Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Tell me that students learn in our schools

I read an interesting article in the Washington Post today. In the article a group of teachers and parents from Georgia - the Teaching Georgia Writing Collective - talked about what schools in Clarke County are doing when third and fifth grade students are identified as "projected to fail."

Projected to fail what? you might ask. That is a good question. Evidently these teachers are being asked to identify students who are projected to fail the Georgia state assessments. These schools then engage in a "blitz" that provides these students with focused, remedial help to improve their skills. The article suggests that schools are "foisting" on these students an inappropriate and maybe inferior education.

These teachers describe regrouping of students so that all of the "projected to fail" students are grouped with teachers whose job is to provide "intense remediation." Other students who are not projected to fail get to experience "acceleration and enrichment."

While I would certainly agree that the methods that are being used might be open to some critique and that basing the "projected to fail" criteria on only one indicator like the Georgia state assessment is somewhat problematic, the tone of this article rubs me the wrong way. Students are in school to learn. Teachers are in school to teach. If we cannot demonstrate that teaching and learning are occurring in my mind there is a problem.

The article suggests that we punish these "projected to fail" students by making them slog through boring, repetitive assignments designed to improve their skills. Students who perform well on the state assessment escape this remediation and get to go to classes with exciting assignments that spark their interest and curiosity.

Don't get me wrong. I am not a fan of boring, repetitive assignments. I believe that students need to be engaged and inspired in school.

However, I am not a fan of districts or schools not taking their responsibility to demonstrate that students are learning seriously. I agree that basing the decision on whether a student has learned or not on one single standardized test is not only wrong it is foolish.

If I believe that then I need to build a system that will accurately communicate the ability of a student. And that system cannot ignore state assessments. But state assessments should only be one piece of the puzzle. I should have other pieces of the puzzle that are robust and that demonstrate the ability of the students in my district.

As a school superintendent I feel a significant amount of responsibility to be able to demonstrate that students learn in every classroom in my district.

Two key question gnaw at me:

  1. How do I know that students are learning?
  2. How do I communicate that students are learning to key stakeholders - students, parents, the Board of Education, and teachers?

I would not disagree with the conclusions that this article reaches. It states that the relationship that teachers develop with their students is important. I would agree. But part of that relationship should be an expectation that students are learning. It also encourages schools to engage students with challenging and creative projects. I would also agree with that. All students need challenging and engaging lessons.

However, I would argue that these factors - teacher/student relationships and engaging lessons - do not prevent us from holding ourselves accountable. We should be able to demonstrate that students are learning. If we can't, why should a parent support our schools? Why should the community support our schools if we cannot demonstrate that students learn when they are with us?

Perhaps the real issue here is the use of only one assessment - in this case the Georgia state assessment. Spending an inordinate amount of time and energy just to get a student to pass a state assessment is not a great use of our time and talent. Passing any state assessment does not guarantee that a student will be successful.

But schools have failed to offer an alternative. We fail ourselves and our students when we do not create a robust accountability system that can clearly communicate that the students in our schools are learning. State assessments results should be part of our accountability system. Internal, robust classroom assessments need to be a part of our system as well.

When we back away from holding ourselves accountable we "foist" on ourselves and our communities a watered down version of what schools should really be.

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