Archive for the 'The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test' Category

Inspirations from Iceland: Reflections on the USA

Imagine a land where pre-school education is guaranteed. Think of music teachers in most elementary schools and choirs in most secondary schools. Imagine a noticeable cleanliness of the hallways and classrooms. In many schools shoes aren’t worn inside because the staff doesn’t want the raw winter weather ruining the floors and making everything filthy. Imagine Iceland.

This Scandinavian country’s educators are thinking constructively about student engagement—through the arts and vocational education. Iceland, like the rest of Scandinavia, is not obsessed with standardized testing.

Rhythm warm up at the beginning of the forum

Rhythm warm up at the beginning of the forum

The Icelandic Teachers Union hosted me last month.  A special forum focused on the role of arts and arts education to strengthen teaching and learning in the 21st Century. Teachers and principals participated, along with officials from the Ministry of Arts, Culture and Education. They kicked off the forum with interactive activities involving musicians and drama teachers. The group of 200 split in half to get to know one another through theatre games and some rhythm activities. A fantastic way to start the day!

Music begins the day in preschool

Music begins the day in preschool

As the forum keynote speaker I emphasized the value of arts at the center of a school curriculum. I shared how the arts can change an entire school culture and encourage young people to achieve at high levels—artistically and academically.  As both a teacher and school leader, I demonstrated how the power of arts helps children and adults walk in the other’s shoes and begin to learn skills of persistence, collaboration and risk taking – skills in short supply in most of the world.

Elementary school block area

Woodworking

Math activity

Math activity

During this trip I visited four different schools: pre-school, elementary (k-8), secondary and a tertiary institute for visual arts.  The pre-school children, ages 2-5, engaged in various activities ranging from woodworking, block building, clay sculptures, reading, measuring, Lego play and singing. A sense of creative play emanated throughout the bright and airy spaces. At the elementary school, students worked on math assignments in the hallway, which had become a makeshift classroom. They were hard at work jumping back and forth on a number line to experiment with positive and negative numbers. All students also take cooking, sewing and knitting, music, and shop as part of the required curriculum.

Knitting class

Knitting class

A secondary school highlight was the vocational pathways for metal work and automotive. The studios and shops rivaled that of the best-equipped factory imaginable. These young people were aware of the high quality education that they were receiving and its value in their careers as farmers, automotive techs or machinists. One spoke about how now he could fix the machinery on his family’s small farm. In the digital media lab, a young man talked about how he originally thought he wanted to be an actor, but realized he may have more aptitude for film making or television. He gestured to the end of his classroom, which was a professional looking TV studio. “I’m getting a lot of practice here at school for what I want to do in my career,” he acknowledged.

The visual arts institute was non-credit bearing. Students prepared to present their art and design portfolios to some of the most prestigious colleges and universities in Europe as well as to compete for jobs in design firms.

Visual arts school

Visual arts school

Icelandic teachers and administrators do have serious concerns, however. In our discussions, they worried about the level of engagement of their students and their commitment to creativity and risk taking. They didn’t want me to be blinded by the lovely facilities (I was) or lulled into thinking all was well since music teachers are ubiquitous (I was). My job was to push everyone to think more about the role of performing arts (dance and theatre are not well integrated into the curriculum) and to encourage more experimentation. They also wanted me to challenge the notion that vocational education is second-class or second-rate. Not all children have to go to universities if the vocational training is truly high quality.
Back in the U.S.A. and reflections on Finland

On my return the United States, the topics of school autonomy and flexibility awaited. I am leading a study about how Boston Public Schools and other school districts understand and/or embrace those issues as part of school practices. A small group of schools came onto the educational landscape 18 years ago in the aftermath of charter legislation. These schools, which began in Boston, were called Pilot Schools. I often say I was the first in Massachusetts to hold a charter and the first to return it in favor of pilot status. This gave us the same flexibilities and autonomies that charters would enjoy. These areas include: hiring/staffing, budget, curriculum and assessment, schedule and calendar and professional development.

