Some helpful links for you can be found here
This week, students in grades three through eight began the eMPowerME test, which assesses students in mathematics and literacy. Contrary to popular opinion, these tests are required by state and federal legislation. Unfortunately, this puts the school district at odds with certain parents who desire to opt their students out of testing. I know that I speak for every member of the staff and school community when I say that students have the potential for greater success when the school and parents work collaboratively to support student success. Just as we have made the decision to respect parents’ wishes about whether their children participate in the testing, it would also be nice if parents would understand the position that the school district is in with respect to the testing.
In today’s world, unfortunately many people would rather express ideas in the court of public opinion (read: Facebook or other social media) rather than seeking to develop an informed opinion. As I said earlier, this testing is required. We, as a district, do not have the authority to grant an “opt out” for students, although we have made the choice to honor parents’ requests by not forcing students to take the tests. To say students aren’t required to take these tests is similar to the claim that there really is no speed limit. While we may not lose funding, that threat is just as real and possible as the notion that a police officer may only give you a warning for exceeding the speed limit by fifteen miles per hour. Not getting a ticket doesn’t mean there is no speed limit just like not taking the test doesn’t mean the test isn’t required.
Sadly, when parents allow students to opt out of tests, it makes it impossible to use the test results in any meaningful manner. When all students participate, this gives individual parents an outside assessment with which to compare their child’s performance in the same way that the test allows the school district to evaluate the effectiveness of its programs and any potential areas of strength and weakness. When only pockets of students take the test, there is no ability to evaluate our programs and the performance of students.
Additionally, while many parents have strong reasons about opting students out, many others do not. While I would never question the decisions parent make for their own children, when I hear that some parents are opting students out because the students feel the test is boring or because their friends aren’t taking the test, I wonder what such decisions teach students.
In conclusion, I would encourage any parent with questions about the testing to contact his or her child’s building administrator to discuss the testing. Quite frequently, having accurate information about what the test is and what it isn’t may help to dispel certain perceptions that aren’t based in fact. I am hoping that by honoring parental requests and by maintaining open lines of communication that we can maintain a positive, collaborative relationship with parents, which is essential for student success.
What the exact nature of the test will be has yet to be determined, so I will provide an update when things are clarified.
In terms of the Smarter Balanced results, I have attached an overview of our District's results, which show how our students performed as compared to the rest of the State in grades 3-8. As we discussed with our Curriculum Sub-Committee, it is difficult to draw any conclusions based upon one year of testing. Compounding the issue is the fact that many parents asked that their students be excused from testing, which we made possible in an attempt to maintain positive relationships with families. However, when significant numbers of students aren't tested (roughly 40 at Molly Ockett, for example), it makes it impossible to draw conclusions. We are in hopes that the potential new agreement with Measured Progress will result in a consistent test that, when given over a number of years, will give us usable data to compare with our classroom results.
It’s no secret that I’m an advocate for competency-based learning models. I’ve goneon the record lots of times as just that. I shared my thoughts on Montessori education as one of the original competency-based models and until very recently, I had two daughters who were learning in competency-based, montessori learning environments.
This year our third grade daughter transitioned from the only formal learning environment she’s ever known–a no-grades, no-desks, pick-your-own-work Montessori classroom–to a gifted, STEM magnet in a large traditional urban school district.
We really sweated the transition, but it’s been mostly a breeze for us and our daughter. She bounces off to school every day, even though she has to get up more than a full hour earlier. She dutifully and cheerfully does her nightly (much more challenging) homework. She tells stories about how funny her teachers are and every day she mentions a new friend. She’s learning new things in new ways and even described her new school as “more like a Learning Camp” than a classroom.
In other words, all signs point to “happy, thriving, learning child.” So, why on earth did I let one grade, her first “C,” totally shift my perception of how she was doing in her new school?
Coming from the world of no grades where we’d been living for the past five years, when I saw that “C,” everything engrained in my head about what learning looks like was telling me that my daughter’s first reading comprehension grade of a “C” spelled trouble – even though the “smart parent,” education researcher and competency-based learning advocate in me knew that wasn’t the case.
The matter was only further complicated by the conversation I had with my daughter as we went through her folder of graded work together. It went something like this:
Well-intentioned Mom: “Oh look, these are your first grades! Let’s go through these and see how you’re doing.” (Read: My first mistake; I already knew she was doing great! Everything else was already signaling that.)
Confused Kiddo: “I’m doing great!”
Well-intentioned Mom: “Yeah, but I mean, we can look at your actual scores and see your actual grades to know if you’rereally doing well.” (Read: My second mistake; I just prioritized the grade over everything else – even her own perceptions about how she was doing in school.)
Confused Kiddo: “Umm… what do you mean?!”
