Data: Is it Reliable? And What do We do with it?

It’s been almost a couple of months since my last post, and I find myself thinking of data again.

Earlier this month, the Gates Foundation released its cumulative findings on its 3-year Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) research project. They recommend a balanced approach which included observations and student perception surveys in addition to achievement test scores. If you look at the data in the report, much can be gleaned, yet it’s easy to see that effective teaching is a very complex thing to measure.

Also in the local news this week, teachers from a two different Seattle Public Schools, for various reasons, have stated they are going to boycott the district standardized test known as the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP).

There are many reasons standardized tests cause anxiety among students, teachers, parents, and school leaders. Often they are used as sorting mechanisms (admissions into schools, teaching effectiveness, and putting students on a certain track are just a few examples). Yet, if one approaches the data from these assessments with more purpose (to set new goals, to inform ones teaching, provide meaningful feedback, or guide learning), these measures can be useful.

Data today is abundant, but is it the right data? How data is collected, analyzed, and interpreted; how reliable it is; and what we do with it can make all the difference. Though the Gates Foundation and those Seattle Public School teachers are doing it differently, I’m glad there are many out there asking these questions.

Is Quantifying Teacher Performance Akin to Flipping A Coin?

Last week, on the way home from school, I tuned into a story on the radio titled: “Seattle Releases First Teacher Ratings Based on Student Performance.” Data is great, but if you paid attention to the elections a few weeks ago, there were two kinds of math going on. Nate Silver’s Five Thirty Eight blog predicted 50/50 states. Karl Rove’s analysis of the data had him flummoxed. The difference was that Rove was emotionally attached, was eager to win, and for some reason his analysis of the same polls was way off. Alternatively, Silver simply plugged numbers into complex algorithms.

Mathematicians have noted that test scores and teacher performance don’t necessarily have a strong correlation, yet an incredible weight and cost is attributed to these standardized tests. Math professor Johh Ewing says, “You might as well look at all the teachers and flip a coin and those that get heads, say, are good, and those that get tails are bad, and it’s not much different from using one year of growth to measure teachers,”

Ewings paper, “Mathematical Intimidation: Driven by Data,” Looks at the potential pitfall of trying to create Value Added Measures to teacher evaluation.

Like the election examples earlier, we often attach a lot of emotion to the data creating a lot of noise. This noise had the potential to lead to bias. When a teacher says, “But I’ve done this for 20 years. I know this works,” it is evident that experience plays an important role. But is there bias involved. During those 20 years, did that teacher ever once control the experiment by not utilizing a particular skill? If so was the result the same, better, worse. Without trying to control for various things, how does one really know if what you do works. Is it just a feeling or is it based on empirical data.

Finally, there are so many things that make a good teacher: relationships with students, high expectations, integrity, care, leadership, collaboration, etc. Yet all of these traits can’t be tested for.

Standardized test scores are a reality and here to stay. As long as graduate schools use test scores as a tool to help with admissions, and undergraduate schools do the same, high schools and middle schools won’t have much of a choice. Elementary schools just follow.

There’s a dark side to this. Children as early as Pre-K are getting tutored in test preparation. Like the qualities of teachers, students have many amazing strengths and skills. However just because they struggle with test taking, potential doors my be closed without even giving the child a chance to show the brilliance that lies within.

And what about those 21st Century Skills – Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, etc. Will teachers drop integrating teaching these skills in order to meet the demands of the test scores? I hope not.

What is Assessment Literacy?

“Assessment illiterates do not understand how to produce high-quality achievement data and do not evaluate critically the data they use.”


Richard Stiggins, whose been a educational leader in assessment research wrote that in 1995. He has spent over two decades combatting years of “assessment training neglect for teachers and administrators.” He coined the phrase ‘assessment literacy’ and urges us to use assessments in meaningful ways. A huge focus of his is assessment ‘for’ students rather than ‘of’ students.

When it comes to assessment literacy, there is so much to consider:

  • What exactly are you assessing? A product? A performance? Mastery of a standardized skill?
  • Does your assessment line up with what you’re teaching? This does’t mean teaching to the test, but does the scope and sequence of what students are learning align with your assessment?
  • Have you included your students in creating criteria for their assessments? Do you use rubrics? How much are teacher generated? How much are student generated?
  • How do you communicate these assessments to students? To parents? To other teachers? Do you do this through portfolios? Report Cards? Conferences?
  • What information are you getting from a standardized test? How are you using that information? Is this information used for student improvement? School improvement? Teacher improvement?
  • What does it mean to be 2 standard deviations above the mean? How valid is the assessment?