In a recent meeting where our study team shared some of our emerging research, my colleague Pasi Sahlberg from Finland, admonished us in the US for being obsessed with accountability and test scores. “In Finland we talk about children’s well-being. That is what we count first.” My experience in Finland backs up this notion as well as the deep autonomy that teachers have to design and execute their own curriculum and assessments.

Our journey with education reform in the U.S. leaves only a distant memory of school and learning that is not synonymous with testing. But the Finns have adopted a different philosophy. Standardized tests are not introduced until secondary school and teachers are given wide flexibility and autonomy with curriculum and assessment. When they do test in secondary school, it happens once. A clear set of standards are skill-based with a great deal of trust for teachers. Teachers have the autonomy to assess how their students meet those standards. Collaborative work among teachers and with principals is highly valued as are skills of curriculum development. In Iceland there are standardized tests twice in elementary schools: at the age of 9 and 15. There are no standardized tests in secondary schools. Little talk exists around standardized high stakes testing and a lot of talk exists about art and music. On top of that, the Icelandic educators worry that students may be slipping with standards because the approaches are not creative enough. More art and music may be necessary. If students do not reach standards, the antidote is more teaching, not more testing.

Once again, I feel a collision course building in this country. As we adopt common core, which in some ways is our attempt to imitate Finland, we have not thought deeply about assuring that all of our young people have access to high quality arts education in all disciplines. This means visual, musical, dance, theatre, creative writing, etc., during all years. We have not thought deeply about the meaning of shop courses for students (something we taught routinely in the last century) and cooking and other vocational classes. We tossed those classes out in the ‘80s and substituted what? Test prep?

I certainly believe in the importance of high levels of literacy for all students. I fear that we have so constrained our curriculum to right brain foci that the very areas of exploration that could lead us to “wide awakeness,” as Maxine Greene posits, have been diminished to side conversations and sighs of “remember when…?”

I refuse to have well-being, creativity, and physical education relegated to the backrooms of our schools or to after school.

Instead of rolling out common core just in academic subjects, consider what Iceland and Finland have already done—make arts matter. They matter for well-being, for student engagement, for giving students an opportunity to walk in another’s shoes. They matter for understanding perspective, history, language, and collaboration. Arts matter in the development of abstract thinking and in helping students discern questions about judgment and perception. Arts give students strong communication skills.

Those 21st Century skills we so want to imbue in our student are readily accessible through a rigorous arts curriculum. The arts teach us perseverance and how to work in an ensemble. They arts teach us to continually refine and to work at a task for a long period of time. The arts teach us that our passions and interests in the world and in culture do matter. They teach us the value of hard work and lots of practice. There are no “quick fixes” in becoming a good musician.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Belen Pereyra  and Vernard J. Gilmore in Alvin Ailey’s Hidden Rites.  Photo by Paul Kolnik

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Belen Pereyra
and Vernard J. Gilmore in Alvin Ailey’s Hidden Rites.
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Belen Pereyra was recently profiled in the New Yorker by Joan Acocella (January 6, 2014) who wrote, “I could not believe Pereyra’s speed, her spontaneity, her astonishing, open-legged jumps. It was like watching a baby or an animal – movement that is completely natural, but which, in and adult, is the product only of art and long training.”

I couldn’t have been more proud. Belen was my student. Of course, one could argue that Belen was exceptional. She was and is. But the skills she learned – of perseverance, of listening, of learning from others, research, ensemble – are skills that all of our students learn. All students of a curriculum steeped in the arts learn these skills.

The same can be true of vocational schools. One may not see the ability to “engage an audience” in class of metal workers, but when I spoke to those young people in Iceland, I know they were proud of their skills. I want that to be true of all schools—vocational, academic, artistic. Kids should own their explorations and feel pride in their emerging skills. We need to broaden our curriculum, broaden our sense of schools and ensure that our young people are well. I am ready for the Finnish lessons to be applied in the US, and the Icelandic ones, too!

My book, “The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test: Lessons from an Innovative Urban School” in Icelandic.

My book, “The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test: Lessons from an Innovative Urban School” in Icelandic.

What’s Been Lost in the Bubbles: Comments from Occupy DOE, April 5, 2013

These are my comments from Occupy DOE in Washington, D.C. last week. You can also see video of my talk here! I’d love to hear other people’s experiences with testing in their classrooms and schools.

