Monday, October 7, 2013

Student Education Does Not Need To Be Harder, but Smarter

While attending the taping of the Student Town Hall segment of NBC's Education Nation and listening to the intelligent young adults who voiced their opinions on the state of various aspects of their education, I had cause to think about just what we are doing to our students.  We claim that we need to prepare our students to be able to compete in a global marketplace (which is true and admirable), but are we going about it in the best way?  To attach so much of a student's (and by extension, a school's) success to a test score, or even a set of scores, does not necessarily gauge that student's true potential or aptitude.  How many of our country's millionaires DO NOT have a college degree?  How many of our college graduates are either unemployed or working at a job that IS NOT in their degree area?  Just what are we really  preparing our students for?

A group of students in Providence, R.I. staged a demonstration where they dressed as zombies to send the message that the current state of education, with its heavy emphasis on testing, is killing their future.  It was a powerful image.  This is not to say that there is no place for standardized testing, Common Core or otherwise.  This type of test should not be the ONLY way to assess our students.

Common Core addresses the "Make schools SMARTER" aspect by reducing the overall number of standards to be covered and seeking to ensure student mastery of a few key standards.  The new tests will reflect this change in expectation and rigor.  This is not the problem.  The problem is relying solely on these exams as a measure of student success - especially when everyday professionals and experts in their fields can't even pass them (as demonstrated by the students in Providence who challenged professionals in their city to take the state exam - many of whom failed).

In order to truly assess a student's aptitude, a variety of assessments should be utilized, including portfolios and performance-based assessments.  Many students perform very well with their hands and when called to put theory into practice - not just through abstract thinking.  Accompanying these assessments will be rubrics that fully address the standards that need to be measured to ensure the level of objectivity that is required.  When it comes to performance-based assessments, vocational and CTE schools seem to have the right idea.  These schools combine classroom book work with hands-on application to ensure students fully understand a given set of concepts.  In fact, because of this shift in learning and the rigor associated, many CTE students outperform their traditional high school counterparts on state exams.

Another way to make schools smarter is to incorporate more in the way of classroom conversation through debate and Socratic seminar.  These types of activities encourage and foster deeper understanding while engaging more students in the class, not just the handful that seem to carry the discussion.  When I taught middle school in the Bronx and utilized the Socratic seminar and the fishbowl technique, more students had a voice in the conversation, more viewpoints were explored, a greater tolerance and appreciation for other students was developed, and students had a firmer grasp of the material - which translated to increased test scores and report card grades.  This was not the be all, end all, however, as there were students who did not thrive on the state exam because they could not express their knowledge in the confining way of the state exam.

When educational systems realize that the answer to helping failing schools is not to increase the number of tests that are taken, but to determine HOW to assess students in a way that will expose their strengths, we will be able to create a society of students who will be ready for the college and career options of their choice.

Perhaps the quote of the Education Nation Teacher Town Hall is the following: "Those who CAN, teach; those who CAN NOT, create policies about teaching".  Let's begin creating policy and systems that truly focus on the success and needs of the student we have in front of us and not the one that policy makers are imagining.