I’ve only just scratched the surface, but you can begin to see how complicated assessment for student learning can be. I used to consider myself literate in assessments knowing that it was something that would continue to evolve and require me to learn more about it. That is until now.

My students used to be given a standardized test in the fall of each year and we’d get results back in the winter. We could analyze the results, look for trends and gaps in the school as well as confirm any gaps there may be in student learning, and try to address them. While this isn’t bad, Stiggins noted that instructional decisions based on an assessment that happens once a year does not have the greatest impact on student learning. And what about the students? Were they being given this information as a tool to set new learning targets?

So this year, when our school decided to move to a computer adapted assessment that would be issued at least three times a year, I got excited. Not only would the assessment take less than 30 minutes (the old format took about 6 hours over the course of a week), but we’d get data back immediately. Unfortunately, my excitement has turned to frustration. Mostly because I can’t make heads or tails out of the data. I feel like I’ve become assessment illiterate, but I know that it’s not true.

If I’m going to give my students an assessment at least 3 times a year, I want to know how it aligns with our curriculum and what action my grade-level team can take immediately. Over the course of the year, sure we can use the data as we had previously, but in that case, why would we subject our students to it multiple times in a year. Saying that it gives kids a chance to practice filling in bubbles to prepare them for future standardized tests is an argument I never bought. It is clear that isn’t the case now as they presently ‘click’ their selection.

This time of year, we always engage the children in an author study unit. How great it would be if we could use data to fine-tune this unit and communicate this to our students. I’ll leave you with another Stiggins quote. This one from a more recent article (2009).

“Let me be clear about my mission here. The arguments I advance do not arise from a desire to end accountability- oriented standardized testing. Such tests do provide op- portunities for educators to reflect on what is and is not being achieved. If educators don’t take advantage of these opportunities, it is not the fault of the tests. I will suggest specific ways for users to take far greater advantage of standardized tests in the future. But for assessment to become truly useful, politicians, school leaders, and society in general must come to understand the gross insufficiency of these tests as a basis for assessment for school improvement. “


Atlanta Public Schools Open Amid a Testing Scandal –

Atlanta Public Schools Open Amid a Testing Scandal –

This article from todays NYTimes is alarming, but not all that surprising to me. What is really being assessed when tests create so much anxiety and pressure on students, parents, teachers, and administrators?

As a teacher, I’ve gone from worrying about how well my students do, to actually focusing on their mistakes. Mistakes actually provide you with a lot more information. Being able to analyze kids’ errors helps me understand and reflect on what I need to change. When I look at a test item, and see that more than half of my class got the item incorrect, it’s a good place to start asking myself why.

Unfortunately, standardized tests are good for expediency, but not always good for learning. The wrong answer doesn’t always provide enough insight. Take 2-digit subtraction with regrouping (borrowing), for example. If a child got the answer wrong, was it due to a misunderstanding of place value, did the child have a directionality issue, did they miss a step in the algorithm, did they simply add by mistake. A good standardized test may include incorrect answers that reveal some of the reasons, but not necessarily all. The only way to know for sure is to observe a child doing the problem and then asking them to explain what they did and why. It’s amazing the kind of insight you can gain from a few simple questions. Furthermore, with a test that provides four possible answers there’s a good chance your student had no clue, but guessed correctly. The correct answer provides very little information.

The other problem with some of the standardized tests out there, is the timeliness of the test-makers correcting and returning the results. By the time many schools get them back, it’s well past the point that they can inform the teacher with something useful about what they can change. With NCLB (No Child Left Behind) and RTTT (Race to the Top), the focus of test scores often becomes, “How did we do?” rather than “What can we learn from this?”

Many test companies are going to computer testing, which I think is great in terms of timeliness, but I wonder how kids 7 and under will do with a mouse. I’d rather the little ones touch their answers on a touch screen, but I suppose a mouse isn’t that far removed from filling in bubbles with a pencil.