I’m not against testing. I am against high stakes testing in which, as a result of a single (or often now a series) of short answer bubble tests, decisions are made about a student’s future. Decisions that, at least in Massachusetts, are tied to money for attending state colleges.   

I am here today to remind us to be wary of quick fixes—promises that a new regimen of tests will cure all or that by embracing common core curriculum we will have equity and excellence in schools. Equity comes from equal opportunities for all students, and from equal funding that truly levels the disparate playing fields between schools. I believe true equity also comes from trusting and empowering teachers to do their best work with the young people in front of them.

I want to paint two pictures for you. Recently I visited a turnaround middle school in Colorado. (Even that terminology gives me pause.) All the walls in the hallways and offices and classrooms were covered with brown paper– the kind you see in art classrooms for making large mural like painting.  I was so excited. I knew the school was arts focused and I eagerly asked about the mural projects! Of course I couldn’t have been more wrong about purpose. Everything was covered so that during testing there would be NO print materials visible for students to ostensibly use to cheat– no posters, no teachers’ diplomas, no word walls, no formulas, nothing. I was aghast and so disappointed. Don’t you want to know more about the tests we are giving our students if a teacher’s college diploma could lead to cheating? I was even more dismayed by the deadened eyes I saw on these middle schoolers who had just finished 9 sessions of testing. The next day was their big arts show but the testing regime had cut into a large chunk of rehearsal time. The tensions and tempers now flared. The students in this school are all poor and primarily immigrant and ELL students. They come to school hoping for increased opportunities and to experience worlds that because of race and class have been denied them. How do these weeks of testing (and all the weeks and months of test prep) provide an avenue for advancement for them? I met with their art teachers all of whom bemoaned the days of missed classes because of testing—they had counted—46 days of testing or test prep. That is not uncommon anymore. And as we know most school years are only 180 days.

Speaking at Occupy DOE

Now let me describe what is going on at BAA. According to the state department of education in Massachusetts, we are now a level 3 school (on a five point scale). Level 3 is almost a failing school. One more point lower—i.e. level 4 and we might be eligible for state take over. That is not a good thing.  BAA sends 93% of our graduates to college or conservatories. Our graduates include two members of Alvin Ailey Dance Company and countless other alums who have taken their place in the world of art, education, culture and service. In a recent study 63% of our grads had either finished or were still in college. There are 100s of students on the waiting list. These are good statistics. How are we almost failing?

We are a level 3 school because the department of education ONLY uses the data from MCAS (which is Massachusetts’ much praised high stakes bubble test. MCAS  stands for Mass. Comprehensive Assessment System—I have argued for years that MCAS is not a comprehensive assessment system at all but scores on a series of high stakes tests).

The State requires schools to set targets for scores on the test. Last year, we exceeded all our targets, including targets for high needs students. In fact, we have been praised for our results with our highest need students particularly, our special needs students. In addition, we have had graduation rates in the mid-80th percentile. But, our school’s cumulative “PPI” or Progress and Performance Index places us in the lowest 20% relative to other schools at the same grade level. In our district there are five schools that are level 1 schools. Three of these five are exam schools. Two of them take students through an interview process. While BAA is an audition only school we do not look at academic record or previous grades at all in our admissions decisions. When our headmaster appealed to the State about this new categorization she was told that we were on the higher end of the lowest 20% (“almost not in the lowest 20%” they said). She was also told that was our cumulative PPI NOT in the lowest 20% we would be a level 1 school because, as I said a moment ago, we met or exceeded all of our targets last year.

Even though we have made progress and met all our benchmarks on all our goals with all our sub-groups (another term I find despicable which means ‘high need’ students) we are still in the bottom 20% of cumulative PPI. MCAS is NOT supposed to be a normed test. Even though we are well above statewide averages on the test with regards to the percentage of students scoring at proficient or advanced in both ELA and math, someone has to be near the bottom. And because this new way of calculating levels is normed, someone will always be at the bottom.

If your head hurts trying to understand all this, join the club. I’ve tried to show you visuals so you can perhaps see how this all works.

