Friday, September 25, 2015

What if... we are wrong about college and career readiness?

Many schools and school districts utilize metrics such as high school graduation rates and standardized test scores to determine their effectiveness. Focusing on state-wide assessments (here in PA it would be the PSSA and Keystone Graduation tests in Biology, Algebra 1, and Literature) as well as national assessments such as the ACT, SAT, and AP tests, provide insights into the strength and quality of an academic program. Some school districts will also explore the amount of students who go on to 4 year colleges, who remain in college after a year, and who actually graduate from a 4 year program.  All of these elements play a role in determining a student's college and career readiness as well as district success in developing students for the worlds of college and work. It is challenging to argue that preparing students for college and careers beyond traditional K-12 schooling is not the mission of school itself. Yet there are fundamental philosophical differences between those who believe the mission of school is to produce compliant, hard working, efficient members of the American workforce and those who believe the mission of school is to develop passionate learners. What if we are wrong about the data? What if we are wrong about career and college readiness?

Many have written about the need to shift away from the traditional factory models put in place in which students became the cogs of the American labor force. And yet many school systems continue to double down on the traditional pathways to success because they are unwilling to envision or implement (or both) non-traditional measures of success. Should school culture be considered when determining the success of a school or district? It's an oversimplification, but a recent conversation about school climate during the 2015 EduSummit drove home three simple questions "Is your school a place students want to come to? Is your school a place parents want to send their children? Is your school a place your employees/teachers want to work in?".  Where do these questions factor into the success of a school or district? And while we wouldn't want to solely determine the academic quality of our schools through these questions, who is willing to ask them, let alone care about them?  Do stakeholders really come to school, send their children to school, or work in a school based on a Career and College Readiness Index?

This is not to say that helping students to become successful students isn't one of the most important aspects of becoming effective learners, but I am saying that we consistently limit our expectations for students and what is in store for them because we only utilize measures that are both easy to measure and to predict. The most fascinating trend in education today is how often administrations rail against state mandated testing and the disruption is creates, yet they then administer equally  disruptive "diagnostic" tests to predict student success on those same assessments.  Let that sink in: we are now administering more standardized tests to help us predict and support student success on standardized tests we complain about them having to take in the first place.

We develop data teams and data plans around these same measures as well. We can't continue to blame lawmakers (and rightfully so) while hypocritically utilizing other tests that measure how well they might do on the tests we loathe. While we are at it, let's stop pretending that teachers should effectively and efficiently utilize these types of tests to design instruction and interventions. Meta-analysis by John Hattie and years of research by Dylan Wiliam et al overwhelmingly show us that formative assessment yields tremendous impact on student learning and growth, yet we keep distracting teachers by the big data of these tests.   Success on those metrics may make us feel better about ourselves systemically but they do not actually translate into an ounce of meaningful student learning.  Just google "does the SAT predict college success?" and you will find that there is not a strong correlation between the two. Recent trends are moving away from standardized tests as requirements for college admission as well.

“What makes the SAT bad is that it has nothing to do with what kids learn in high school. As a result, it creates a sort of shadow curriculum that furthers the goals of neither educators nor students.… The SAT has been sold as snake oil; it measured intelligence, verified high school GPA, and predicted college grades. In fact, it’s never done the first two at all, nor a particularly good job at the third.” Yet students who don’t test well or who aren’t particularly strong at the kind of reasoning the SAT assesses can find themselves making compromises on their collegiate futures—all because we’ve come to accept that intelligence comes with a number. This notion is pervasive, and it extends well beyond academia. Remember the bell‐shaped curve we discussed earlier? It presents itself every time I ask people how intelligent they think they are because we’ve come to define intelligence far too narrowly. We think we know the answer to the question, “How intelligent are you?” The real answer, though, is that the question itself is the wrong one to ask.” ― Ken RobinsonThe Element - How finding your passion changes everything

Certainly the mission to make students "career" ready can't be bad, right? Inherently, no. However, it is arrogant for us in education to believe we know what the world outside of school actually wants or needs when so little of what we do is actually like the "real world".

