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'Data Informed,' Not 'Data Driven'

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Dear Diane,

Sometime I imagine “them” (the think-tankers) sitting up late at night inventing new titles for “reform” packages just to annoy people like you and me. There’s more interest of late in the name for the new NCLB than the contents of the bill! Ditto what passes for 21st Century skills. I can’t figure out who is on whose side, but they all seem quite happy to cheer each other on. What they—Ed Trust, Ed Sector, Heritage, Fordham, Klein, et al—seem to agree on is that everyone should follow the same path, that it should be measurable, and that teachers and parents are the main stumbling block (and bonuses for improved scores is the best way to get them to mend their ways).

I know of no way to teach intellectually useful skills without content. The five “habits of mind” we focused on at CPE and Mission Hill are content dependent. Back to David Hawkins’ triangle: I, thou, and “it”—with “it” the stuff teacher and student are studying together. You can’t practice good soccer skills without playing soccer—knowledge alone won’t get you far. Or learn the “skills” of biking until you get on a bike. Debate over the division between knowledge and skill drive me crazy. (I like to remind folks that I possess both when it comes to putting my keys in the right place, but I lack the habit.) There’s a thin line between these—very fuzzy and full of overlaps. And they rest on our very difficult-to-quash human persistence in tackling the “mysteries” of the world we are born into. I remember asking a scientist friend of mine how he’d recommend starting the study of science. He said, “on one’s back, looking at the starry sky at night.”

Our differences—yours and mine and E.D. Hirsch’s—are over depth vs. breadth. We both can make a good argument; but I think mine is better! I think we need to defend our choices of subject matter, but that there isn’t a simple right/wrong answer. So I want us to keep playing with different answers. (Also, I want us to think about how to use school for what is out of balance in 2lst Century kids’ lives.)

I know of virtually no subject matter that can’t serve as a powerful intellectual stimulus. We studied snails at Mission Hill for three months one fall because our yard was inundated with them, and our kids were enthralled—and I recalled that Stephen Jay Gould spent a lifetime on snails. At CPE and Mission Hill we chose only to be sure that (1) we asked students and teachers to tackle different disciplinary lenses in the course of their work, (2) that we could defend the work on the basis of the opportunities provided to actually practice our “habits of mind,” and (3) that we made room for plenty of external critique—ways of looking at our own and our students’ work through both multiple and disinterested eyes and ears. And, I guess, fourth, that we reviewed the outcome “data” (via children’s graduation examinations, their lives after they left us, etc.) regularly. We wanted to be “data informed,” not “data driven.” (If only our leaders had followed this lead with regard to our economic affairs.)

Human beings are going to create the 21st Century, not “fit into it”—I hope. And it might have been a great thing if all children had learned so-called 21st Century skills in the 12th Century and the 19th. (Granted they’d have used the technologies of their time.) When was the time in history when reflection, experimentation, critical thinking, collaboration, persistence, and creativity weren’t “useful”? And I’d argue these skills/habits must dig deeply into aesthetic and spiritual domains, too—the artist and “truth” seeker in us.

To me, the liberal arts are “merely” an extension of the good kindergarten classroom—the one described by Friedrich Froebel and other—aha!—19th Century thinkers!

I want the flexibility to respond to different kids differently, while also being mindful of the risks. And to respond to what is happening around us, the events that are shaping our world while also encouraging coherence and persistence. On a day that The New York Times editorial page includes a piece about the filibuster as a way of life in Congress, I’d like to explore that in a history course—as an example of what seems “inevitable” or “unchangeable,” when in fact nothing of the sort is true. “It’s just the way it is” as an exhausted parent and teacher’s response to a nagging or teasing child is quite proper; as long as we keep in mind that heard too often we produce that “unmotivated” child we all complain about. If it’s all “just the way it is,” why would anyone relish a liberal education? A liberal education is potentially more, not less, “useful” than any other kind. In fact, it’s essential to a democracy that every single potential voter has the wherewithal to live an examined life.

Of course, I’m begging the next disagreement: our definition of the liberal arts. To save time! But, of course, it doesn’t save time—so maybe that comes next?

Deb

P.S. Clarification: Annoyed as I am by the thrust of the new secretary of education’s rhetoric with regard to school innovation, and his past history under Mayor Daley, or the harm he may do as he uses the $5 billion dollars in discretionary funds, I’m delighted President Obama has directed a lot more money into preserving teacher jobs out there in the trenches. We can just imagine what a Bush agenda would have been like! Furthermore, as the Broader and Bolder folks have argued, jobs, justice, and health are education issues, too.

24 Comments

I feel like the whole 21st Century Skills debate is silly. It probably wouldn't be a big deal if it wasn't for the fact that some educational think-tank was working on it.

From the point of view of a Latin teacher (doesn't get much more hardcore liberal arts than that) who teaches in a completely paperless classroom, I've gotta say that I found the initial conversation about this to be just more of the usual mis-informed ed-speak.