But really: How is the average parent supposed to understand all this?

The major takeaway is this:

How can a school such as BAA that invests deeply in its students meeting artistic and academic benchmarks, scaffolding student learning and engagement to meet the demands of college research, reading and writing, be considered an almost failing school? If BAA is so categorized, what about the hundreds of other schools caught in a failing system of labeling, comparison, and judgment of school and student success through one narrow measure—a  bubble test. And how can we change this?

Karen Lewis, President of the Chicago Teachers Union, speaking at Occupy DOE

I recently visited Urban Academy—a 28 year old school in NYC that serves “second chance” students—i.e. students whom have been unsuccessful in another school. School founder, Ann Cook, reminded me that preparing kids to do well on a high stakes tests (like the Regents or MCAS or any other of the myriad tests floating around these United States) is QUITE different than teaching kids an inquiry process of reading. Let me explain. Our goal as educators is to help our students achieve ever more complicated and complex levels of understanding of text. This is a good and important goal. The current popular argument goes something like this, “If kids are doing well on your type of curriculum- Urban Academy- than they’ll do fine on our tests.” However, Ann and many other seasoned educators like her patently disagree. As Ann explains, “This may be true for kids who come into schools with an already strong foundation in reading, but if you really want kids to do well on a certain test, you have to teach to it. Trinity, which is a private exclusive school in the Upper West Side found that its 8th graders did NOT do well on the Regents tests because it wasn’t part of their curriculum.”  Ann pushes further and argues that if you want kids to be truly proficient readers and writers by the time they graduate high school then you have to focus on that—every day and over time. Ann argues that when schools chip away at a rich curriculum of reading and writing and substitute it with test prep materials you get a little of nothing. I sat in on a class of Urban students who had just read Call it Sleep by Henry Roth. They were discussing how the author used dialect to explore questions of social class and characters. I wanted to participate in their debates and I was overjoyed to hear young people discussing a book so foreign and faraway from their time and place; yet, they were making such authentic connections. Again those on the testing frenzy side would say that this is proof that these young people will do well on high stakes tests, but in fact, they do not. And yet they read, write and discuss literature in ways that I wish all young people could and would. If anything these kids are the kids with the sharpened critical and analytical skills.

When Ann interviews graduates about what they appreciate about their education at Urban she hears the following, 1) I appreciate that we have a choice in the kind of courses we take and even in the kind of literature we chose to study. 2) I appreciate that we get to develop our own ideas about texts and history and even math and that our voices and opinions matter. I know I can lead a good discussion and participate in one too. 3) I know what I’m interested and why. 4) I appreciate that I can change my mind. And finally, 5) I like doing things that are hard for me especially when I got a lot of support.

As I continue to fight against high stakes testing being the way we measure progress for schools and students, I want to remember the words of these Urban graduates. I am hopeful that they will lead the way for a new understanding of what matters in public education.

I am also mindful of what Ted Sizer, founder of Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) taught us in the 80s—that what really matters is deeply engaged teachers who have the time to focus on their students’ needs and building last relationships that will help our young people enter an increasingly more complicated world.

Occupy the DOE

I have just returned from Washington, DC, and the Occupy the DOE rally.  Cassie Wallace, our second-year math teacher, was my impetus to go. She posted on our Teaching/Learning email conference back in February:

In case anyone is interested in protesting in DC with me at the end of March… Occupy the DOE in protest of high-stakes testing! Love, Cassie

Tess Mandell (also in her second year of teaching math) joined Cassie for the eight-hour drive from Boston to DC. How could I not join these young teachers, who were taking it upon themselves to make such an extraordinary effort to go? (Particularly given their workload and the stress of the first few years of teaching.) So, I signed up and found myself as part of the teach-in. I was happy to make some remarks (included in this post, below.)

This rally was different than anti-war rallies from the ’60s and ’70s – even though the Socialist Worker’s Party was still in attendance. This Occupy rally was as much for social media as it was for the people who attended. Everyone spoke to the camera! (Click here for live streaming of Occupy!) We were about 50 people strong and from all parts of the country: parents, grandparents, teachers, principals, health professionals, concerned citizens- all protesting the suffocating and all-consuming role that high stakes testing is playing in our culture.

