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A Defense for the Spinning Heel Kick

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This past week we completed the 2009 version of the California Standards Test. It is a standards-based test designed to assess the degree to which children mastered the standards at their grade level. If they get higher than a scaled score of 350, they will be considered "proficient" and everyone will be happy.

Of course, anything less than that means they are "not at grade level" and it will be a reason for great concern. And if 45% of our overall students or 45% of our Latino students or 45% of our English language learners are not at grade level, the state of California will declare us to be a "Program Improvement" school.

So here is what I don't get.

If we have a standards-based curriculum, and students' mastery of those standards is determined by a standards- based assessment (in our state: the California Standards Test), then why aren't kids grouped in classrooms according to their mastery of those standards? In other words... a true, standards-based school.

Where do we see standards-based schools? In that Taekwondo studio down the street-- the one in your neighborhood strip mall.

200px-WTF_Taekwondo_1.jpg
In Taekwondo and other martial arts, students are assigned a white belt until they demonstrate mastery of ALL of the techniques, blocks, kicks, forms, and philosophies that are taught at that beginning of the learning continuum. They advance through the curriculum- color belt by color belt-- until they reach the level of black belt. There is a high price to pay for not mastering all of those blocking and striking techniques if you spar with another black belt so Taekwondo instructors tend to promote students only when they are ready to be promoted.


Not so in your school or mine.

In fact, in a few weeks we are going to promote quite a few students to the next grade level who have not yet mastered the standards for this year. We'll know who they are, because those will be the students who don't do so hot on the California Standards Test. We will agonize over the perennial "promotion/retention dilemma", we'll choose our poison (social promotion being the lesser of twin evils)... and we'll promote each student whether they are ready or not. But at least we are not sending them to spar against accomplished opponents throwing spinning heel kicks.

The significant difference is that in Taekwondo we group students by their demonstrated competence. In public schools we group kids according to 1) their chronological age and 2) the grade level they were sitting in when the clock ran out at the end of the game last June. Our 11 years-olds are fifth graders no matter what level of mastery they have attained in school. And next month, they will become 6th graders and they will struggle to catch up all year until it is time to take the California Standards Test again. When that time comes, they will be handed the Sixth Grade Test-- not because they are ready for it... but merely because we placed them in a student grouping called "Sixth Grade"!

So what if we organized our students for instruction according to the martial arts, mastery-based model that is thousands of years old instead of the archaic, age-driven system that we all perpetuate today?

For starters:

• Students would be grouped according to where they are on the continuum of standards.
• We wouldn't need grade level groupings at all.
• Students would move fluidly forward and back according to their demonstrated needs and evidence of mastery.
• Teaching would be far more differentiated.
• Students would progress at their own pace.

With regard to testing:

• Some 11 years-olds would take the 4th grade version of the California Standards Test... because that is the level they are ready for.
• Some 11 year-olds may take the 7th grade test.
• Some 11 year-olds might take the 5th grade test for math, but the 3rd grade test for language arts.
• Every student would be "at grade level" because, as in Taekwondo, they would be taking a test to demonstrate what they can do. It is geared to their level... so they will all be--by definition--"proficient".
• Since all students would be proficient, schools would not show up as "Program Improvement" and the states' metrics that are now based on counting percentages of proficient students would be obsolete. So they will need new metrics.

Since we are a charter school known for our willingness to try stuff, we are intent on pursuing this model. We know we will have to do our homework and that we will be accused of 'gaming the system.' And yet, our real intention is to completely align our school-- curriculum, assessment, and student groupings-- to a standards-based model.

The Adams County School District 50 in Denver, Colorado is already taking a courageous lead on this. And I'm sure there are others.

But I am wondering...

What questions, suspicions, criticisms, warnings, come to your mind when I describe this project?

Hearing no comments... we are going to go full speed ahead!

"...Joonbi...shiyak!"


