Thursday, April 18, 2013

Full of Happiness

The school was abuzz with activity.  “What’s going on in the hall,” a student asked the principal as he walked toward his office.  “A senior project that you should be lucky to attend later today,” he replied.  "Cool,"said the student.  And I couldn't agree more.

I visited this NYC school yesterday to see "A Celebration of Language, Culture, and Community" that was inspired by the students' reading of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.  Two weeks ago their teacher had challenged them with a task: to design, construct, and run a pop-up store that would sell intangible goods.  Their ultimate goal was to celebrate their own language, culture, and community as Hurston does in the novel.  The teacher's goal was to have them explore themes in the book, apply their knowledge of design and construction (the focus of their school), and practice public speaking and other professional skills.  As I walked into the building and was greeted with a handshake from two students, who explained the physical path, as well as the overall project, I knew her goals had been achieved.  I was not disappointed by the rest of my visit.

Three groups of seniors were selling non-tangible items in their stores, which had been elaborately constructed out of cardboard.  One group sold answers to questions in celebration of their individual cultures.  I had been given $10 in play money at the door.  I paid $2 to find out if the young man representing “street culture” liked to read.  (He didn’t.)   I followed the path around the corner, where another young man greeted me with a smile and invited me to his store.  One of his classmates swooped by me and stamped my hand with a smiley face.

For $1 I bought two compliments at this store.

Farther down the hall a group sold words, “vernacular” and “formal.”  After being welcomed by two students who explained the difference between these forms of language - one of them acting out an "interview" in vernacular language for effect - I bought the words “slippin,” “hold it down,” “jackin,” and “YOLO.”  I felt a little more street-wise after the fact.

As I prepared to leave the building, the bell rang for third period, and the teacher in charge coached her students about the next round of visitors.  Other students loitered in the hallway well past the bell, curious about the event and hopeful that their own teachers would bring their classes later in the day.

I share this story because it shows the best of education.  It shows students engaged - even non-readers like the "street culture" boy from store 1.  It shows that kids can create.  They can think.  They can achieve.  I left their celebration full of happiness.

I haven't been happy much about the state of education lately.  But stories like this one give me hope.  Then today two more stories appeared back-to-back on my newsfeed.  The first, Is Organic Better?  Ask a Fruit Fly, discussed a science experiment that was begun by a middle school student who wanted to solve an argument between her parents, who had been discussing the merits of organic food.  Three years later this student (now 16) has been published in a scientific journal.  Inquiry drove her.  She achieved.  She added knowledge to the world.

What if school were like this?

Unfortunately, it's not always, as is evident in the second story that appeared on my feed today.  However, the article Eighth Grader Designs Standardized Test That Slams Standardized Tests again shows what kids can do.  This 13-year-old, tired of the culture of testing, designed an eighth grade reading test that pokes fun at standardized testing.  It's brilliant.  After seeing her work I want to advocate for making "test writing satire" a required genre in schools.  I'm pretty sure students would get more out of it than prepping for THE TEST and taking it.

In less than 24 hours I have seen first-hand and in print the amazing things kids can do - when we let them.  And it makes me full of happiness.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Create the Pasture, not the Scale

I do not remember the name of the speaker at my doctoral graduation ceremony, but I do remember his message.  He said, "You cannot make a cow fatter by weighing it."  Perhaps because I grew up in farmland, his analogy for standardized testing, which had taken hold of the public school system as part of No Child Left Behind, resonated with me.  "You cannot make children smarter by testing them."  The statement, to me, is self-evident.

Unfortunately, since my graduation day, the field has gotten worse, not better.  Testing permeates education, and students' performance on one-shot, high-stakes exams is now tied both to school funding and to teacher pay.  Testing takes away from opportunities for creativity, and it causes stress for children, their families and their teachers.  Though I am a fan of diagnostic assessment, where teachers determine what an individual child knows and considers how to help the child reach instructional goals, as I've written before, I do not like the current environment that over-inflates the usefulness of tests.  In fact, I applaud my colleague and fellow New Jerseyan, Will Richardson, for choosing to opt his son out of state testing.

Though there are many issues, part of the problem with tying school and teacher performance to scores on standardized tests lies in the fact that schools (and teachers) are not the only influences on a child's education.    Education involves parents, and unless we work diligently to fix societal issues that contribute to a child's success or failure, no education reform will succeed in its goals.

However, legislation that would tie student performance to welfare benefits, as proposed in Tennessee, is surely not the answer.  We cannot make cows fatter by weighing them.  We cannot make children smarter by testing them.  And we cannot make families succeed through carrot and stick measures.  Daniel Pink suggests that motivations are complex - and the research that he cites demonstrates that carrots and sticks do not work well for motivating creativity and critical thinking.  His arguments have helped me to articulate why merit pay for teachers might not be effective, and the same is true for this new wave of reform that would attempt to hold parents (those who receive welfare) accountable for school performance.

It isn't clear to me what "school performance" entails in this case, but given the current environment  I do not doubt that standardized test scores will be the dominant factor.  Unfortunately, the logic is off.  How can children do well in school when they are hungry?  How can they perform better on tests when their home life is disrupted?  How can a single mother who is trying to survive find more time to support her children and still be able to work in an attempt to overcome the need for welfare?

As is mentioned in the article, opponents of the bill in Tennessee explain that the legislation unfairly targets those struggling the most.  And it is this inequality that lies at the heart of the problems in public education.  The answers to the problem are complex, and I don't pretend to have a grand solution.  I do know, however, that weighing the cows doesn't work.  We need to provide the pasture that feeds them well.  Creating that pasture is the real issue to be tackled.  If only politicians would realize it.