Well-intentioned Mom: “Like this homework, you got 24/25. That means you got an 96% that’s an ‘A.’ That’s good!”(Read: My third mistake; “A = good” set up “the grade” as “the goal.”)
Confused Kiddo: “Cool. ‘A’s’ are good. Got it.”
Well-intentioned Mom: “Uh-oh. Look at this. Your first reading test. Whoa. You got a 24/30. You got six things wrong. That’s an 80%. So that’s a ‘C’ for your grade. Not good.” (Read: My fourth mistake. Are you sensing a pattern here? No joke; I attached an “Uh-oh,” a “Whoa,” and a “Not good” to that ‘C.’ Ugh.)
Confused Kiddo: “Why is a ‘C’ bad? Is that the same as an ‘F?’ I know those are bad.”
Well-intentioned Mom: “Oh, no, um it’s not the same as an ‘F.’ That means you totally failed it. A ‘C’ just means that you could’ve done better.”
Confused Kiddo: “Oh so the ‘C’ is good. Like it means you can keep practicing and get better until you get the A. That’s just like my old school then.”
Well-intentioned Mom: “Well, not exactly. You don’t get to take this test again until you get an ‘A.’ I mean you can get higher grades on other things so you could still end up with an ‘A’ or ‘B’ on your report card but this grade will always stay a ‘C’ in the grade book.”
Confused Kiddo: “Why?! That’s not fair. At all!” (Then her tears came.)
Well-intentioned Mom: “I mean, the grades don’t really matter. I mean they do, but they don’t. I mean what matters is that you’re learning. I mean you don’t want to get all ‘C’s’ probably, but it’s okay if you get some, but I mean it would be better if you didn’t. But I mean we’re happy as long as you’re trying your best, but you know your teachers might expect better than that, but I mean that’s only their perspective….” (And this bumbling went on until Confused Kiddo finally said “I’m cool with the ‘C.’ What’s for snack?”)
So where does that leave me as a parent and where does that leave us as advocates for competency-based learning with one foot still firmly in traditional classroom structures – are we cool with the “C?” Yes, we have to be.
This is especially challenging because in my estimation, no one has it perfectly right just yet. At least the purely competency-based, Montessori school she was in didn’t. In that environment, it was all individual progress without the broader context of developmental targets or goals. Because all progress (no matter the pace) was treated equally, we never had a clear picture of learning strengths or weaknesses. And that wasn’t good either.
So, what did I learn from my daughter’s first “C”–besides the fact that she needs a little extra help with reading comprehension?
I learned there’s a fair amount of “unlearning” that still has to happen before we will all feel comfortable in completely competency-based learning environments. As more and more schools shift from letter grades to levels of mastery, we would all do well to continue challenging the assumptions we all have about how we define and describe when learning is or isn’t happening.
For more on competency-based learning, see:
For more perspectives from parents who are facing challenges as they support their children in new learning environments, check out our latest book Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning available in paperback and ebook formats for Kindle, Nook and iPad. Share your stories about navigating learning with your kids using #SmartParents on social media.
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At last month’s school board meeting, I gave a presentation on the district’s responsibility with regard to the Common Core Standards. This was an attempt to clarify some comments made at the November meeting by members of the public who suggested that the board should simply vote to jettison these standards. I have attached the slides from that presentation for anyone interested in more information.
For those who are interested in how the standards were created and adopted, I would suggest the following links:
Development on the national level: http://www.corestandards.org/about-the-standards/development-process/
Adoption at the state level:
To summarize my thoughts as presented at the board meeting, most of our work during the past few years has focused on how to make learning relevant, engaging, and appropriate for our learners. While the standards we have to use as benchmarks are standardized, we still maintain the autonomy to utilize a variety of instructional and assessment methods to bring the standards to life. Students should ideally have many choices in determining how they demonstrate what they have learned. Our focus has been and will continue to be on the individual learners inhabiting our classroom and on trying to meet those individual needs to help each student become successful. Given just how unique students are in terms of their interests, knowledge, skills, support systems, etc. I applaud the yeoman efforts our teachers make each and every day to help support student learning.
I wish everyone a Happy New Year.
By Linda Flanagan
Barry Schwartz laughs as he describes the little girl next door who suddenly dove into reading after a substitute teacher took over her elementary school classroom. For every book they read, recalls the Swarthmore College psychology professor, students received a point, which they later cashed in for prizes. The girl then started to read a book an hour. The only catch was that she picked her books based on the number of pages and type size, and “she couldn’t tell you anything about any of them,” he says.
Schwartz shared this story about the binge-reading neighbor during a conference call with Yale University associate professor Amy Wrzesniewski explaining their research on motivation. The scholars have been carrying out a longitudinal study of more than 10,000 cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to determine the relative success of those who were motivated by intrinsic rewards versus those driven by “instrumental,” or extrinsic rewards.“If you start kids the wrong way — say, by rewarding them with pizza — then their intrinsic motives will vanish.”
