Thursday, October 29, 2015

My students, my schools are not test scores!

This week, October 27, 2015, the Michigan Department of Education released summary results from the state assessment test that was taken in May.

(While not my focus here, it is important to note that as I write this it is October 29, 2015, and we have still not received district or school summaries for this state assessment. The state required this assessment and yet its relevance and its impact is obviously significantly limited because of the delay in returning results to the districts. But that is a discussion for another time.)

It was bad!

How bad?

The Michigan Department of Education felt compelled to release overall statewide results before allowing individual districts an opportunity to see building or district results. Preparing us and the public for bad news! In releasing these results the Michigan Department of Education press release tried to soften the blow by saying:

“With this all-new and more rigorous test, 
we expected statewide student scores to 
be lower than what we’d seen with the old MEAP tests. . .
In order to prepare our students for the careers of the 21st Century 
and to vault Michigan to become a Top Ten education state in 10 years, 
we need high standards and rigorous assessments
This year’s results set the new baseline from which to build."

Reading between the lines what this says is that we did bad but we expected that.

But it also says to me is that the Michigan Department of Education believes that what teachers and classrooms have been doing for the past several years has not been preparing students for 21st century careers and that our standards have been too low and certainly too easy.


We need to know if a child is learning. We need to know if a child has the ability to write, think, communicate, explain, and create. We need to make sure that the time spent in our schools and in our classrooms is preparing students for their future.

I do not want a school system that pushes students along without providing them with the skills and talents that they will need to live their lives fully and successfully.

Figuring out if students are learning and if students are prepared for their future is important.

But tests don't reveal everything that we need to know about a student.

There are people and organizations that believe that tests truly reveal everything there is to know about students and schools.

Those people and organizations are wrong!

Tests give us a slice of information. Tests give us one perspective. Test should be included in our conversation.

But there is so much more to our students and to our schools.

I visit classrooms and see teachers sit with students. I visit classrooms and hear the conversations between students and between students and teachers. I listen as students explain to me what they are doing. I watch as students struggle to understand and wrestle with complexity.

I see good things happening in these classrooms. I see dedicated teachers making a difference. I see students engaged in meaningful and important work.

These conversations, these struggles are not captured in a single test score. No matter how many experts with advanced degrees create the tests and how carefully the tests are constructed the tests do not reveal if a child will be successful.

I want meaningful conversations between parents and students to focus on whether or not students are developing passions and purpose, critical thinking skills, and the ability to create, communicate, and collaborate. And, for a minute or two, I would like the teacher and the parent to examine test scores to see what they add to the conversation.

We can and should use test scores to help us examine our practice. But test scores should not be the only piece of information that we deem worthy of examining.

Our Michigan test scores will be revealed to us at some point. There will be gnashing of teeth and wagging of fingers.

But my students, my teachers, and my schools are not test scores! 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A remarkable life

Al Coleman, my father-in-law, passed away on October 19th. He was 96.

Born in 1919 he was one of 12 brothers and sisters. He never graduated from high school.

He joined the Air Force during World War Two and was sent to North Africa to repair bombers. 

He was part of the generation that defined our nation.

One of the most remarkable parts of his life was earning his GED in his 40's. Even though he was earning a living, raising a family, and active in the community, he understood that he needed more. So he found the time and made the space in his life to study and pass the GED. 

He did it for his family. He did it for himself.

I met him many years after he had earned his GED. His life showed me that education opens doors.

It's a lesson I remember every day.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Time well wasted

Last week I visited a school and the whole school walked outside. It was not a fire drill or an emergency. It was an intentional act.

On this particular day this school participated in the annual Walk to School Day. This school, which has a number of students live too far away to walk to school, has for years walked through the neighborhood on Walk to School Day.

No tests. No curriculum maps. No assignments.

Everyone - students, teachers, parents, and even the Superintendent - went for a walk.

Later that afternoon I visited another school. It was Fun Run Day! Classrooms of students made their way to the field to participate in running and skipping and walking. This was accompanied by laughing and talking. Clearly students, staff, and parents were enjoying themselves.

Again, no tests. No curriculum maps. No assignments.

School is important. Students come to school to learn. Schools - teachers and administrators - have a responsibility to ensure that students learn the knowledge and develop the skills they need to be successful in the 21st century.

But every minute of every day cannot and should not be spent in a classroom with a book or listening to a teacher or taking a test. Those of us responsible for schools need to create space for students to waste time well.

This is not a call for unlimited free time or an excuse for teachers not to teach.

No, instead, this is a call for all of us to recognize that there is a social component to schools that should not be forgotten. Schools are places that students need to see adults laughing and talking and interacting in a positive way with their students. Schools are places where students need to laugh and talk and interact in a positive way with adults.

Our test-crazy accountability system tends to discourage thoughts of wasting time. But if we are to truly serve the students who attend our schools and who are in our care every day, then we have to make time to waste time well.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Teaching is not like other professions

In most jobs you do not receive an email like this. The subject line said:

Head lice information

Most jobs do not require you to think about or check for head lice.

But teaching is not like other professions.

Teaching, like most jobs, requires technical skill. Teaching, like most jobs, has a set of observable and measurable skills that a person needs to be successful. A teacher needs to know and understand their subject. More importantly, a teacher needs to know how to communicate their knowledge of the subject to an eight and twelve and fifteen year-old who may or may not be interested in learning that subject. There are very specific techniques and approaches that can and do help you teach.

But teaching also requires another set of skills. Teaching requires that a person be willing to look for head lice, break up a fight, listen to a break-up story, stop a bloody nose, and tell students that they are dancing too close to each other. Teaching requires that a person notice when a student is "off" because her dog died or because his girlfriend just dumped him or because he was just cut from a team that he had wanted all of his fourteen years to be a part of. Teaching requires that you understand heartache and heart break.

Teaching requires the very best a person has to offer. Students can spot a person who doesn't really care, who is not all that interested in them, and who is unwillingly to do the dirty work that is required to motivate and encourage and challenge a five or nine or thirteen or eighteen year-old.

Teaching is not like other professions.

Yet our society communicates to teachers that they don't matter, that anyone could do the job, that it is really not that hard. We look for ways to put students in front of computers believing, wrongly, that learning is about knowledge when really it is about relationships.

For those who claim anyone can be a teacher, I'll call you next time we need to check for head lice.