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"Simon says, 'Touch the sky'"

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"Simon says, 'Touch the sky'"
Meg Dimmett (age 3)

Read a little about the current state of education and you will likely encounter explicit statements decrying the state of our schools and our emphasis on standardized measures of student achievement. I, too, struggle frequently with traditional education's focus on these one-size fits all summative assessments. My recent work with district administrators has sought to shift the focus beyond the usual metrics to also include measures of engagement, leadership, and collaboration. What does it look like to measure student achievement in more expansive terms? How do we retool evaluation so that our work fosters the kind of creativity and curiosity that allows a young child to think she can touch the sky? These are difficult questions to be sure, but the power of answering them holds much promise for the future of our schools.

When do students stop asking questions? How do curious young people turn into sometimes apathetic, disenfranchised teens and adults? My untested hypothesis is that our drive to standardize learning and assessments is part of the answer to these questions. What can we do differently? Would measures of student engagement provide information that would be helpful in modifying what we teach and how we teach it? What could be gained from focusing some of our efforts on incorporating student voices in the conversation about education?

The short answer is much can be gained from student inclusion in the design, delivery, and evaluation of learning. A good example of a student engagement measure is the High School Survey of Student Engagement. High Schools That Work provides similar information through limited surveys of students in participating schools. Another approach worth exploring comes from the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations (QISA). QISA promotes Three Guiding Principals, a focus on self-worth, active engagement, and purpose. In a survey of approximately 500,000 students in grades six through twelve, QISA reports some astounding statistics.

-"Teachers care about me as an individual: 45%"
-"Teachers respect students: 51%"
-"School is boring: 46%"
-"My classes help me understand what is happening in my everyday life: 40%"
-"Teachers make school an exciting place to learn: 32%"
-"I know the goals my school is working on: 37%"

On a slightly more positive note, the survey indicated that 63% of student respondents believe they can make a difference in this world.

What does all this mean? If we take the six previously noted statements alone, turn them into objectives, and establish target percentages, what changes would take place in the average school? What can be gained by having more students know the school goals, or, better yet, help determine those goals? What does a school look like when 80% or more of students believe their classes help them understand their everyday life? What does a school feel like when 80% or more of students believe teachers care about them? Furthermore, how successful are students when 80% or more of them believe school is an exciting place to learn?

By listening to student voices and responding to only a few such metrics, much can be gained in the area of student learning, and it's possible that more students will believe they can touch the sky.

Dave Dimmett

2 Comments

I have personally been been a leader in schools that have used the My Voice Survey from the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations. We set SMART goals based on our results and introduced an advisor/advisee program based on student career interests. Students and their teachers all have similar interests and thus have a starting point for establishing a relationship. These advisory programs meet daily. Team building activities are used including activities that will allow all types of students to provide contributions to the group. This may be trivia with questions which range from Goth clothing styles to Nascar, to fine arts. Other activities include games of dodgeball, Dance Revolution challenges, Guitar Hero etc. Students are also engaged in establishing their own portfolio reflecting upon their learning and providing artifacts to demonstrate proficiency in Essential Learnings/Skills framed by the acronym
REACHITFD
Responsible Citizenship
Effective Communicator
Academically Proficient
Critical and Creative Thinker with a Career Focus
Healthy Lifestyle
Information accessor/processor
Technologically Proficient
Financially Literate/Responsible
Data based decision maker

Students are encouraged to monitor their own learning, and assess their own skills. Staff are also engaged in self assessment and peer coaching.
We still have "miles to go before we sleep" but I agree that these are often much better ways of judging the quality of a school. There are uses for standardized assessments. There are effective in monitoring the effectiveness and scope of the curriculum. I am not opposed to the use of these assessments, but in favor of their use. I am opposed, however, to using these assessments as the only measure. There are many differences in the types of issues students face in various schools and various communities. To use one assessment, which is often biased in its design, is a poor way of measuring anything. We stress that teachers use multiple assessments and allow for a variety of methods students may choose to demonstrate their level of proficiency.
Why would we expect any less in terms of number of assessments used and differentiation allowed in demonstrating quality.

Student voice is critical.
I used the graphic with my faculty one meeting after we had endured a rather exhausting week of parent irritation with teacher communication.
I drew three circles on the white board. One was labeled teacher, another was parent, and finally the last one was student.
We moved the cirles around and analyzed what had been transpiring regarding student learning.
I drew the parent and the teacher circles intersecting: there was communication there, but little difference made with the child's achievement. I drew the parent and child circles intersecting: a recipe for "blame the teacher" and again, no achievement gains. I finally drew the circles of the child and the teacher intersecting: more of a chance for student improvement.
With the "aha" of the teacher student connection, we moved into the "what if we really made the student part of the equation? What if the student had a vested interest in his/her achievement. What if the student reflected on his/her learning and achievement and set goals? What if the student could share with the teacher what instructional strategies worked well and which ones provided virtually no support for learning?
The exercise did not change the world, but it did begin great conversations in team meeting about how we could let go and share the learning responsibility with the students.
We talked about how the students no longer could sit back and watch educational concerns happen around them, but would be required to be an integral voice in that discussion.
About 50% of my teachers began to intentionally design lessons that provided students choice and a chance to collaborate and set goals.
Student performance increased. Of course in a perfect world all the circles would intersect all the time.
Having a voice in what you do-that's the respect we all want.

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