Schools and classrooms too often reflect that traditional vision of career readiness.  Are we as a profession prepared or capable of supporting our students for the world that lies outside our classroom?  Look at this research from a poll conducted in 2007 from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (which by today's standards is ancient history) of the top ten things employers want from college graduates:
  1. The ability to work well in teams—especially with people different from yourself
  2. An understanding of science and technology and how these subjects are used in real-world settings
  3. The ability to write and speak well
  4. The ability to think clearly about complex problems
  5. The ability to analyze a problem to develop workable solutions
  6. An understanding of global context in which work is now done
  7. The ability to be creative and innovative in solving problems
  8. The ability to apply knowledge and skills in new settings
  9. The ability to understand numbers and statistics
  10. A strong sense of ethics and integrity
Source: "How Should Colleges Prepare Students to Succeed in Today's Global Economy?" (Results of a national poll by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, 2007).

Do our classrooms teach and  measure these? Do our schools support teachers who want to help students to be successful in these skills?  Does the SAT, ACT, random state test, AP test, or any other standardized test measure more than one or two of these things?  Do they even measure them well? Explain to me again why we continue to think that college and career readiness is the goal if we are unwilling to accept that our vision of what that actually means,  as well as our measures of success are outdated and insufficient. If we truly believed the list above we would see classrooms that embraced Project/Problem/Passion Based Learning . We would embrace inter-disciplinary work. We would utilize the power of heterogenously grouped learning environments instead of creating caste systems of haves and have nots. We would personalize learning by supporting students in their own systems of inquiry.

No one will disagree that college will open many doors for students and that success on the SAT can provide students more options by helping them get into college, but should that really be THE goal for our students? No one will argue that one of the missions for schooling is to help them to be "career ready", but which careers?  We know that there is varying unscientific research on the amount of careers employees will have in a lifetime of work. We also  know that what they will need to know is less important than how they will need to learn and apply that learning.  There is also much debate about the oft repeated yet rarely substantiated "we are preparing students for jobs that have not been created yet".   Ultimately, we must acknowledge that technology is rapidly changing the demands of the work force (even if not the traditional labels of jobs) vastly. We also have to realize that app developer wasn't a thing 5 years ago.

College and career readiness should be something we care about, but it's a limiting mission quantified by even more limiting tests. What if the mission of school was to develop passionate, creative, and articulate learners? What if the vision was a workforce of people performing jobs and tasks based upon things they loved doing or felt called to do?
“Education is the system that’s supposed to develop our natural abilities and enable us to make our way in the world. Instead, it is stifling the individual talents and abilities of too many students and killing their motivation to learn. There’s a huge irony in the middle of all of this.” ― Ken RobinsonThe Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything
What if we believed the purpose of education and schooling was to develop the abilities of all students to make their own path in the world? Would they then be college and career ready too?

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

What if?

For about three years now, I have had this magnet in front of me near my desk.

Many times I have stared at that magnet when I have been frustrated with things large and small. I often reflect that if we could all just take a pause, breathe, and recollect our thoughts, things weren't as hard as they seemed. Quite often I have heard the phrase "Teaching is hard" and there is no doubt that the teaching profession is incredibly difficult, complex, and challenging. Yet those words connote so much more than "Teaching is hard". While it's semantic, I believe it's important to represent that what we do as educators is complicated and rarely "easy" or "hard".

At the heart of the quote are two key elements: the question "What if" and the spirit of the quote, which is ultimately about mindset and attitude. Too many of us allow the walnut trees to dictate how we approach the constant array of complications and changes. The joke in every school building is often "wait a few years and it will go away". Sometimes, things go away in one year. But WHAT IF, we took each change, each implementation plan, each curricular change, each initiative and acted like it was easy. What if we looked for the useful,  the redeemable, and added it to our repertoire?

What if instead of fighting change we embraced it by looking for the good? What if we acted like it was easy?

The question "What if?" continues to resonate with me and I have decided that this school year, my reflections will be focused on that very question. At the heart of all learning are deep meaningful questions. What if... can be a powerful one.

As I began to wrap up this first blog post of 2015-2016, I became aware of the incredible story of two young girls from Washington state who designed and sent their own spacecraft into space. Take the 7 minutes to watch their story.

I am confident that their story began with a "What if?" I am confident that some educators would have told the young sisters that what they wanted to do was too "hard" for them.  Luckily for the world, these sisters acted like it was easy (I'm pretty sure it wasn't).

"These two sisters set out to make something fun and exciting, and they certainly accomplished that. What they might not know is that they also created something beautiful that can’t quite be quantified by data. They created magic."

What if we supported our students passions?
What if we stopped creating ceilings for our students?
What if we encouraged our students dreams?