year.

A test is what happens on one single day to measure all the learning that takes place in the course of a school year.  For it to be an accurate measure, all the variables for that would have to be absolutely perfect.  Students would have to have a great night’s’ sleep,  a well-balanced breakfast, a supportive emotional environment before school, and all the supports they need to be successful.

Let’s face it.  Some students have trauma at home. Many don’t have basic needs met.   They don’t always have the nutrition they need.  They may not get adequate sleep. Even our students with disabilities don’t have access to all their IEP interventions because of the rules of the test.  The variables are not the best case scenario for some kids.  How in the world could we expect the test to accurately reflect all they have mastered?

Here is what I am willing to rally over:  students, teachers, grit, growth mindset and all they have accomplished over the ENTIRE year.  At my school, we do this every Friday. Today, on the eve of our standardized test, my students did come to the cafeteria to meet with me.  The rest of the building lined the hallway to applaud their hard work and let them know we stand with them. It was not a STAAR Pep Rally.  It was a celebration of people who work hard to grow in their learning. It was caring about the people enough to let them know they were loved, supported, prepared, and in control of their destiny.

When students arrived, I shared with them my story of having to retake the GRE to get into graduate school to work on my doctorate.  As I sat down to take this test, I felt angry and frustrated.  I felt like there were some words that no one used, so impossibly worded questions, and I just felt there was no way that that test could accurately encompass who I was as a principal or a learner.  It hit me that this was how some of my students felt.

I told my students that there was no way that tomorrow’s test could define them either.  There was no way that this test could fully share with legislators or the public how much they had learned this past year. What I did tell these students was that they were in control, that they had the power to control their destiny. I shared with my fifth graders that sometimes, working hard at a test can give you a benefit.  That while my test couldn’t define me, it could gain me access to a program I wanted to be a part of to improve my life.

For them, working hard to “show what they know” could prevent them from retaking this test in a few weeks, but it would be their choice.  I told my fourth graders that while they weren’t facing a retest, the evidence does show that every time they pass a test like this,  it increases their chances of passing the next one.  No matter what, I told them they were in control.  I wanted them to know they were prepared and had everything they needed.  If they wanted it, they could achieve it.

I think that is what it is all about:  empowering students to know that they have control over their education.  The focus should never be on a test, but the people taking the test and continual reminders that even as children, they get to choose, they get to decide how to define themselves.

 We put tremendous pressure on students to “pass.”  The truth is our actions should support our beliefs.  At my campus we don’t have a test pep rally, we have a “hope rally” every single week where we celebrate teachers, students, and the power of education together as a campus.  While today I did bring students down to meet with me before they take their test tomorrow, it was never about the test.  It was ALWAYS about the people.  Whatever happens, tomorrow doesn’t really change anything.  Don’t get me wrong.  I want all of my students to do well because I know it makes their life easier in the long wrong. However, I know what my students have learned, how they have grown, and how much they have overcome and it far exceeds the constraints of a multiple choice test!

The Sky is Not Falling!

If you spend too much time watching the news, you might begin to believe that the world is soon coming to an end.  Whether it is regarding the politicians in charge or the faith in the public education, the media, is trying to convince the public that the sky is indeed falling.  However, just like the fable, buying into this belief is more likely to result in the dangerous behaviors that bring about the danger.

In the story, Chicken Little is hit by an acorn falling from a tree. She draws the wrong conclusions and rallies others into her erroneous reasoning.  As they all seek a solution to the false doom, they become careless, and trust the sly Foxy Loxy, who is the real source of their undoing.  There wasn’t any real danger, until they created it for themselves due to unfounded fear. The fox leads them down the wrong path and gains a nice dinner for himself.

The same thing is happening today.   A few people have had some negative experiences with public school.  WIth an institution this large built to serve all people from all backgrounds, I am not sure why we are surprised by this.  Perfection does not exist. However, those people have loudly cried, “The sky is falling!” when it comes to public education.  They go to their friends and build a following, a following of people who have simply believed what they are told, rather than seeking information to substantiate the claim for themselves and simply continue to spread the paranoia.

