24 January 2009

Striking a Balance

Next week, I'm heading out to work with some teachers who have been trying to implement best practices in grading this year and are running into some issues. I'm very much looking forward to the discussion. The questions they sent ahead of time about assessment issues, power standards, and student motivation are thought-provoking in the most delightfully nerdy way. This will be an awesome day.

To prepare for this adventure, I've been doing some snooping, er, background research about the school. I've looked at their test scores, demographic breakdowns, and teacher information. I visited their website. I read the most recent edition of the school newsletter. I Googled.

What I've learned is that this is very high-performing school according to traditional measures: SAT scores, AP, Jay Mathews/Newsweek ranking, and so forth. The accolades are impressive. And yet, from the information the school directly shared with me, they have some very traditional problems with kids not doing homework or who are permitted to retake tests (but don't...or fail them on purpose first so that they can go back and retake them).

In some ways, this is not a surprise. From the external front this school is putting out, the school values performance (engaging in behaviors that result in grades/rewards). The teachers I'm going to work with, however, value mastery behaviors (learning for the sake of learning). Kids are therefore a bit confused. When the overall message from the school environment is "AP! WASL! Top School!" and within one classroom it is "Take risks! Keep trying!" there is going to be some dissonance.

It will be interesting to have a discussion about striking a balance. The fact is, success should be celebrated wherever it is found---from great AP scores to the most recent drama production to Joe/Jane student meeting standard after a long struggle with a concept. I don't know that we need to throw out our performance messages, but I think we need to emphasize other aspects more. How powerful is it when the lead story in the school newsletter reflects different learning opportunities happening at the school rather than the AP test breakdown? How do we communicate both the fact that WASL scores are well above district and state averages and also provide context for these to reflect learning? I think it can be done. We just have to be more purposeful in the making the outward messages we give to students and the community match our intentions about learning.


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Unknown said...

Sounds like the school you'll be working with is experiencing some of the same issues with student motivation as we are at my school. (Though it sounds like scores on standardized tests are higher, which is interesting.) I really hope you'll be able to share some of the discussion that results - I look forward to learning more!

Roger Sweeny said...

Recently I was talking with some of my high school physics students and repeated something I'd said at the beginning of the year, that it was not a cookbook course, where you memorize recipes for the various problems. Instead, I wanted them to think about what physical principles were relevant in various situations. One of the students told me that she wanted a cookbook course; thinking was for college.

I wish I had had the presence of mind to probe some. Instead, I replied a little flippantly (but hopefully), "I'm giving you a head start on college."

Recently, a student introduced me to the term "academic bulimia," with this definition from the urban dictionary, "The process of learning or memorizing by rote, subsequently followed by the regurgitation of that knowledge onto an exam answer sheet. Just as with the serious eating disorder, this form of bulemia results in no real retention of substance."

That's their second definition. The first says, "The act of cramming a large amount of information into memory over a short period of time and then regurgitating the memorized information onto a test. Just as the bulimic retains very few nutrients from the food he or she purges, shortly after the exam an academic bulimic retains very little memory of the regurgitated information.

"Academic Bulimia is a form of Bulimia. Instead of binging and purging food, the Academic Bulimic binges and purges information."

That is certainly my impression of my not-at-all-bad high school. I was a little surprised that the urban dictionary's example of academic bulimia refers to medical school (!).

A little thought, though, tells me that it is common all through schooling. How well do you think you would do on an assessment from any of your college or high school courses? And yet the American system of higher education is consistently referred to as the envy of the world.

We really don't know what we want out of our schools.

The Science Goddess said...

I heard of "Academic Obesity" for the first time today---so your comment about "Academic Bulimia" seems timely. The obesity reference is that we want our kids to be good at everything and therefore try to stuff them full. (No wonder they spit it back up.) I now have images of Mr. Creosote from Monty Python's Meaning of Life vividly implanted in a school setting.

I think that we do know what we want out of our schools---but that we don't agree on what that is. What a parent wants may well be different than the desires of a teacher, administrator, college admissions officer, local business owner, and (most of all) student. Is it possible to reach consensus among all these stakeholders...or is our current and future mode just to try to please them all?

Roger Sweeny said...

I think you are right. Most people do know what they want out of schools. Parents want schools to turn their children into people who will be able to make a good living in ways that the children find satisfying. The general population primarily wants schools to turn students into productive citizens.

One problem is that nobody really knows what does that. So we fudge, and we hope, and sometimes we tell different stories to people in the business and people outside it. To people in the business, we talk about creating the people we want (people with a love of learning who have a broad understanding of art, history, science, etc.). To people outside the business, we talk about creating the people they want (people with the skills to make a lot of money). And sometimes we try to square the circle by saying that the former are actually the latter ("life-long learners").

Recently, there has been talk in the business about “21st century skills.” Will this be our next big fad? Will there be conferences and books and task forces and professional development about how we need to “develop 21st century skills in our students.” If this happens, I predict that our marketing will be directed to the two concerns in the first paragraph. Without 21st century skills, we will warn, the country will slip into economic decline and our students will have diminished opportunities. With them, well, the sky’s the limit.

Unknown said...

I really like the analogy of "squaring the circle" - something that intuition tells us should be possible, but in [this] reality isn't. I agree that it's not so much that we don't know what we want for outcomes, it's that "we" and our desired outcomes are diverse, deep, and sometimes dichotomous. There are so many stakeholders, and so much at stake, that decisions on how to allocate resources to accomplish these goals - or on how to refine the goals given resource limitations - are controversial processes in the best case, and more frequently divisive. But the answer isn't, I think, to be satisfied with schools that are jacks-of-all-trades. Rather, I think we need to build relationships with people in different stakeholder groups to work collaboratively and constructively on building flexible educational networks of specialized schools that will work together to help students achieve their educational goals.