I teach poetry and art history and archaeology every day of my working life. My students read and discuss Horace, Catullus, Cicero, Vergil... Yes, our class is paperless and yes all of the written work is done on blogs and wikis and yes students need to learn a certain skill-set to get up-to-speed with the technology. But that usually takes a couple days' time at the max. It's not like we spend classtime learning how to use the Internet! We actually probably spend more classtime having in-depth discussions about poetry and art than most of my paper-laden colleagues. Because the paperless structure cuts down on enormous amounts of busy work and downtime.

'21st Century Skills' are not going to 'replace' human thought. People have been analyzing, dissecting, and arguing points of view since the beginning of time; hopefully any teacher in their right mind will keep up that tradition.

What '21st Century Skills' do is prepare the students for the reality of the Digital Age which is that we now -- unlike any period in previous human history -- live in an immediately connected global society. There's no getting around that. So we have to help the students learn how to work, learn, and behave with civility within that environment.

I love poetry. I teach it every day. The kids love it. But to send those kids out into the digital world without the necessary skills is like sending them out on the highway without driver's ed.

i don't know many think tankers who want to be blamed for 21st century skills

Deb, just for fun, I'm going to agree with you!

'Data informed' is exactly the way the best organizations use metrics and evaluations to shape and improve their futures. 'Data driven' sounds like the old piece-rate pay scale of the early steel mills and machine shops.

The problem is, ...the schools cannot so easily do this. Managers do not have the flexibility to reward employees the way normal 21st century professional organizations do. (Nuts. That agreement thing already fell apart. ;-) ).

Then there's that reading and literacy thing. If the kids in PS 128 are exposed to curiosity-inspiring exercises; but not given the basics of how to read, the basics of math to begin to appreciate science's methods, the fragments of cultural literacy required to read beyond kids' books, sports, and soap opera material,...what's the point?

-
Shelly, I've been blogging on ed tech for 6 years now. We're not there yet.

And, my disagreement with 21stCentury is that it is 20th century ed theory: Real "Critical thinking" to me is not the same as so-called critical thinking skills, and their sire, "literary criticism." Literary criticism killed the academic English departments. It's progeny is hurting our schools and kids.

Real critical thinking requires much, much more content-specific knowledge, across much broader fields, than the 'critical thinking' advocates will agree to.

The software available now, blogs and the like, reflect both this pedagogical pov and other limiting factors.

It is perhaps worth noting that at least one reason for the emphasis on "21st century skills" was to overcome the one-sided demand to place memorization and regurgitation at the center of learning via standardized testing. Those who want to continue the testing are leading the attack on 21st century skills.

They always find dumb examples of rather thoughtless and contentless 'projects' to point to; and there is no doubt that moving to schooling where most kids get to really use their minds will take a lot of work - which means money that many test defenders don't really want to spend on schools. (Read Gadfly from Fordham Foundation for examples of the attacks and the desire not to spend on public schools.)

As Debbie says, content and skills are inseparable, but intertwining and balances are complex, not self-evident, debatable, and need to be worked out. Why there should be only one answer to these issues escapes me.

And the term 21st Century Skills is silly, misleading, and wrong. Most of the skills (e.g., habits of mind) should and could have been learned in the past. But educating all but the elite in such thinking capabilities was not on the agenda -- and the failure still defended commonly by saying not teaching such things was fine for those who could get good jobs in factories - as if such workers were not citizens, community members, parents, etc.

The only 'new' is the technology, which then leads some to conclude the point is just to teach technology skills - which as Shelly noted, mostly does not take long, at least for most school and work uses.

Monty:

I am not totally convinced that the only "new" is the technology--although the impact of the technology is something that schools are currently only prepared to scratch the surface of. Certainly creativity, innovation, collaboration are not new--but we may be seeing a new urgency about more widely disseminating these things, as it becomes far easier to export low-skill jobs. But beyond that is also the changing global marketplace. It is insufficient to rely on a "Great Books" school of thought to determine the boundaries of our thinking. Our social studies and history of the world must consider the possibility of other points of view than our western one. We must be cognizant of (nay, even learn) other languages than English. We must consider contributions that go beyond the Judeo-Christian.

Heavens--we may want to consider how other countries teach their children and if there is anything to learn from them.

To look at the current world changes as nothing more than technology are a bit like dismissing Gutenberg's invention as just a piece of machinery.