This news story isn’t the first of its kind, but I hope it helps change the kind of pressure and anxiety that these tests can place on everyone involved. I’m not opposed to standardized tests; I think there’s a place for them. We have to keep asking, though, what are these tests actually testing and how can they help us be more effective. I hope that the policy makers behind NCLB and RTTT can learn from their mistakes and make student assessment something that’s actually FOR students and teachers rather than an assessment OF them.

I have one other minor criticism about these tests: they create a mindset of having only one right answer to a problem. While this may be true for a test item, we know that innovation comes from thinking outside the bubble and entertaining many possible solutions to more complex problems. By all means use standardized tests, but also include student interviews, their own reflections and assessments, observations, and the myriad of other assessment tools available.

PDF: Playtime, Downtime, and Family Time

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, a few colleagues and I were at an incredibly inspiring panel discussion about education which featured a diverse group of speakers from the Reverend Al Sharpton, Denise Pope, Chester Finn, Kati Haycock, Nick Hanauer, to Tyrone Howard. One thing that struck me was how each said very similar things, but each clearly had their own focus. This post focuses on Denise Pope’s angle.

Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford University’s School of Education,  stuck to her main issue that schools today do not foster healthy children – both physically and mentally. She is featured in the movie “Race to Nowhere”  and has written the book, Doing School: How We Are Cheating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic and Miseducated Students.

I’ve only read parts of it, but here are a few things mentioned in the book:

  • homework has no correlation to success at the lower elementary levels
  • kids today don’t get enough sleep
  • they are more concerned about how to get an “A” than what they are learning
  • they are becoming more disengaged
  • they are more stressed and as a result, she concludes, have a higher rate of weight loss due to not eating, drug abuse (usually the use of stimulants), low self-esteem, and so on.

Denise Pope (image from Seattle U's website)

Pope co-founded Challenge Success to redefine what ‘success’ means. She asked us to imagine if our bosses would suddenly give us a test about something school related, had it timed, and then told us the stakes were high. Is that really what happens in our life? Tasks and learning for students should be authentic and relevant. She remains adamant that standards should be high for all students, but that the way we are going about it is unhealthy for all.

She gave us an acronym to remember: P.D.F. (and it’s not a document)
P = Playtime – kids need unstructured play (well-meaning adults structure their lives too much)
D = Downtime – just chilling
F = Family time
Our school has one half-day inservice devoted to community building. Today we enjoyed playtime, downtime and family time. I say family, because my colleagues are indeed like family to me. It was time well-spent.
Here’s an article Pope wrote that’s worth reading.

Pressure Cookers are Designed for Food, not Kids

I just returned from a screening of the documentary film Race to Nowhere. If you didn’t get a chance to see it, I would recommend any teacher, parent, administrator, school policy maker, and high school student to see it. This link shows where the nearest screenings are in your area. It’d be great if our school were able to host a screening for parents, teachers, and anyone in our community who wished to view it. There’s a link on that page to request a community screening.

In this country, starting in the 80s with Nation At Risk, followed in the 2000s by No Child Left Behind, the pressure for all kids to perform at high levels on tests in order to get into colleges has had an adverse effect on our students health and their ability to think critically, find and solve problems, and work well together. After a seven hour day of school and three to four hours of extra curricular activities, should our kids then tackle five to six hours of homework each night? Many of the examples were those of middle and high school students, but it was painful to watch a family end what was probably already a taxing day arguing about homework. The film reiterated what I’ve read and tried to advocate at my school, that there is no evidence linking homework in elementary school to achievement. The correlation begins in middle school, but after an hour of homework, the correlation disappears. By high school the correlation becomes stronger, but again, after two hours of homework, the correlation drops off significantly.

Many of the AP tests don’t test for critical thinking skills, but rather for a bulk of content. One teacher mentioned there is too much content to realistically learn, so they speed it up. The results are kids relying on cramming and cheating. Sadly, there is an increase in all kinds of stress related disorders with the extreme being an increase in teen suicide. It’s hard enough to be a teenager. It was extremely sad to see a parent discuss the suicide of her 13 year-old daughter over a letter grade (the letter grade was a B).

Something I struggled with was watching a teacher who, through her words and tears, was passionate about teaching and cared deeply about her students, However, through the bureaucracy of the system, she couldn’t take it anymore and decided to resign. There are already too few passionate teachers that care so much about what they do. Yet the system is so broken that it  makes them leave the profession.