They assumed that some combination of internal and external motives would lead to the most success, as measured by the officers’ willingness to stay beyond the five-year commitment to the Army and to graduate and become commissioned officers. In fact, they found that cadets who expressed the most intrinsic motivation were more successful than those who showed mixed motives to serve. In other words, those driven to attend West Point motivated in part by internal forces, like the wish to become a fine officer, were more successful in their pursuits than those driven by extrinsic rewards, such as the desire to get a good job after graduation.
The same subtle interplay between motivation and rewards is also at work when it comes to education and learning, say Schwartz and Wrzesniewski. Rewarding students for getting their schoolwork done with prizes, snacks and even grades, as most schools do, can have the unintended effect of dismantling a child’s drive to learn for its own sake. The intrinsic rewards that come from exploring interests in depth, and mastering difficult concepts and problems, can be smothered by a reward system that focuses on grades, say, rather than understanding. It also signals what’s important to the teachers.
“When you dangle Burger King in front of kids’ noses, you are telling them what kind of consequence matters, and what motive to pay attention to,” Schwartz says. “And education will suffer.”
In Elementary School
How can teachers promote the intrinsic benefits of learning in school systems that depend on grades as a way to measure progress?
“Every teacher wishes their entire class was intrinsically motivated,” says Kathy Branchflower, a veteran fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Lincoln-Hubbard School in Summit, New Jersey. Branchflower says that our cultural inclination to praise and reward kids, often for minimal achievement, has contributed to the decline in kids’ intrinsic motivation. Another culprit in reducing inner drive is kids’ overly structured lives, Branchflower adds, because children lose confidence and motivation when adults make the decisions for them. To build it back, she reminds her students that they are responsible for their own learning, adding that she is a mere facilitator to their education.
“My job is to empower them to help them become independent young learners,” she says.
As a practical matter, this means stopping short of answering questions that the kids are capable of figuring out on their own. Children are also given as much choice as possible in the layout of the classroom. “I say to the kids, ‘This is your classroom, let’s structure it so it works best for you.’”
Branchflower expects a lot of her students, but praises their effort rather than their results and works to make the lessons fun. In teaching them about the Oregon Trail, for example, she assigns everyone new names and ages in keeping with those times, so the kids feel like characters in history rather than detached observers. In another exercise, she divides the class into eclectic groups, gives each a box of Legos, and challenges every group to build the tallest tower—-all without saying a word to anyone else on their team.
“When you make it fun, they’re more inclined to embrace it — it helps them develop curiosity,” she says, which drives enthusiasm for learning.
In Middle School and Beyond
Randy Wallock, a seventh-grade language arts teacher at the Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School, also in New Jersey, uses similar approaches to encourage learning for its own sake among his students: They’re given choice and autonomy and the freedom to work at their own pace. He also tries to build what he calls “little cultures within the classroom to encourage learning;” teenagers are responsive to social expectations, and creating environments where curiosity is cool invites more self-directed learning.
For Cary Mallon, who has taught algebra, trigonometry, pre-calculus, and geometry over the last 22 years at Hood River Valley High School in Oregon, stimulating the internal drive to solve math problems has proved difficult. “With math, there’s a lot of students who loathe it,” he says. Whereas younger students are more intrinsically motivated, many older kids complete their assignments for the sake of the grade, and are content to understand just one way to solve a problem, Mallon says.
“In a lot of ways, our system trains the students to be this way,” he says. He is hopeful that moving away from a curriculum that focuses on minutiae and abstract equation — what Stanford University professor of mathematics education Jo Boaler calls “school math”—and toward one that focuses on practical problem-solving and logical reasoning might inspire more kids to study and enjoy the subject.
When students bring up the classic adolescent lament — when will I ever use this equation in real life? — he tells them that understanding math is part of being a well-rounded person, just as learning an abstruse poem may someday inform their appreciation for life.
Generating enthusiasm for learning among college-age kids will be tough if they’ve grown up to expect pats on the head and perfects grades in exchange for their labor, Schwartz says. “If you start kids the wrong way — say, by rewarding them with pizza — then their intrinsic motives will vanish,” he says. Still, he and Wrzesniewski believe that a thoughtful and attentive college professor has the power to affect how students are motivated.
“As a teacher, you have a choice of what you respond to,” says Wrzesniewski, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management. “Do you pay attention to students who have their laptops out, or do you pay attention to students who are asking intelligent questions?” she asks. Making those kids who ask intelligent questions feel “valued, responded to and celebrated,” she says, brings more of that out in others.
Schwartz agrees, but warns that sending out these kinds of signals must be done slowly and subtly. He adds, “You have to be careful you’re not making this another instrumental reward.”