But what hasn't changed is the limitations of the ways/capacities of human learning and memory. Just because we are living in a more complex world (in some ways), does not mean we can expect kids to learn more and faster. Deb's example of the study of snails is wonderful, but I can see that it is easily misinterpreted. It's not that kids should study snails for so long because they don't have other things that are important to learn. It's because at that point in time kids were surrounded by snails and the teachers could go into depth in their study, helping kids to make connections, that might lead to memorable and significant deep knowledge (about snails, scientific observation and experimentation, documentation of kids' findings, reading more about snails from books and other sources, artistic renditions, comparisons to other creatures, etc.) Making a list of "21st Century Skills" (where "snails" is not likely to be listed) is not helpful if the assumption is that teachers will then "cover" those materials, disjointed, when students don't see the relevance--they're just words on a page (this is inevitable if there are too many topics). Yes, it's good to think about what's important to learn, and try to set up experiences that enable that, but, as Deb said, almost any topic (and the few at a time, the better and more realistic) can be expanded to get at what's important (the habits of mind, and "content knowledge"). If kids are into it (or you know they will be), that's a major advantage. The nice thing about doing one broad topic for a long period of time is that you know there will be many built-in connections (which means relevance for students, and a framework for understanding). That is not necessarily true if you have one short topic after another. 99% of it could be forgotten very shortly, no matter how "important" or "relevant" it is to the teacher or powers that be.

Deb,

Not to change the subject but I saw this (

Paul Hoss

Deb,

Sorry for the error above. There was a piece last week in the Boston Globe about the French film, "The Class" due out April 1st. You need to fill in BD followers on this movie.

Paul Hoss

Morning. I want to agree with Deb again! Deb wrote:

I want the flexibility to respond to different kids differently, while also being mindful of the risks.

Flexibility...,flexibility,...where have I heard that call before? It just rings so familiar...

While I ponder, perhaps you all could help me with another quote. This on from Chancellor Klein:

"Today, more than 10,000 additional students are graduating than we took over in 2002," "And today, the gap separating African-American and Latino students from their white and Asian peers is shrinking."

Now, 10,000 students seems roughly one third of those dropping out before. Were it only 1/10, though, that would still be 10,000 young lives with a much better future than they had before.

Now I remember. We wanted more flexibility to organize schools. We created 100 charter schools in New York alone. We gave Mayors control to stop the finger pointing and start giving education managers some flexibility in how they addressed kids needs.

Alas, we also bound the charters with too many limitations, preventing them from achieving economies of scale, taking away their flexibility. At least in many states.

Still, 10,000 students from the 34,000 or so who were dropping out in NYC seems pretty good to me.

Why do so many educators want to go backwards?

Ed, you want flexibility for charter schools--why not for all schools? If it's good for the charters, wouldn't it be good for all public schools? If not, why not?

On the original topic--data informed vs. data driven--one of the huge issues with this is that too many people think only of the managers in the system using the data. For them, it's all about managing the workers--the teachers. The students become analogous to the raw materials in a factory in this way of thinking about schools--and I hope I don't have to point out what's wrong with that!

Teachers are, or should be, the primary users of data. (primary in the sense of "first.") If the sole use of data is to determine which teachers (or schools) to reward or punish--what a waste! Unfortunately, this is exactly how most test data is being used. In fact, it's even worse in many schools, at least those I see here in California. Most schools have added "benchmark" tests to the state-mandated tests, so that in some districts children as young as 2nd or 3rd grade (and soon to come I hear, 1st grade) are tested as often as every two weeks. (Think of the time spent on this.) And it is precisely in the most test-intensive schools that the pacing guides and curricula are most rigid. The result is that whatever teachers might learn from the results of a test, they can't do anyting about it--they just move on to the next mandated topic or set of lessons. Consequently, the results of the tests are hardly used at all. The only contingency riding on the results of a test is often whether or not a particular student will have to repeat it in order to pass it eventually in order to move on to the next grade (or course). This isn't even data-driven, let alone data informed--it's just test-dominated. Testing for the sake of testing.

The question to me isn't to test or not to test. Actually, it really shouldn't and doesn't come down to just one question. We need to consider: how and what to test; what other data should we be gathering and using to supplement the tests , to serve as a check on the conclusions we draw from the dest data; and what do we do with the information the tests and other data provide? And who gets to decide, especially that last question? As a math person especially, it seems to me that if a significant number of students fail a test on a given topic--or maybe they don't fail the test, but the test reveals significant weakness in some aspect of their understanding--the teacher should be able to modify her curriculum over the next few days or weeks accordingly. Tests should be designed not just to reveal "they got it/they didn't get it", but also to provide insight into students' thinking and understanding of the topic, and the teacher should be able to use that information in shaping the subsequent curriculum. But this is not the case. Apparently, the data is generated solely for the use of the administrative hierarchy, and all they can figure out to do with it is use it to decide who gets the carrot and who gets the stick. Yes, management needs data to manage well, no question. But to restrict the use of the data to the administrative hierarchy, to give teachers no leeway to use the information provided in their own teaching, seems seriously wrong-headed to me.

Someone might point out that teachers can do their own testing for formative purposes, and most do, in some limited way. But two factors weigh heavily against this. One, teachers are reluctant to spend any more of their students' time on testing--the mandated tests already intrude way too much on instructional time. And two, if you're teaching to a mandated rigid pacing guide, or worse using a scripted curriculum, you won't be able to do anything differently based on what you might learn, anyway, so why bother?

