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Taking the Risk

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This post is by Carmen Coleman, formerly Superintendent of Danville (KY) Independent Schools, and currently an associate clinical professor at the University of Kentucky. Her previous post is here.

The last five years have been the most rewarding of my career. The determination in our district to create the kind of experience that will ensure students are best-equipped for successful postsecondary endeavors - an experience that places equal emphasis on the importance of content, skills and dispositions and the application of both - has resulted in dynamic learning for our kids. One student, for example, best known for not really being known, is now recognized in our high school for the very unique furniture he makes from his old skateboards, thanks to having a geometry teacher who encouraged students to demonstrate their understanding of concepts in non-traditional ways. No one knew this student had that kind of talent and skill.

Another student told me, after explaining his latest physics creation, that this was the first time he'd ever gotten to do the things he loved--like designing and building--at school. Until now, he said, we have mainly just done paper and pencil work.Coleman 2.1.jpg

There is also the story about our student who became incredibly frustrated with the local hospital when she was trying to plan her intersession experience. She was having a tough time finding someone to respond to her request to spend some time shadowing nurses and doctors. As tempting as it was to take the reins, we didn't. Instead, we helped her think about how she should go about making her request, and finally, she got a response. She also learned that it wasn't going to be as easy as simply showing up each day. She had to complete a variety of forms and even get a few unexpected vaccinations.

Again, that student navigated her "to do" list on her own, and was successful. Not only did this determined high school student gain valuable insights about some of the experiences she might have working in a hospital setting, she learned important lessons about communication and persistence, none of which might've occurred had we not been intentional about putting students in the driver's seat.

Another of my favorite accounts came from the parent who told me about his son who, one night during dinner, began excitedly sketching on his napkin. When asked what he was doing, the high school freshman responded, "I've just figured out how to make that catapult work!" He could not wait to get to school the next day to see if his idea would be as instrumental as he'd hoped. (The catapult, after all, had to be able to launch mini-footballs into the crowd at the first home football game with our crosstown rival!)

And then there was the Great Outhouse Blowout. Each year, in a small Kentucky town known as Gravel Switch, competitors come from all around to showcase their outhouse creations. These special outhouses must race with three people pushing while a fourth rides aboard. Danville High School physics teacher Danny Goodwin thought this a great opportunity to teach many complex physics concepts.Coleman 2.2.jpg

The students--who he feared might think his idea a little silly--absolutely loved it. As a matter of fact, on the day of the race--a Saturday during the district's fall break--almost the entire class descended upon Gravel Switch to support their winning designs and teams as they raced down Main Street. It's almost guaranteed these students won't ever forget this experience.Coleman 2.3.jpg

There are literally hundreds of stories like these from our last five years - stories that reflect kids of all ages being inspired by the work they are doing.

Finally, like in those schools we visited at the start of our journey, our kids are no longer sitting in desks, waiting for the bell to ring. They are doing and learning. We are seeing firsthand what student engagement really looks like.Coleman 2.4.jpg

We also know our students like never before, thanks to initiatives like Gateway and Capstone presentations, during which students defend--before a panel of two to three adults--their readiness to move ahead at key transition points by reflecting upon strengths and areas in need of growth according to the Danville Diploma. We are seeing that our students have many skills and talents that would otherwise go unnoticed had we settled for only the traditional measures of learning.

Through performance assessments, we realized our students could problem-solve on demand and could create products that far exceeded that of the typical middle school student. We realized they could prepare presentations, use technology and speak publicly with amazing professionalism. We continue to be inspired by what our students accomplish when we simply provide opportunity and support without limits.Coleman 2.5.jpg

At this point, you might wonder why everyone doesn't take this approach. Why haven't these kinds of experiences become the norm? Because there are still many, many barriers, both real and perceived, in the current system--the system that was created to meet the needs of the Industrial Age.

We are incredibly fortunate in Kentucky to have state leadership very supportive of innovation. We have had wonderful backing as we have tried to create the experiences we want for students within the boundaries of the current system. Potential barriers such as school funding based on seat time and certification rules making it difficult to establish non-traditional roles, for example, at least have not inhibited our ability to move forward. The greatest challenge, and the one that has limited our progress, continues to be the current standardized assessments teachers feel pressured to make sure students are prepared to take.