What I liked about this film is that it showed many of the same kinds of pressures that kids face today to compete for a place in a ‘decent’ college regardless whether they came from an impoverished low-socio economic to wealthy suburban or private schools. The pressures trickle down from policy maker to school principal to teacher and to student. Not everyone needs to go to an Ivy league school, yet for many, they felt that it was the only choice if they wanted to be successful. What does being successful really mean anyway?  The movie mentioned that in Singapore, they offer the top 20% of the graduating class free college tuition – and a stipend – to go into the teaching profession. Here we have to go an extra year and pay for it on our own just to get the basic credentials.

Schools differ in many ways and whether a specialized public charter school or an independent one, the film makes a great case for reducing the stress on kids. Some want to extend the school day, take away recess, art, in order to cram more content into their brain. I can still remember the quadratic equation and know what to use it for, but I’ve NEVER used it since learning it in high school. Some other things, like the chemical structure of amino acids, I have completely forgotten. Are either of those things useful to me today? Did they in some way help me think in different ways? Perhaps. Or maybe I was just figured out what was going to be on the test. If that’s the case, that’s not learning. Why bother teaching if you’re just going to follow a script.

It made me think of this list from Tony Wagner’s book The Global Achievement Gap. He listed seven essential skills all people need to learn:

  1. Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving
  2. Collaboration across Networks and Leading by Influence
  3. Agility and Adaptability
  4. Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
  5. Effective Oral and Written Communication
  6. Accessing and Analyzing Information
  7. Curiosity and Imagination.

Are those things nurtured, taught, and fostered in schools?  Are they tested?

The movie calls on all stakeholders to be brave and do what they care about, say what they believe in, and take the risk when what that is may break the rules, go against policy, or even seem radical to some. If your heart is in it, and you’re doing it for the students’ benefit (and for me, stays true to the school’s mission), then it’s worth that risk. Those with the power to make decisions shouldn’t expect their employees to interact with students a certain way until they model what that looks like and treat their teachers the same way.

Below are a few related videos including the film’s trailer, and a round panel from Stanford discussing the issues.

If you watch the latter, you will hear that students in Finland (who are one of the countries that consistently produce top scores) are involved in project based learning, and have their social and emotional needs honored. They don’t ‘cover’ content. Here are some interesting links.


Fair Test

NYTimes article about this film.

This screening was the first in a series of three parts hosted by Seattle University. I really liked what the Dean of Education said when introducing the film. The next in the series is the screening of the film “Waiting for Superman” – I can’t wait.





Making Data Beautiful

Making sense of student ERB test scores on a spread sheet can be daunting for some, and after staring at those numbers for a while, make one’s eyes a little blurry. Turning those numbers or any kind of numerical data into something more concrete, like a pie chart or bar graph makes it much easier to read and grasp. Taking it one step further and pairing up with other data could reveal some interesting patterns. For example, with the test scores I mentioned, when comparing them to other schools, what if we were able to include data on the size of the school as well. Would the results change? What is the statistical significance when comparing a school with one class per grade to one that might have 10 classes per grade. Does the sample size change the data set in a way that might be interesting? There are many other ways one can think about data and there has been quite a rise in what is called an infographic: taking the data, adding some design to it, and representing it in a way that can be visualized so it can be easier to understand.

In his TED talk below, David McCandless draws interesting conclusions from complex datasets and pairing them together. So instead of looking at simply what country has the biggest military budget, he might pair that with the country’s GDP and suddenly, the results are quite different. He also has a blog worth checking out called Information Is Beautiful. It’s definitely worth checking out.




I Have a Hunch…

…that Education is going to change quite significantly before I reach retirement. Does anyone else feel that way?

I just finished two books this past weekend: Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation and Ken Robinson’s the Element.

Both books are about creativity and innovation and what is unsurprising is that there are many similarities between the two books.

What I liked about Robinson’s book was his idea and definition of creativity. There are multiple modes of intelligence and he provided great examples from fields other than the arts (even though he is a strong proponent of giving the arts the same importance in schools as reading and math). He talks about a Nobel winning physicist. Richard Feynman, who found his passion, but is was almost by accident, some serendipitous moment, where he started to play with ideas just for fun – think of google’s 20% free time model, and then saw a connection that eventually led him to his prize in quantum electrodynamics.