I've reading and thinking about ed policy more than usual lately, and I keep coming back to the same question, and here it is again, I think. The question is, how do we create a system that has enough standardization in it to address the needs of society, for accountability purposes, and to accommodate the reality of our mobile population, while allowing enough flexibility in it that people "on the ground" can be responsive to the particular needs of the actual students in front of them? And what kind of policy environment, at a state or federal level, would contirbute to the development of such a system? I have an idea of how it can work at the school level--but it's not clear to me what should/could be done at the federal or state level to move us in the right direction. Pushing a single "solution" definitely doesn't do it, but what might? Diane and/or Deborah, assuming you see that as a cogent question, os set of questions, maybe you could write a post on that some time? (I know it's presumptuous to suggest what you write about, and of course you can ignore this, but I'm not getting very far with it on my own, so . . .)

Deb:

I feel as though I can breath a little easier after reading your assertion that skills and habits of mind require content to support them. I was beginning to think that I was alone in see this. I also appreciate your snail story--because so much of my work with kids (irrelevant to many because it is primarily outside of "school") has been typically inspired. I recall during the winter in which the midwest--including coal piles was frozen and our district (denied the ability to keep buildings open due to the energy shortage) received a state waiver to operate "school without schools." While teachers met with their classes once a week in various community buildings to hand out a weeks worth of take-home work, social service agencies were called upon to provide additional child care and warm places to be. A colleague constructed a project with students of monitoring our daily natural gas usage to ensure that we did not exceed our monthly allowance (which would have forced us to close). This opened doors to applied mathematics, science and the workings of government.

Like Ed--I will not quibble over whether we use data as a "driver" or a guide, inspiration or reference--so long as it is somewhere in the room.

Recent discussion has led me on some personal rambles--among them going back to Plato to be reminded of WHY poetry was excluded from the Republic. I think I have a clearer understanding now than when I grappled with it in college--although I think I also still disagree, but have a far broader conceptualization of "poetry" than I did at that time. I also didn't find much in his distinction between the discernment of absolute truth and understanding based on truth to guide the current discussion--although I thought I might.

But--as troubled as I am with regard to what I believe to be a false dichotomy, in reflecting on my own children's experience of school--in which both content and skill were frequently haphazardly attended to, I began to reconceptualize this as a false hierarchy. Like Plato--who offered the highest levels of education to the few to whom great responsibility was given--preparing the masses only for functional work-lives--our reality has sorted kids into those we assume will take leadership roles and those who will not. I particularly recoil from those who support "content" first as some kind of "basics" movement in which these things come first--and some kids never move beyond first things. The implementation of "content standards," has led so many to an adoption of dogged memorization of what they expect their students will be tested on--asserting that they no longer "have time" to dwell on higher level thinking, or creative and engaging teaching (my suspicious self always wonders how much was there previously).

I always have to consider those schools who succeed (based on tests) despite their refusal to adopt a stripped down "just the facts, ma'am" curriculum. I just double-checked the web-site for the charter school where my daughter graduated ("experiential education"). I noted that they have a tab for "21st Century Skills," which currently includes primarily a tutorial for sakai (which I am only enough familiar with to know that it is an open-source platform for creating/disseminating electronic learning). But I also double-checked my recall of their English curriculum. Within a standards-based environment, they are able to teach students to profiency using topics such as "Jane Austin: Fiction to Film" (requires reading a minimum of six novels and creation of two papers) and "As the World Turns" (no what you think it is). It just strikes me that this is exemplary of the melding of project-based, collaborative, engaging and rigorous curriculum.

Contrast this with a piece that came through my email today--from the National Council of Teachers of English: http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Press/Beers.pdf The Genteel Unteaching of America's Poor. It presents an excellent example of the confusion of content with basics first (and only) for some (many) students.

Deborah,

I am not so sure that it is a matter of "depth versus breadth." It may be something else.

Why do I favor the study of discrete subjects? Perhaps it is because I love to see a subject unfold over time. It was magical to read Euclid and see one theorem come out of the next. It was rewarding to immerse myself in Latin conjugation and then be able to read literary texts without looking up many words. Or to read Dostoevsky and understand his argument with Enlightenment philosophy because I had studied both history and Russian. Studying many subjects does not mean studying them superficially, if they build over time. And it can be at least as exciting to find surprise connections between subjects as to begin with connections.

Yes, it can be beautiful to study a phenomenon from many angles: to learn biology, literature, math, history, geography, and more through a snail. But what happens to the study of biology, literature, math, history, geography? Are those subjects treated in depth? I do not know; I ask.

Also, when studying one topic through a variety of lenses, is one really making all the connections one could make? Yes, one can learn some math and some history through shipbuilding, but do the math and the history in that case really have anything to do with each other? Is there not the danger that the ship may be the sole connection?

There is also the problem of spontaneity versus preparation. If one chooses units spontaneously based on what presents itself, how does one ensure that the teachers will be adequately prepared to teach it, or that it will build upon previous knowledge in each of the areas?