End High Stakes Testing

As various participants did “mic check”, which is the Occupy way of allowing anyone to speak, I noticed one woman with very curious hair and clothing. I was impressed with how articulately she spoke about the damaging effects of high-stakes testing in her classroom and I approached her. I asked where she was from and she said she couldn’t tell me for fear of losing her job. “That’s why I’m in a wig and a costume so no one can recognize me.” Have we truly come to this?

Bubble test

Student wrapped in bubble wrap, protesting the bubble tests!

Another woman from Miami spoke about the role that parents in that district are taking to opt out of testing that they deem harmful to their children.

RIP Education

Speaker after speaker shared how parents and students were organizing to protest the negative effects of high-stakes testing. While I know the numbers were small in DC this weekend, I do believe these voices will gain power and force throughout the country.

Math teachers

Tess, Cassie, and Sharon Hessney (another extraordinary math teacher!)

So many of us feel disempowered to change the status quo. We watch numbly as education reform becomes synonymous with huge corporations like Pierson making more and more money from test prep materials and tests. However, I feel more empowered by this weekend of Occupy the DOE, and mostly because of young teachers like Tess and Cassie. They are asking the right questions about how the union can become more involved and active in these discussions, and how we can figure out better ways to work together towards solutions.

Also check out previous for the documentary: “Teach: Teachers Are Talking. Is the Nation Listening?”

MY REMARKS FROM THE TEACH-IN:

My opposition to high stakes testing goes back a long time – to 1998 when MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) was first  introduced. Don’t misunderstand me: I am not opposed to tests. And of course, I’m an advocate of high standards. What educator isn’t? We don’t go into teaching to ensure students reach low standards. That’s absurd! So I object to how discussions of high-stakes tests get juxtaposed to opposition of high standards. I am FOR high standards and I’m AGAINST high stakes tests. And that makes good sense to me.

 I’m against high stakes testing as a sole determinant for graduation. My solution is quite simple: Have the tests be part of the picture for graduation along with portfolios and exhibitions of mastery, research papers, and other performances. Remember what the “S” in MCAS stands for—we were told by the state that we would get a SYSTEM for assessments, not just tests!

MCAS currently is not the most pernicious test in the country, but what schools have become as a result of MCAS is very troubling. Our engineering curriculum must align completely with the test. There is no longer room for deep exploration of projects or for allowing student interest to help determine the length of time spent on projects. We now teach a semester-long course (we are semesterized) that ONLY includes that which is tested. There isn’t time for more. Too many schools now offer double English/double math and little social studies, art or other subjects NOT tested. Teachers push their students through curriculum that they know will be on the test. All of the research on student motivation and engagement is ignored. If students are not included as co-constructors of knowledge why should they feel as though school has real intrinsic value to them?  Curriculum has become synonymous with passing tests. This is a very limited view of what school can and should be. The social costs are high: higher drop-out rates, more violence in our communities, fewer students prepared for life after high school, whether college or career.

But how can I encourage my students to opt out when a high score of 4 (on a 1-4 rubric) is tied to free tuition at our state colleges and university (John and Abigail Adams Scholarship)? In my darkest moments I say, if we just eliminated the arts all of our students could score a 4 on these tests. But then we’d have no students at Julliard or Purchase or CalArts and no students dancing with Alvin Ailey (we have three) or acting in local theatres or playing in ensembles or orchestras or designing shoes or working in galleries. But this has been the solution for many low income schools: Eliminate arts.

Our solution has been to focus less on getting everyone to 4 and to just get our students to pass. With the new methods for calculating school success with student growth percentiles, we will soon be deemed a failing school because our students’ scores don’t increase enough. We have created a system where success is determined by only one score card and by passing through the smallest eye of the needle. Divergent thinking, multiple ways of determining and measuring success are slowly being obliterated. This is a world that scares me.