Johnson also claims that there are many ways that good ideas spring forth, but the solitary eurika moment is very rare. Usually it begins with a hunch and it’s some other event, or somebody else’s hunch that triggers the new idea. Two half-hunches, if you will.

One thing Johnson mentions is that our abilities to connect with one another through technology has increased tremendously, and that as you can see from wikis and the idea of open source technologies, people are coming up with new ideas faster than ever because of the possibility to connect more.

I posted his TED talk earlier where he described the ‘invention’ of GPS as a side project (again like google’s 20% free time to pursue your passion project). Eventually Reagan allowed that satellite technology to be ‘open source’ and many of us now have devices in our pockets that can locate the nearest Starbucks.

All too often teachers teach math or writing to children like there is only one right answer or one right way to do something. Standardized tests (while they have their place) reinforce that. It’s clear Feynman didn’t see math that way. He didn’t know what he was looking for until he discovered it. The ‘inventors’ of GPS didn’t start out trying to design a geo-location device.

The bottom line is that being open to new ideas may allow your half-hunch to become complete. Children need to learn to work with one another and collaborate. They need environments where the diversity of ideas spawn new and better ones. They need to be part of a working community full of people who are passionate about what they do.

If you want a short taste of Johnson’s book, below is a quick 4 minute animation from a recent keynote.

Oh, and is it too late to find your passion or your element? Robinson gives many examples of people who found it well after they turned 40. And if you have a growth mindset, that shouldn’t surprise you.


Whether you love her or hate her, Lady Gaga has, in a very short time has become recognized around the world. This article from Fast Company talks about the gold standard of physical album sales (CDs) as the measurement for success. But she’s just reached over a billion views on youtube, sold songs in multiple formats, mp3 singles, etc.

The article says that it’s time for a much more robust way at measuring success and that there is plenty of other data to look at.

Hopefully we do that with children too, but if you follow some of the news, we still have standardized tests as the gold standard of student success. There are many different kinds of assessments available for kids, including self-assessments, portfolio collections, demonstration of mastery, rubrics, etc. While standardized tests can provide useful information if you get the results in time to actually DO something with them (like play to the child’s strengths and challenge them, or work on any observable gaps the results may produce), so often you hear of schools using the results as a way to punish or reward a school. Whether you’ve read Freakonomics (by  Levitt and Dubner) or Drive (by Daniel Pink), you know that the carrot and stick formula will either promote cheating, teaching to the test, or even worse apathy and lack of motivation. Even in education, standardized tests need to evolve so that they are a useful tool to help kids and teachers reach their full potential.

Do you know how successful your students are? Probably more important a question to ask is: Do your students know how successful they are?

Planting the Seeds of Opportunity

I had the pleasure today to be in Vancouver to hear Sir Ken Robinson talk about the schools of the future. But where to start? There were so many great nuggets.

The thing that stuck with me most was the idea of stripping education down to its main purpose and then ask what is essential. If you strip away everything, the school building, the text books, the standards, the politics, and so on, what you are basically left with is a student and teacher. That teacher can be a parent, a professional teacher, or another peer. In essence, education relies on Relationships. Anything you add to that, if it doesn’t improve it – get rid of it. He said all the rest of it is noise or distractions.

Education, especially in the public schools are bloated with a lot of things we don’t need or do not improve education. Organizations like schools are not machines. They are about people and feelings.

The other thing he mentioned is that everything happens at the ground level between student and teachers and that we are going through an education revolution.

He said he cannot predict the future, but asked us to imagine what the processing power of a computer 10, 15, 50 years from now. Just think about it. If you could go back in time to the 1950s, would they believe you could have all the computing processing power in your pocket? We don’t know what kind of jobs these kids are going to have (most haven’t been invented yet). So as teachers, we need to try new things, take risks, be creative, and in turn nurture the same thing in our students. We cannot continue using practices from the 19th or even the 20th century. Change happens, it happens slowly but it is increasing. Sir Ken mentioned that if you asked Queen Victoria if she would have imagined the British Empire gone within one generation, do you think she would have believed you?

The first words of my school’s mission statement is: “Through innovative teaching … ” That means we should be trying new things in our classrooms all the time, and while some may work, others might not. And it isn’t just in math and language arts, which are the subjects that tend to be the major things that get measured on standardized tests. True, they will need some of these skills to be successful, but standardized tests only measure one kind of skill and are designed for kids to identify one correct answer, rather than look at a novel way at solving a problem. Would you evaluate a teacher’s effectiveness by giving him/her a standardized test in pedagogy or observe how they interact with their students?