This is coming from someone who loves to daydream and gaze at things. Maybe for that very reason I need and enjoy structured study. But it goes beyond personal preference. I see depth in a curriculum such as the Core Knowledge sequence, which I love as much as ever, if not more.

So if it is not depth versus breadth, what is it? Perhaps it is a difference in the conception of subject matter. I do believe in the individual disciplines. Yes, they come together, especially at the advanced levels. But each subject has its peculiar logic and language, which we cannot understand adequately unless we study it as a subject, drawing upon the insights that have been passed down to us and building our understanding slowly.

Diana Senechal

Diana,

I think you hit on just the problem with studying discrete subjects--that they might make sense at the "advanced levels," but not necessarily at the earliest levels. That may be why young children have a hard time remembering much of what happens in school--because they cannot see the connections and relevance, and there is no framework for understanding new information. Of course, some children, and adults, can. Some of these children may benefit, for example, from having experiences at home that help fill in the gaps, or bring particular topics to life (such as family trips abroad, or to museums, or conversations with parents or siblings, or books read, etc.)

But it is not fair to those children that do not have these experiences at home to teach discrete subjects, one after another, with the knowledge that they cannot remember or make sense of them without these outside experiences.

"Snails" is an equal opportunity subject--every student was surrounded by them!

Of course, such a study demands that teachers step up to the task of making the subject deep and challenging. This probably means a lot of outside studying about snails. But teachers should be ready to do this--and know enough about scientific observation, measurement, biology, research methods, etc., to make the curriculum worthwhile--and, as Deb said in her column--that there are built-in structures of professional development at the school that include teachers critiquing and supporting one another's work, as well as sharing resources.

I agree that your enjoying Euclid and Dostoevsky, and seeing many connections among various disciplines, is a wonderful place to be. But we need to get students to that place, and it is a long road to those subjects. It may be too much to ask students to trudge through topics that are seemingly unconnected to each other (and to their daily lives), expecting them to remember all that is "covered" until the utopian moment when it all comes together. Too many students will have turned off and dropped out along the way.

But our schools are not set up now, nor are teachers prepared now, to teach as Deb describes. That is an immediate problem that is not given enough attention, I think.

As you mention, it's also good to look across the curriculum and grades to make sure certain subjects are taught and practiced in depth, but it may be fewer topics than many state and district standards dictate.

In talking about "depth versus breadth" Diana brings up an issue that I think needs much more attention , but I have a different vocabulary for dealing with it. I would argue that an important principle of all teaching and learning is concentration. We must isolate and concentrate on one small part of a subject matter at a time. This does not fit in with many educational ideas of the past century. What we might call the "principle of integration" seems much more appealing to many people. Words like "interdisciplinary" seem much more attractive than "concentration". But I like concentration. Concentration is necessary to get details right, and details are essential to building a structure of knowledge. And concentration is necessary to obtain satisfaction of accomplishment from learning, because details are important.

But I am not against integration of subjects. I am just against undisciplined and unfocused integration. I would argue that teaching must alternate between the "isolate and concentrate" mode and the "spread and relate" mode. Indeed I have made that argument at greater length on my website. I won't put an actual link here, as it seems to cause my comments to disappear, but it may be found at brianrude(dot)com/Tchap17.htm.

Matthew, you write: "It may be too much to ask students to trudge through topics that are seemingly unconnected to each other (and to their daily lives), expecting them to remember all that is 'covered' until the utopian moment when it all comes together. Too many students will have turned off and dropped out along the way."

That would indeed be a sad state of things if it were the necessary result of focusing on individual subjects. If all the rewards came later, if we had to trudge through tedious material for years, not knowing when the light would peek through, then I agree, many children would drop out first. But it is not like that. The subject matter is interesting all along the way.

If you are learning multiplication and division, it is interesting to discover that multiplying something by 2 is the same as dividing it by 1/2, and vice versa. And then later, much later, one learns the relation between sine and cosine, between differentiation and integration, and so forth. At every level of learning there are patterns and relationships, and they can seize the imagination.

Also, there is great satisfaction in learning basic facts and concepts. I found this when working with first graders on reading. When I teach them phonics, their excitement is boundless. When they find that they can actually sound out the words, you should see them bouncing in their seats!

But that comes to another point. I think you might agree with me here. Much depends on what the teacher finds interesting. If the teacher is not interested in the subject or does not know how to convey the interest to the students, then many students will be uninterested as well. If the teacher is interested, and the students sense this, they will become interested too.

I have plenty of faults as a teacher, but students always pick up on my interest in the subject. Most of the students in my classes enjoy my lessons, especially the material in it, be it grammar, literature, theatre, music, or another subject. When I taught middle school I had my ESL students read Romeo and Juliet (the original Shakespeare, nothing adapted). One boy who barely spoke English at the beginning of the year was so taken by the play that he would walk home reading it, holding the book in front of him. He memorized and commented on monologues. He would read and discuss the play with his mother every evening.