I don’t want students or teachers or parents to confuse tests with success. And I don’t want us to settle for schools devoid of music, art, dance/movement and theatre. Good schools have well-stocked libraries and trained librarians where regular discussions about books and literature (not excerpts) occur on a regular basis. Good schools are messy places where students are deeply engaged in topics of interest to them and where they demonstrate mastery in different ways. I just watched my students create movies of polynomial functions found in nature.

I understand the need for measurement and comparison, for knowing whether students in Mississippi and Massachusetts are learning as much as students in Montana or Maine. But must the only point of comparison be a test score?

We have now built up a multi-billion-dollar testing industry complete with its own set of police. When stakes are so high, cheating becomes rampant and thus the security forces are discharged to be sure that no teacher (now renamed “proctors”) read the test directions with inflections different from one another. The testing police now enter the school (renamed the testing site) to check that backpacks are correctly placed on the floor in front of the room. Any deviance could be a sign of testing mismanagement or cheating. In addition, the testing police check to see that no non-certified personnel walk into testing rooms, and that no teacher looks at the exams before the appointed time (or looks at the exams after the test). This of course means that the teacher is never able to work with the student she taught who took the test and may have misunderstood a problem. There is no value added from this type of testing situation to improve teaching or learning.

My MCAS police this year was an attractive woman from my district office, but I had misunderstood the directive. I had thought she was there to help me calm down my jittery students, to escort students to the bathroom, or even to distribute pencils. But, no, she was there for none of these helpful purposes. She had been given a long checklist for which she had to ensure compliance. The checklist items ranged from reviewing the proctor schedule (something I could have emailed the district office ahead of time) to ensuring that there were appropriate signs saying “Do not disturb: testing area” in the appropriate locations. Her mandate was a “gotcha” directive, not one to be helpful. When I protested to my district officials, I was sent a long directive from the state about the need for ensuring testing compliance and quality. Evidently  too many tests were invalidated the year before because of lack of compliance. How could I possibly want to endanger my students’ results? So, you see how it all gets turned around? You are bad or anti-student if you protest. High stakes tests become the norm and we all will rally around this way of educating our students.

I, for one, protest and I am grateful for all of you at Occupy the DOE who do the same.

Stonehill College

Last night I had the opportunity to speak to a group of emerging young educators at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts. Stonehill Professor Karen Anderson (the wife of a Boston Public Schools science educator- small world!) assigns “The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test” to her students in the course “Learning to Teach III” and the book inspired a student in the Stonehill Education Society to reach out and invite me to speak on campus. I so enjoyed engaging with this group of students and answering their insightful questions about urban education! Many thanks to them for hosting me!

Occupy the Department of Education!

I had to blog about Confessions of a ‘Bad’ Teacher from this past Sunday’s New York Times… everyone needs to read this article so we can stop and think about how our federal and state policies are affecting teachers and kids in our classrooms.
I will be joining BAA teachers and many others in Washington, DC at Occupy the DOE (Department of Education) at the end of March for a teach-in to underscore how limiting and short-sighted so many of our current policies are. They are based on an “I gotcha” mentality- on how we can “improve” education by punishing teachers and kids.
I know it’s complicated to create a system of accountability that actually trusts teachers, but we must try. As Johnson points out in this NYT article, the messages we are sending teachers are confusing and contradictory, and the ways we are assessing kids and teachers are ludicrous.
We cannot hope to have engaged students and young people who want to participate in our fragile democracy with such backwards policies. We must be the change we want to see. Let’s organize and go to DC!

Exciting news from Argentina!

Many of you know that I returned to Argentina in July 2010, and that my book was published in Spanish there (“Las Preguntas Fundamentales no Están en el Examen.”) Argentina is determined to use the arts as a mechanism to challenge and change both school structures as well as teaching and learning. Since that visit last summer, approximately 50 new schools in Buenos Aires have joined the ranks of “Arts in Education” schools (“Arte en Educación“)- a huge accomplishment, especially considering the adverse conditions facing the Argentinean education system. There are an additional 20 schools, both rural and semi-urban, in various provinces throughout the country, that are also part of Arte en Educación and have been since 1999. I continue to be honored to be able to play a small role in the inspiration and development of these efforts. I so admire the teachers and administrators who are doing this work on a shoestring budget and with little political support!


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