Sir Ken Robinson mentions that there are two factors that are facing us in the future – one is technology, and the other is the growing population and our limited resources. I mentioned imagining what computers would be like in 50 years (there are predictions that they may emulate an adult human by then), but what will our population be in the year 2050 (There are estimates of over 9 billion)? If we consumed like the people in the subsaharan do today (oil, food, etc.), he mentioned that there’d be enough to sustain about 15 billion people. If we consume like North Americans do today, we could sustain 1.2 billion people. We are already over 6.5 billion as we speak.

People who are going to solve these problems along with climate change will need to be good at math and science, but they will also need to be innovators. They will need to take risks, and try new things – as crazy as they may seem to some people.

What we also need to do is help students find and develop their passions. Yes, literacy and numeracy are important goals, but there are some who never discover high levels of achievement and personal satisfaction in the the thing that they do well naturally. In his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, he calls the element ” the meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion.

At this point, he says something similar to Yong Zhao, we have to give these kids opportunities to develop their talents, whatever they may be. Sir Robinson is an incredible speaker, had a slide show prepared, and chose not to use any images. His talk was compelling enough.

He recalled an anecdote about Sir Paul McCartney who was told by his music teacher that he didn’t have much talent. George Harrison was in that class too and told something similar. Here was a teacher who had half the Beatles in his class, and missed it! What are we missing in our students.

If you look at the biographies of many people who changed the world. Many did well at school, but many did not. Somewhere along the way a teacher, peer, or parent, spotted this different aptitude and that child’s love for it, and the rest they say is history.

He summed up is talk by saying there were three things he thought were important to education of the future:

  1. Person (relationships) – People learn from people. Find the talent in your students. Help your students find the talent in each other.
  2. Diversity is crucial. Different cultures take different things for granted and our thinking is not homogenous. It leads to new ideas. We need to see the other as friend, not foe. If kids feel they are not good at something (like math or reading) they may inadvertently suppress their “element.”
  3. Economics – we need to stop investing in models of the past and look toward the future.

I could go on – I’m still grasping a lot of what he said. It was inspiring. So get into your classrooms, and if something isn’t working try thinking about it differently. Adapt and innovate. Visionaries don’t necessarily know what the future will hold, but they continually ask questions, make predictions, and try new things. Many have called Sir Ken Robinson a visionary in education.

His book is absolutely fascinating, and I’m only part way through it, but  I’m sure I will post more about it as I finish it up.

On a side note – One thing I enjoyed was that the sold out audience included the BC minister of education, administrators, teachers, parents, but al so high school students. Thanks for inviting me, CR.


Picture Books Languish as Parents Push

Picture Books Languish as Parents Push ‘Big-Kid Books’ –

Being in Portland, I had to stop into Powel’s Book Store. A local institution and bought a picture book. Then I saw this article and it made me very sad. While I’m a huge advocate of limited use of technology in the classroom, a picture book can never be replaced by an ipad. It may be, but it won’t be the same. That’s what I anticipated the article to be about, but the real reason made me even sadder. Parents are pushing picture books to even four year olds and trying to abandon picture books.  This, mostly because of the pressure parents feel due to test scores.

I believe that picture books are great even for middle-schoolers. I have no problems with capable readers reading big thick chapter books, but at the expense of abandoning picture books is too high a price.

Ironically, the book I bought: Lane Smith’s – It’s A BookThanks SJ for he recommendation.

Great Article in NYtimes

The most read article today in the nytimes is titled: Forget What you Know About Good Study Habits. (it came out on the 6th, but I’m only getting to it now. I haven’t read an ed. article in a while, but this one really struck me.

It reinforces the importance of integration, scaffolding, and moving children around. It also highlights that there is not one single right way to do anything, but there are good and better ways to learn. It also mentions motivation and growth (two things I’m really interested in).

I like this graphic accompanying the article by Ellen Weinstein.

This week all my students sat next to a different person each day. This week we conducted lessons at their tables and on the floor in the classroom, outside around our school building, and in the hallway, just to mention a few places.

The three R’s at our school are Respect, Responsibility, and Resourcefulness. I also hope to add Resilience, Rigor, and Relationships. Also very important life skills.