Kevin W. Riley
El Milagro Weblog: http://kriley19.wordpress.com/

8 Comments

I'm going to a new principal in the fall, moving up from a vice-principalship. The main reason I'm changing jobs is to move from a "traditional" school with schedules, classes, bells etc. The new school is an Outreach school. It is a high school for students who have been expelled or otherwise unsuccessful in a regular school. I want to be able to have flexibility. We will still follow a standard curriculum with standardized tests at the end of grade 12 but timelines, hours per day, instruction, evaluation during a course can all be flexible for each student. I'm excited to hear that you are trying to change the idea of "school" on a larger scale. Let us know how it goes.

dcollins

Good luck on your new assignment! Leading in an environment like you described presents awesome opportunities for innovation. We will definitely be keeping everyone posted on our progress. We will be documenting our research, site visits, debates, parent meetings and brainstorms on my blog over the next school year: http://kriley19.wordpress.com/

This is one of the most articulate arguments that I have read in a long time. Thanks for a great article that was articulate and well-founded.

When my son was taking a martial art I had the same thoughts. I am glad to see you taking the idea and actually trying it. I say it will work and be great! So simple and elegant. We need reform to be simple and elegant, or it just won't work.

A thought-provoking post. I am hoping you are looking for thoughts, criticisms, and warnings! I am wondering, though, about the standards in your state. I know in our state the standards are not by grade level, but by grade level bands. There are "assessment anchors" that are grade level specific, but much too narrow to be useful for any true assessment of learning. I also am wondering if you are indicating that the state assessments used are accurate enough in determining what each child has mastered and the degree to which he/she has mastered subject content. It has not been my experience that learning anything beyond basic skills can be so simply and easily determined. There are so many complex processes involved in knowing and understanding! Teaching and learning are messy. If we want a system where we can move some kids on quickly and easily and keep others behind in "like groups," I do not think we would have to do much work - just look at the outside of school factors. We have plenty of evidence that tells us the children who come from secure home environments would fall in the group that moves on; the others rely on effective teaching practices to learn and progress. Teaching and assessing in valid and multiple ways hold the keys - simple, but not easy!

sk

Thanks you for your ideas and comments. You challenged my thinking in a number of areas that I think we need to be able to respond to:

• The validity and scope of the state standards in California;
• Standardized tests that merely assess basic skills;
• And the notion that some students will move ahead and some will continue to be left behind... (and that the variables that determine who moves ahead or gets left behind are too often those external factors that exist outside of school.)

Good stuff. I'm going to address these on my blog.


I remember a 7th grade math teacher who did her best to deploy this method in the "traditional" setting. She had three groups of students who had been divided based on mastery of a defined set of math concepts (similar to the standards). Students in her class could move up or down the within these three groups based on the pace of your development. In other words, there was a baseline pace expected for all, but there was no "theoretical" upper limit. The three groups of students were divided by how far above the baseline you were. You could demonstrate mastery on a particular topic through a diagnostic "pre test", allowing you to skip the topic completely if you demonstrated mastery on the pre test. In addition, you could re-test at any point in your development to demonstrate mastery, giving you the flexibility to move at a faster pace than would traditionally be allowed if you followed every portion of every lesson.

That was the other unique portion of the design. The teacher was free to spend more time with the "neediest" students, while differentiating her instruction for the three groups and, at times, individualizing instruction as time permitted.

I don't know if it worked well for all students, but it worked great for me.

One of the biggest challenges with aligning students by level of mastery is a logistical one. In theory, you could have an 8 year old student at the same level of mastery as a 14 year old student. So, how do you design a "system" which allows students to have personalized instruction (based on mastery level as you suggest)? Technology is a huge lever for this type of flexibility. Although there is great momentum in online education, in many ways, we're still at the infancy stages of deploying this in K-12 education, especially for the youngest students.

As we move away from our current 19th century industrial model, we can find great opportunities in blending what my teacher did in differentiating instruction and leveraging technology to help teachers do so.

Thanks Steve. You are right... technology and other powerful tools now available to us hold the (potential) keys to to creating a system designed to bend toward our students-- as opposed to the other way around. The role of technology will be huge in creating this transformation.

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