So enter Foxy Loxy.  Foxy Loxy sees an opportunity to capitalize on the fear and paranoia of others.  Foxy Loxy doesn’t really care about education, be it public or private, but only sees the opportunity to serve his own needs.  He says, “you’re right, the sky is falling and I can help you. Come down this path and we can provide you with school choice vouchers and you will be saved.” Foxy Loxy doesn’t really care about your future, but sees the opportunity to manipulate you and take money from public education, monies that in the past, he has never been able to touch. He doesn’t care if creates soft segregation, leaving segments of the population feeling alienated and disenfranchised.  In his mind, if the public education system fails, it will just require everyone to pay for a product that was once free to all.  In the end of this fable, the only one who wins is Foxy Loxy.

Public education is not failing.  More students than ever before are receiving a high quality education.  Graduation rates are on the rise. Public schools are fighting to become producers of students with higher-level thinking, strong communication and collaboration, problem-solving and technology skills to improve our society. All of this is happening despite  antiquated accountability systems based on “one-size fits all” standardized testing systems that can’t even begin to measure the depth of these 21st Century Skills.

If we hope to create a better society for our future, we must teach diverse populations to co-exist and value our differences.  We must be brave and unite, rather than divide our cultures and run in fear.  We must fight for our schools so that they can evolve to be the institutions we need them to be, rather than continue to drain their resources and pretend that “school choice” is available to all.  The research doesn’t support the success of school choice.  Historically, school choice just enables those who could already afford private school a discount.  Those with fewer resources still cannot afford the private school and are left with schools that were already stretched beyond their means with even less.

The Foxy Loxy’s of the world are hard at work to undermine your faith.  They create tests with continually changing rules that they finalize AFTER tests are given.  They appoint leaders who are experts in undermining rather than advocating for public education. They pass laws to ensure schools cannot hold families accountable for coming to school so that children and be taught, paint schools in a negative light, and they encourage the Chicken Little’s saying, “yes, the sky is falling!”

However, the truth is the sky is not falling.  Teachers are better and more equipped than they have ever been before.  A good education is still the most proven way to overcome poverty.  Public education is the place that we can learn to live and thrive side by side. Can public education improve? Certainly.  Just don’t succumb to the paranoia of the Chicken LIttles or be tricked by the self-serving Foxy Loxys of this world.  Our brains are wired to see what we believe.  My challenge to society is to see the greatness of public schools.  If something needs to be improved, get involved to create a better system rather than running in fear, or worse, being a sideline critic with no personal knowledge of the situation. Your neighborhood public school will welcome your collaboration.  

Be brave and stand up for public schools.  Public education is our best choice to make sure that everyone has the opportunities they deserve and create a better future.

Friends of Texas Public Schools: http://fotps.org/cool/

Stand Up 4 Public Schools:  https://www.standup4publicschools.org/

 

 

You Can’t Compare Apples and Oranges

This is a great read if you don’t understand why public schools are NOT failing. For example, if you looked only at my campus’ non-disabled, non economically disadvantaged and native English speakers, we would be at the top of the charts. Even so, we are climbing those charts because we educate all children in a social-emotionally healthy, rigorous way.


The great thing about America is that everyone has opportunity. You don’t have to be wealthy, non disabled, or meet a standard to get the in. We start with whatever you give us and grow you. In public education we educate every child. And here’s the great news, if you want a different product or possibility, you can home school, or choose a private school.
Just remember, our constitution guarantees a FREE and APPROPRIATE, PUBLIC education. Everyone having a quality education is how we make America great, not through soft segregation. If you think public schools can improve, roll up your sleeves and help.

If you decide not to help, please just don’t take every report you read at face value.  Rates of American Public Schools include all children.  Private schools, Charter schools, and schools from other countries often have selective processes.  One’s an apple, one is an orange.  However, unlike the picture above, these reports and media stories are clearly labeled as such.  Make sure you only compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges.

#standupforpublicschools #proudpublicschoolprincipal #donttreadonme

U.S. Public Schools Are NOT Failing. They’re Among the Best in the World

 

What If?

