We need to end the teacher witch hunt.
Rob Lippincott, Senior Vice President of Education for PBS, once asked the head of Finland’s public school system the key to his country’s success. The answer? “We trust our teachers.”
Finland’s system supports and respects teachers, giving them the freedom to teach to each child’s strengths and learning style — and it’s the best in the world. But in the high-stakes American system, you can hardly hear teachers over the roar of our angry accountability mob. Those with the pitchforks frame testing as a way to take responsibility for student outcomes. In reality, they use it as the basis to blame teachers for the inevitable failure of a testing-obsessed approach that squeezes out actual learning.
To be sure, there are some lousy teachers out there. But we can’t fire half our teachers, as some reformers have suggested, and expect that we will be able to replace them with a new batch of better teachers. No other industry purges half of its employees every year.
Here’s an alternative framework:
· Treat teachers like the professionals they are.
· Establish that schools can fire the worst 2% of teachers each year if necessary. In most schools, that means one teacher, and everyone in the school knows who that person is.
· Create an environment that gives the other 98% of teachers the freedom to work together and improve their school, rather than pitting them against each other.
Summative assessment is a hoax.
If someone on a panel at SXSWedu said that our system of standardized testing is moving in the right direction, I didn’t hear it. What I did hear is that was support for formative assessment over summative assessment. Formative assessment solicits qualitative feedback instead of just test scores. It enables teachers to modify lessons for different learners and to treat them as individuals.
Testing should not just be a measure of what a student learned; it should be part of the learning experience. We may differ on how we measure how well a student mastered material, but there are any number of reasonable measure to work with. We need to focus on defining durable, short-term measures that predict success and cannot be gamed.
The real question is: was the learning experience successful? A high-stakes testing system will inevitably fail, but integrated, growth-focused assessments can tell us what we really want to know.
Education is not a pyramid.
Ancient pyramids are remarkable for their mathematical precision. The individual stone blocks fit together so perfectly that not a single sheet of paper could fit between them. There’s a presumption that the blocks of our educational system can fit together just as perfectly. “That’s crazy,” says John Katzman, CEO of Noodle. “Education is not a pyramid.”
We all want to design an education system that will equip our graduates to succeed in the economy of the future. This doesn’t mean that we can, or should, create a K-12 block that fits seamlessly with a college block that fits seamlessly with a career. We cannot predict the exact skills every student will need in the future (remember when we told every high school student in the 1980s to learn Japanese?). As Knewton founder José Ferreira notes, we’re trying to train students for jobs that don’t even exist yet.
The reality is that today’s student is going to learn new things throughout her life to stay competitive in the job market. There are an increasing number of marketplaces offering the building blocks to further your education, whether it’s mastering a new piece of software, learning to code, or training in newly recognized best practices. Today, the standardized curriculum is as fanciful as the traditional four-year college student. Education is going to be more accessible, more modular, and less expensive, and this will allow every individual to be his or her own kind of learner.
Students are becoming consumers.
“Twenty years ago, people didn’t understand their personal credit. Your credit card company did, your mortgage company did, but it took decades before consumers had tools to understand and manage it,” says John Corrigan from ACT. “Students need the same kinds of tools.”
When it comes to education, we generally agree on what we want: graduates who are happy, healthy, and succeeding in careers they enjoy and make a good living from. Students have no easy way to get real outcomes data from colleges, and thus no way to make a smart decision about how much a college education is worth. With real, long-term outcomes data, a student could tell whether a for-profit college is a scam, whether it’s worth taking out massive loans for an expensive liberal arts college, or whether she should consider enrolling in a two-year community college to finish up remedial classes before entering a four-year university.
There is no other product on the market, at least in this price range, that Americans buy without looking at the facts. You wouldn’t buy a car without first checking on its likely resale value, or book a vacation without ensuring that other customers were satisfied with the hotel. Decisions on college, however, are still tied up in perceptions of prestige. As outcomes data becomes easily available, students can start acting like empowered consumers.