Now, on to some non-educational fun magazine reading.

Teaching Engineering in the Early Grades

Many Schools Teach Engineering in Early Grades –

I love this article because I think it is exactly what kids need more of. Thinking outside the box, taking risks, looking at multiple perspectives, working cooperatively, designing, innovating, and many other skills are being developed here. In many ways, that is what science is about, but it’s also what problem solving is all about. And it’s not just in science, it’s in any field.

Getting outside one’s comfort zone isn’t really easy, but in order to keep improving, one has to ‘engineer’ and keep redesigning with the goal of improvement. That needs to happen in teaching too. If something isn’t going well, we need to reflect and try something different.

According to Tony Wagner in his book The Global Achievement Gap, he states that even the so called ‘good’ schools train students to get the right answer on a test rather than allow them to explore and discover how the world works. Chemistry classes that are run like a cooking show on TV where students simply follow a recipe, and physics classes, where students memorize formulas and solve for missing variables are all too common. In the end, they do well on the AP exams, but don’t have a clue about how the world works. Here’s what Wagner says are the 7 essential skills.

Kindergarteners’ worlds are full of wonder. How great that schools are allowing them to explore and discover. Yes, they need to learn how to spell too, but there should be a balance. Unfortunately, in our hurried age, where parents compete to get their kids into the best schools by giving four year old test preparation classes, and standardized test scores determine funding or teacher pay, the balance tends to shift to the items on the test.

I feel my school does a great job balancing these forces. Finding this balance, however, is not easy.

Test Prep at Age Four???

Private School Screening Test Loses Some Clout –

Oh yes, the dreaded ERBs are in the news again (click the link above for the article). It would be hard to convince me that testing for the purposes of admission in pre-K and K seem like a bad idea. The article focuses mostly on test prep, competition, and anxiety which are all terrible things to expect a 4 year old to do. Then there is also the validity in question. 4 year olds? What about late bloomers?

Don’t get me wrong, I think there is a place for standardized tests, but how they are used and how much weight they hold, should be carefully scrutinized.

My school administers a test put out by the Educational Records Bureau (the same company mentioned in the article) called the CPT4 every year. Here are some significant differences in how we use these tests to make them more meaningful:

  • It is administered in the fall, so that when we get results in late December, we can actually use the data and compare it to our own assessments, and then further customize instruction for each child for the remainder of the school year.
  • We do not use the tests for admissions or advancement.
  • Only kids in 2nd grade and above take it.
  • We try our best to minimize anxiety (in parents, teachers, and students) – although admittedly, sometimes this can be difficult.
  • We look at trends in the scores across grades to plan for school-wide initiatives and to examine how we teach.
  • “Prepping” them for the test is kept to a minimum – a few hours the week before.
  • The ERB is not our only assessment tool, but part of a whole set of tools. Seeing relationships between these tools is an example of what Daniel Pink refers to in his book, A Whole New Mind, as symphony.

Any teacher knows how much you can learn from a child by simply having a conversation with them.

What We Should Not Learn From China

The article, A Crack in the System: What We Should Not Learn From China from the spring 2010 issue of Independent School, is well worth reading. It makes points similar to those of Yong Zhao who will speak at this fall’s PNAIS conference. Unfortunately, all too often, standardized tests are the only tool used to sort students or judge the performance of schools or teachers.

The author Bruce G. Hamnond states that “Chinese students are capable of feats of concentration that boggle the mind of an American, and they are superb with problems that have clearly defined parameters. But tasks that are more amorphous, or do not have an obvious right answer, are often befuddling.” and “The uncomfortable realization is dawning that two core missions of independent schools, once thought to be synonymous, are in conflict: preparing students for college, and teaching them how to learn.”

To read the whole piece, click here.

Should Test Scores Be the Only Metric?

A sad post today: Whether it’s the current debate over merit pay in Florida, admissions to college, or national funding for public schools, using a single test score as the only metric for rewards or punishment might be flawed. Stanford New Schools in Paolo Alto was denied its charter extension due to low test scores. Do standardized tests favor certain populations? Why aren’t more metrics used? I’m curious if Linda Darling-Hammond advised Mr. Obama during his transition to close or improve bad schools. I highly doubt it.

You can read the nytimes story by clicking here.