To convey interest one does not have to be an entertainer. Children know the difference between true and feigned interest anyway. They know when the teacher sees something in the subject that they don't see yet. They want to know what that is. It's a human quality, I think--if someone has a secret, you want to be let in on it. Especially if the person lets out little hints.

But even if a teacher has a passion for the subject, there may be some obstacles for conveying that passion: bad textbooks, absurd pedagogical mandates, poor planning, excessive testing, overwhelming emphasis on "strategies," and so forth. We must look at what stands between the teacher and the subject. We must remove those obstacles so that the teacher may actually teach the subject.

Diana Senechal

Deb,

Your title provides the key insight we need to resist the madness of standardization, and you do so in a compelling way.

But first, we should let your other wisdom sink in. For instance:

"Human beings are going to create the 21st Century, not “fit into it”—I hope."

Ed, yes we have to address reading. Again, Deb places that issue in the proper context:

"Also, I want us to think about how to use school for what is out of balance in 2lst Century kids’ lives."

The lack of snail watching is just the tip of the iceburg in terms of the imbalances that kids face.

Ed, I respect your experience in ed tech, and it is valuable. But it is you that has it backwards. It is humans, not machines that inspire/coach the motivation for reading - especially in this world that is so antithetical to the values of literacy. Some answers to the 21st century literacy challenges will occur while sitting at a keyboard. But one essential posture for a literate culture is flat on your back daydreaming about the stars.

Deb also prompted this comment which is so important because if we could bring sincere and dedicated liberals back into the fold we could reverse the soul-killing trends that come from standardization in education:

"Like Ed--I will not quibble over whether we use data as a "driver" or a guide, inspiration or reference--so long as it is somewhere in the room."

I'm not as worried about Secretary Duncan's compromises. I do understand fears of the worst case scenario if the $5 billion discretionary fund is denied to advocates of data-informed education and data-driven accountability becomes a lever for teaching only the stuff that is measurable.

For instance, DFER's Memo to Duncan is terrifying. I quoted it in Saturday's blog on This Week In Education, and the hyperlink will send you to the memo.

Frustratingly, the big issues come down to two seemingly irreconcilables:

a) using data to supplement/complement other judgements vs. data-DRIVEN "reform," and
b)although we who support data-informed education do not want to drive anyone out of the profession, accountability-driven "reformers" are trying to exclude us.

And that raises the question of how do we respond? Do we turn the other cheek? Do we become just as aggressive in the "inside game" of politics? Or do we continue to remain as true as possible to our principles and continue to trust in:

"our very difficult-to-quash human persistence in tackling the “mysteries” of the world we are born into."

Diana,

I agree that much of what is worth learning can be made accessible to children and that its relevance and interesting qualities can be revealed. But, some topics take more time for this to happen than others. I fear that with too many topics (discretely taught) teachers cannot make apparent to all children the relevance and interesting qualities of the topic. The children left behind are then labelled--slow, learning disabled, etc. But it is the teacher/policymakers that are setting up this disparity.

By starting something based on the immediate relevance and interest of the topic--like the snails inundating the backyard (or learning to read in a literacy-rich first grade classroom!) there are openings for students at many ability levels and amounts of experience. Teachers, of course, must ensure there is an appropriate amount of challenge and "content" for all students. You certainly could help to make Romeo and Juliet relevant and interesting to most(all?) students--but I don't think you can in one or two weeks (unless, perhaps, students are going home and reading and discussing it with their parents, to take your example, but it's not something you can expect). It seems to me with a topic like that it benefits more children if you take your time and go into depth about Elizabethan England, for example, and the rich vocabulary Shakespeare used, and costuming, and staging, and so much more.

And Brian--I agree that concentration is important to learn details, but too much of it (if I understand your meaning)--taught to a diverse group of kids-- is likely to be too boring for some students, and too fast/abstract for others. In Susan Ohanian's words, "one size fits few." A topic like snails, and other broad topics, can offer challenge and intrigue for every student. It's not easy to teach this way and meet every student's needs, while paying attention to the important details/skills/content that can easily be missed. But I think it's become far too easy to leave students bored and/or overwhelmed and blame it on them, rather than on the teaching, all under the guise of "covering the material."

John--great questions. I say "no" to turning the other cheek and "yes" to the other two options!

I have said earlier, I think that we are not dealing with a dichotomy--either when it comes to the content vs skills approach to 21st century learning or in data driven vs data inspired. I suspect that could we find a high enough perch for observations we might see ourselves standing nose to nose across a very fine line--and missing a world of other possibilities beyond our limited view.

I have long suspected that many, maybe even most approaches to teaching are successful if they are implemented with quality and concern by teachers who believe strongly in them and work together in their implementation. Even the purveyors of some of the most didactic of scripted curricula have come to realize this and set "buy-in" thresholds and degrees of faithfulness of implementation. In my own district, which has at various times and for various reasons developed an array of "alternative" schools, I have seen schools where I would be very uncomfortable as a teacher or parent succeed. I have seen other schools also succeed based on very different approaches. Sadly, most of the efforts at replicating these alternatives have fallen short--particularly when brought about by administrative assignment. So, we have had integrated arts succeed, and fail. Some alternatives faltered through the process of defining themselves but have slowly become effective. Others were never able to grasp what it was that they were supposed to do that was different. I have seen whole school programs brought in based on a research-based record of success and seen them stall or regress.