We seem to be at a crossroads in education.  If we go one direction, we will continue to judge schools and their success by a single test without giving consideration to the growth that has occurred. Teachers will feel it necessary to resort to test preparation as that is how they are judged. Our best teachers will avoid the demanding classrooms so as not to put themselves at risk of judgment, mandates, and additional paperwork. Students will be limited in what they learn because what is assessed on a test is only a fraction of what they need to know to be successful in life. Parents will become disillusioned with the progress and those with means will move them to other options. District will put pressure on school leaders and will, in turn, pass this on to teachers with more paperwork and documentation. In the meantime, our society becomes more and more segregated. The ones left behind become angry and the ones who left become fearful of them because they can no longer relate to each other. What if this approach results in more violence in the future than what we see even today?

what-if

But what if we choose a different future?

What if federal and state governments quit trying to define student success with a test? What if they quit trying to quantify complex human development by a test score?  What if they encouraged schools to use these assessments to improve their instruction and meet needs of students, but left the true definitions of school success to the communities where those schools reside? What if special interest groups took “special interest” in our schools and pledged support rather than trying to find out ways to take the public funds that they haven’t yet been able to touch?

What if communities stand behind their schools?  What if when they feel the school is struggling, they step up to help, provide support for students, staff, and families? What if those with criticisms couldn’t sling mud at public education without having direct
knowledge of the situations with which they are passing judgment?  What if wanted to speak about a school and it’s performance, you must first spend time there with the people volunteering?  What if you couldn’t lump schools all together but had to speak specifically about situations in which you had personal experience? What if our media spent as much time talking about all the accomplishments of public schools and didn’t just highlight the isolated negative examples?

What if school administrators don’t have to worry about spending funds to survive, but can use dollars in practices that promote thriving such as professional learning for teachers?  What if they felt free to restructure schedules to provide teachers with ongoing collaboration and professional learning so that they could be sure that teachers were always at the forefront of their profession, masters of the learning standards and best practice in instructional techniques? What if when they saw a teacher in need, they could provide that teacher with the support they needed to grow and improve rather than feeling pressure to get them out?

What if because schools feel supported, teachers feel less stressed and feel they have the time to stop and build strong relationships with students and their families? What if teachers feel they can develop innovative, meaningful lessons that actually apply to the future that our what-if-4-300x175students will live in because they aren’t scared about test outcomes? What if they could collaborate and share without the pressure to hold back so that they could ensure they weren’t the bottom performer?  What if we valued teachers as the creators of all other professions and compensated them as such?

What if parents didn’t abandon schools for homeschooling, private and charter schools in an effort to isolate their children from those with experiences that may be very different from their own?  What if they were adamant to model that when something isn’t what we want it to be, they stick with it and become a part of the solution?

What if we had children from all different backgrounds that learned to value each other and learned to live together without fear and without anger? What if these students were able to learn the skills needed in reading, writing, math along with skills like collaboration, grit, growth mindset, technology, and problem-solving?

What if?

I can say I am fortunate to be a part of a district where our school board fights for local control.  I work in a district where our district leaders don’t point fingers, but rather ask “what can we do to support you?” and give campuses the freedom to do what they need to let-be-what-ifdo to make a difference with their students.  I have parents walking my halls taking care of all students, willing to take part in conversations when they have concerns, rather than resorting to silence and abandonment.  I have teachers that are the epitome of lifelong
learners. They have become masters of state standards and design meaningful learning that is resulting in stronger students with each passing year.  I have students that are learning the value of diversity.  They are learning to work things out together and hold themselves accountable for high levels of learning and growth. My campus has gone from plummeting scores and declining enrollment to scores and enrollment on the rise.  I am one of the fortunate principals who has had the freedom not to be defined by a test and the feel the support of my district and community.

What if all schools had this?

what-if-why-not

No, Your Child Shouldn’t Attend a Failing School

There is lots of propaganda these days about vouchers and school choice.  A favorite line to stir the masses on the topic is to say how children shouldn’t have to attend failing schools.