Without having taken any kind of official survey, I think it's safe to say that most teachers like the idea of being able to work with students on in-depth, meaningful tasks that go hand-in-hand with an approach like project-based learning. Many might even say they went into education to help students have just the kinds of experiences described here. Unfortunately however, they will tell you they simply do not have time. It is overwhelming to try to think about how to make involved projects--deeper learning kinds of tasks--fit with the preparation they feel they must do to ensure students are ready for state assessments.

In addition, because the current assessments don't lend themselves to deeper learning, it is very difficult for a teacher to justify something like project-based learning. As one teacher shared, "Teachers don't feel equipped to step out of the norm because there aren't any supports for this type of work in the current world of metrics. People might say, 'Yeah, PBL sounds good, but that's just an extra. We'll see how you've done from the test.' The test completely drives the instruction. Deeper learning also takes time, for students as well as teachers. For all of those reasons, teachers aren't necessarily inclined to walk out on the edge without someone holding their hand."

What ultimately happens shouldn't surprise anyone. Despite the best of intentions, experiences that involve students in deeper learning often go by the wayside. After all, deeper learning is not what is measured by today's standardized measures, and it isn't what's reported for accountability purposes. Like it or not, what is printed in the paper matters a lot. Many teachers, not to mention principals and superintendents, are simply afraid to take the risk good test scores for the sake of deeper learning.

I used to think that if students had great teachers who created great learning experiences for them, they would do well no matter the measure. I was wrong. Experience tells me this just isn't the case. Only seven or so years ago, I would've argued otherwise. I would have even gone so far as to suggest that perhaps someone making this case was simply looking to avoid accountability. That is not the case, at least for our district.

We want to be held accountable, but whatever measures make up the accountability system have to lead to an end result that is beneficial for all. We have to realize that state tests have a very direct impact on kids' experiences day-to-day, and if we want those experiences to be rich and meaningful--if we want our kids to be able to think critically and apply what they've learned to new situations, if we want them to become effective problem-solvers and communicators, if we want them to be curious, to learn to ask good questions, to take initiative and work with others--then we have to create assessments with these skills as the focus in addition to content. We have to get away from our one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to assessment and accountability. As someone very wise recently stated, "Teaching to the test is not the problem. The problem is having tests worth teaching to."

Let's make it a rule that we stop trying to "reform." Let's agree that the system we have for educating children was effective for the time in which it was designed. And let's put it to rest.

What if, instead of continuing to try to innovate within the current system, we define the content, skills and dispositions we know our students need to be successful, and then create the experiences that will lead them there?

Once we've created those experiences, what if we then begin to think about what kinds of measures will best show whether or not our students are making progress?

Then, and not before, let's think about policy implications.

Is it possible to take this approach, beginning by thinking about what we want in the end? Could we think about a system for funding, certification and even assessment and accountability after we spend time thinking about the conditions that will be most conducive to the outcomes we need? I believe it is...and thankfully, so do others.

Gene Wilhoit, formerly the executive director for CCSSO, has established, in partnership with the University of Kentucky, the national Center for Innovation in Education. At the Center, CIE, we are pursuing six specific strands of work to support deeper learning reforms in all states:

  • Being a voice to help build consensus and coherence around a new vision of education aligned with the realities the next generation of learners will face and help states develop and act on robust theories of change
  • Helping states operationalize their understanding of deeper learning by producing developmental frameworks for essential skills and dispositions and related instructional and assessment tools
  • Identifying and testing how changes in high leverage policies, such as school finance, can remove barriers to deeper learning at scale
  • Developing a framework for collecting and managing evidence of learning - beyond traditional assessments -to inform new accountability designs and statewide assessment strategies
  • Empowering the voices of teachers and local leaders to tap the collective potential of and amplify the voices of practitioners in supporting and implementing deeper learning policy
  • Facilitating collaboration with postsecondary and business, both within and across states.

As Gene said best, "It's unconscionable that when we are learning so much about what is good for students and the teachers who support them we're still grappling with devastatingly persistent variability in the quality of education in this country. It's incumbent on all of us to act in good faith, to support courageous leadership, and to keep the pressure on to deliver on the promise a quality education for every child and the opportunity to succeed that deeper learning represents."

There has never been a more exciting time for education in our country--a time with more promising potential for our children. Is it risky to tackle a system that has been in place for over 100 years? I don't think so. What is risky is continuing to try to make a new system fit into outdated structures. Let's not reform any longer. Let's imagine, create and plan based on tomorrow's needs, not yesterday's. Let's create the system for learning our kids deserve.

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