I am not drawn, personally, to KIPP, but I am intrigued by their record and will be interested to see how they fare here in the midwest.

I have read some studies that look at schools that succeed "against the odds," and look for commonalities. There are a few--belief that all children can learn, ability to match teacher's strengths to students needs. What I have not seen is anything to illuminate the current questions with regard to single or multi-discipline approaches, the proper place for skills and how to use data.

But this is where I see value in setting standards and means of accountability. There is a great deal of freedom that can come from such an approach. When the focus is on responsibility for producing a measured outcome, there is much room for developing systems that get there in very many different ways. Statewide standardized tests are a fairly blunt tool, not the best for diagnosing the progress of individuals. But they are much better at highlighting recurrent weaknesses in curriculum, or the overall success of one approach vs another, or pointing out one more time that in this country some groups persist in doing well, no matter how they are measured, and others are far more likely to do less well.

Certainly the current crossroads is a frightening one as we wait to see if we will abandon all notion of accountability for equity, or if we are able to develop accountability in more meaningful ways.

I wish we were in a room together to pick up on so many threads that have been thrown into the discussion.

Shelly--Yes, I wonder a lot about how these new gadgets will revolutionize the world as the Gutenberg press did. Mostly we just have scary sci fi to guide us.

In a way, "turning the other cheek" is okay too, Matthew--if it means respectfully picking up and responding. Although I often feel like doing something else entirely in face of the endless self-congratulations of those running our big city schools.


Ed--I just can't imagine a truly "inspiring" teacher and classroom setting in which young people wouldn't (98%) learn to read with relatively little intervention. The bigger dilemma is not merely "desire" for reding but also seeing/hearing and experiencing it as a source of extending one's fascination and inspiration. I've known kids whose desire overcame many serious obstacles as a reader by dogging away at it--much as basketball enthusiasts do--hour after hour. A multi-age classroom also provides more helpers--as would smaller class sizes,to tailor the help to the learner's needs.

Margo. Good points. What's odd, and unsurprising, is that we all use other countries to support our prior conclusions. Me too. I look to Finland for suppor for postponing formal instruction, and Japan for the amount of time devoted to teacher to teacher conferencing and learning, etc etc.

Diane--and others--actually Mission Hill and CPESS took the "disciplines" seriously==and our pprtfolios were largely organized around them. That was as much a compromise as a matter of agreement. When I said we studied through diferen lenses in the fall, winter and spring, I meant different disciplinary lenses for each term. Literacy and math aside, we spent two semesters with a politics/history focus (one contemporary and one ancient) and one science-focused. However, unlike you I probably am not a "believer". I think it's an historical academic construct that has been useful - but within each of these disciplines there are enormous differences that almost constitute new disciplines! And, of course, the world we confront comes as iyt is--not one or the other, requiring us to draw-from different approaches and often mixing them. ne great reason for studying history is that it was once "current events"--but it provides us with a deeper and wider opportunity for building ways of seeing life, and bringing such a lens into today's current events. But that doesn't happen without help.

Finally, Jean--right question. Thanks~ It's getting the balance right, and. The current accountability crisis however was not do to public pressure, but from corporate pressure--as I read it. but being accountable is at the heart of democracy, so regardless who "started it", we need to think deeply about it.

And hi, Matthew.

Margo/Mom: I agree with and applaud much that you say above, but I wonder at your concern that we're going to "abandon all notion of accountability." Who is advocating that, or anything like that? Where do you see any tendency for people in power to give up on "accountability"? You must be seeing something that I don't see at all.

I'm also going to pick at your statement that "Statewide standardized tests. . . are much better at highlighting current weaknesses in curriculum. . . ." In too many cases, the tests are part of what creates or preserves weaknesses in the curriculum, because of the high-stakes use of the tests. In this environment, what’s not tested is often not taught, resulting in serious depletion of the curriculum, both in terms of entire subjects being nearly or entirely abandoned (art, music, at many grade levels social studies and science) and in terms of topics or higher-order aspects within the tested subjects.

What we need is way more of our conversation focussing on how to do it (assessment, accountability, using data to improve schools and teaching) better. Too much of our energy and attention is on arguing about the standardized tests. I’d like to see us get past that (and by “us”, I mean the entire field of education and those who are concerned about ed policy) and on to figuring out what kind of data we need, who needs it, and for what, so we can not only do accountability more meaningfully, but also improve teaching and learning in our schools. Unfortunately, until more people agree there is a problem with the tests as currently constituted and used, we probably won’t be able to get on to that more productive conversation.