I think we have to consider what a failing school in NOT:

  • A Title I school-“Title I” is just a designation that states a certain portion of the school’s population is economically disadvantaged.  Because of this, the school receives additional funds to train teachers and provide additional resources so that students who may have entered school behind because of lack of opportunity.  If a Title I school is considered “school-wide” than even those children who are not economically disadvantaged benefit.  It is actually a huge benefit to attending a Title I school because these teachers are highly skilled in making a difference with all students, not just the students who learn easily. I took my own child to a Title I screen-shot-2016-09-25-at-1-33-31-pmschool rather than his affluent neighborhood school because I knew they would grow him, wherever he started from.  Being economically disadvantaged is not contagious.  You can’t catch it by attending a Title I school.  Children in Title I schools learn the value of diversity and are more likely to learn to know how to function with others who are different than themselves in the real world.
  • A school whose state test scores are below ninety percent –Just because a school appears to have high passing rates doesn’t mean they are a great school. It may simply mean that the students walked into the school with a good amount of skills learned from home. Right now on the Texas accountability test, passing rates are fairly low.  The test has changed to reflect higher-level thinking, and they are gradually building the passing rate as schools make the shift from “strategies” to “thinking.”   The score in and of itself doesn’t show you for sure if a student is performing higher than they were when they arrived.  Sometimes when a student enters school with large gaps, the score may not yet be passing, but it is showing astounding growth.  An overall passing rate doesn’t tell you if a school can make a difference with all students.  
  • A school with diverse ethnicities, cultures, religions, and backgrounds- Our world is changing and becoming more and more diverse.  Groups that were once majority are finding that is no longer the case.  To prepare children for the 21st-century world, they need to develop the skills to value and collaborate with others from all backgrounds, including those that are significantly different from their own.  Students who attend “homogenous” schools are more likely to struggle in college and beyond because the haven’t developed the skill set to work with others besides those who are most like themselves.

Here is what I think a failing school IS:

  • A school that doesn’t put children first – Schools should filter every decision they make through what is best for their students.  If it isn’t making a difference for children in a school, it shouldn’t matter.
  • A school that doesn’t value partnerships with their families –Schools should always be working to invite their parents in, ask their opinions and build relationships so that they can partner in the child’s education. Does your school provide opportunities to be involved other than fundraisers? Does it have a parent involvement policy?  If not, it should.
  • A school that doesn’t grow EVERY student – It’s easy to appear to be a good school if all the students are the same and performing on high levels.  However, if a child walks in the door with lots of skills, a school should be able to grow the student from that point, not rest on their laurels A failing school is one that takes advantage of the fact that students may already be able to perform skills and doesn’t attempt to grow them more.  They may also not be able to grow students that have more difficulty learning.  They resort to labels and excuses of why it is the child that is the problem, rather than accepting the challenge and ensuring learning happens.

real-world

  • A school that doesn’t seek to teach problem-solving, higher level thinking, and 21st-century skills necessary to survive in a future that we cannot yet fully define – Our world has changed drastically, just since I was in school.  There are jobs and technology we couldn’t have even dreamed of at the time I was in elementary school.  We have to intentionally think about this world that doesn’t exist.  We have to make sure that our students are proficient readers, writers, and mathematicians, but we also have to make sure they are thinkers, problem-solvers, collaborators, and have skills to persist when things get challenging, while also being willing to grow.  Students can no longer live in a world of “perfection” because learning is messy and they don’t need to waste time memorizing things that they can access easily through technology.
  • A school using technology in learning only to consume information –To often schools have lots of technology available, but they are only using it to access programs that allow for practice of skills or looking up information.  Truly great schools are teaching students the programs that not only allow access to information but applications that allow them to create and demonstrate their understanding of concepts.  Research is showing that this type of creativity is critical for the future.
  • A school driven by high stakes testing and preparation –Too many schools these days are trying to prove their worth through high scores on high stakes tests.  The problem is that these schools are abandoning real learning for test preparation and cartoon5_2_13drills of skills rather than relevant learning grounded in real-life application.  Before you assume a good score means a good school, you may need to look deeper to find out exactly how those scores are being achieved and what may be sacrificed for the performance on a single day.
  • A school that doesn’t function as a learning organization –  A successful school is one where everyone grows and learns: leaders, teachers, students, parents, and community.  Administration and teachers should constantly be learning and evolving to meet the needs of the students and an ever-changing future.  They ways students are learning shouldn’t look like the ways we taught them 20, 10, or even five years ago.  There should be opportunities for parents and the community to participate in the learning as well. If the only learning is that of the students, there is definitely a problem.

Yes, no child should have to attend a failing school.  We just need to be careful to make sure we really know what a “failing school” really is.

Finding the Sweet Spot

“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.

authentic-skills

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 learning-testingacknowledge 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.