But let me end with agreeing with something you said: that any given way of teaching (or organizing a school) may be done either well or poorly. There are lots of ways of being a good teacher, and lots of ways of organizing and conducting good schools. But none of them work by formula, which is why we so often see something that worked brilliantly for one person or group of people in one situation, utterly fail when people try to transport it into another situation. Especially when they try to impose it by fiat or rule, and fail to engage in any professional development.

Margo/Mom: I agree with and applaud much that you say above, but I wonder at your concern that we're going to "abandon all notion of accountability." Who is advocating that, or anything like that? Where do you see any tendency for people in power to give up on "accountability"? You must be seeing something that I don't see at all.

I'm also going to pick at your statement that "Statewide standardized tests. . . are much better at highlighting current weaknesses in curriculum. . . ." In too many cases, the tests are part of what creates or preserves weaknesses in the curriculum, because of the high-stakes use of the tests. In this environment, what’s not tested is often not taught, resulting in serious depletion of the curriculum, both in terms of entire subjects being nearly or entirely abandoned (art, music, at many grade levels social studies and science) and in terms of topics or higher-order aspects within the tested subjects.

What we need is way more of our conversation focussing on how to do it (assessment, accountability, using data to improve schools and teaching) better. Too much of our energy and attention is on arguing about the standardized tests. I’d like to see us get past that (and by “us”, I mean the entire field of education and those who are concerned about ed policy) and on to figuring out what kind of data we need, who needs it, and for what, so we can not only do accountability more meaningfully, but also improve teaching and learning in our schools. Unfortunately, until more people agree there is a problem with the tests as currently constituted and used, we probably won’t be able to get on to that more productive conversation.

But let me end with agreeing with something you said: that any given way of teaching (or organizing a school) may be done either well or poorly. There are lots of ways of being a good teacher, and lots of ways of organizing and conducting good schools. But none of them work by formula, which is why we so often see something that worked brilliantly for one person or group of people in one situation, utterly fail when people try to transport it into another situation. Especially when they try to impose it by fiat or rule, and fail to engage in any professional development.

Yikes! How did I manage to post that twice? I do apologize.

Jean:

I think it is backwards to lay the blame for curriculum on the tests--particularly in an era of content standards in which both the curriculum and the tests are designed to derive from the standards. I have had teachers explain to me that the standards are too broad (which is another topic of discussion) and so they must teach just those things that are going to be on the test. I think that this is at best self-delusion (and at worst deluding students, parents and others). The state tests, while being built from blue prints that lay out in broad terms how many questions relate to particular topics, or strands, or whatever (depending on the state), and the types of questions, anyone who believes that they have some certainty about what specifics will be covered is either peeking or willing to bet on lottery numbers based on whether they are "due."

I am not saying that this behavior cannot be found in schools. I am just saying that it is a choice made by teachers and administrators, not a particularly rational one and one that doesn't do much to improve test scores--if this is the desired outcome.

But my point about the tests is that they are not designed for student level diagnostics. As an accountability tool they provide measures of a totally different grain size and timeline. Data from a year-end test administration that is run through the level of security required of state tests gives data based on a sampling of possible topics and returns results after students have moved on. They are a rich source of data for comparing progress of school buildings, of demographic groups, the success of a particular curriculum or approach, trend data over several years. These things are important--and can and should guide instructional choices at appropriate levels. They should not be expected to provide specific student data in a timeframe to allow for tailoring instruction and offering remediation. This is where good formative assessment should come into play. Unfortunately, too many districts have been deluded into believing that the reason kids don't do well on the tests is that they aren't good enough test takers--so they muddy up the year with repeated attempts to "practice" the test and give mini-versions at regular intervals. As far as I can tell in my district, these mini versions are no more helpful--falling on a rigid timeline rather than allowing teachers flexibility to match the tests to the teaching, are limited to multiple choice machine graded iterations that must be centrally scored and don't yield information in a timely fashion.

It's sometimes hard for me to fault the administrators who are responsible for this--they are listening to the teachers who tell them that the kids really know the content, they just don't recognize in on the state test. I don't know that many teachers are well versed in the development of helpful formative assessment instruments--so they just skip all the intermediary steps and go straight to the end of year test and hope they can get over by doing a lot of things that look like it.

Deborah,

I found myself thinking for a long time about your words, "Human beings are going to create the 21st Century, not 'fit into it'—I hope." Yes. It is not for a bunch of business executives to decide what the skills are and how young people should develop them.

We always try to anticipate what our students will need later--but we should not confine ourselves to a narrow idea of what it means to "need" something. As you point out, "these skills/habits must dig deeply into aesthetic and spiritual domains, too—the artist and 'truth' seeker in us."

When determining what schools and students need, we must also avoid shallow characterizations of the present and past. When I hear people say that until now the schools have focused on facts, I wonder just what schools they mean. Many schools have done just the opposite: focused on vague skills. And some schools have done a brilliant job of teaching students how to think by giving them much to think about. We should not destroy the schools that have done well.

If the present and past are monolithic and terrible, then the future doesn't hold much hope, either. We are only as rich as our understanding.

Diana Senechal

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