Monthly Archives: February 2013

A Culture of Testing: Our Discommendation

If you don’t know enough about me to realize that I am a nerd, let me provide proof.  I love watching Star Trek: The Next Generation.  I’ve always been a fan of sci-fi stories but this series is special. When I am walking the halls at work with an enormous amount of information at my fingertips via my iPad, I am tempted to imagine myself as Captain Picard.  He is actually an excellent model of leadership. I’ll save that study for a future post, though.  My wife thinks it’s crazy that I ruin good entertainment by thinking too deeply about it.  My apologies and fair warning if you share that sentiment.

Fellow fans of Star Trek will recall that Lieutenant Worf, a Klingon officer on the (mostly human) Starship Enterprise received discommendation – a ceremonial shunning – by the Klingon high council as the result of false charges against his family.  He accepts this ultimate dishonor for the good of the Empire.  About a year later, though, Captain Picard raises the issue of the discommendation.  Picard argues “It [the discommendation] is a lie and lies must be challenged.”
I am not the first to do so and I hope fervently I shall not be the last, but I hereby take a similar stand against and challenge as a lie the culture of testing to which we (the entire educational system) have voluntarily subjected ourselves. No one reading this post is likely to require a history of how we have become addicted to standardization, to testing, and to the use of the former to improve the later.  My beliefs on this matter will no doubt be offensive to many of my colleagues; many of them will likely concede the prevelance of standardized tests but may not agree with my perception of the implications that we now live with.
Here is that perception: in its simplest form, we are operating in an educational system designed to produce more correct (standardized) test questions.  ExamWitness the basic premise of the national legislation known as “No Child Left Behind”.  The fundamental purpose of AYP (adequate yearly progress) is to measure whether or not the collective and average performance of students attending a given school has improved since the preceding year.  In other words, the most important question is “did we get more test questions right?”  Schools make formal plans to spend a few minutes of every day and all of several days “preparing” for their state’s test.  This is seen as perfectly normal, proactive and wise.  We schedule classes specifically designed to yield passing scores on graduation and other high stakes tests.  We hire new personnel and make planning decisions that impact every part of the school for the sake of “improvement”.  Throughout my professional career, I have never known the definition of improvement to center around (if not to be exclusively) some form of standardized testing.  Entire systems of operations that show promise in this regard are admired, copied, and finally mandated by law.  We have accepted this brave new world and we work hard to perpetuate it.
I have very deep respect for my colleagues across the country.  In all our defense, this cancer does not announce itself as such.  It celebrates the positive impacts on students who do X as opposed to the Y we have all been struggling with.  Who would dare to stand up to decisions that are so obviously “in the best interests of all students.”  To their credit, actually, many educators have been speaking up about these issues for years.  For most though, this slow change to our collective way of thinking is much more insidious – not unlike the Borg.  The words we use to describe our primary objectives have remained the same, but what we mean by them is now much different.
I, for one, refuse to play along any more.  It’s not active insurrection I’m proposing, it’s a conflict of rhetoric. With all respect to others who literally refuse to administer the tests anymore, that is not what I am suggesting.  I actually believe that standardized tests have their place.  I don’t think they should be the tail that wags our dog, though.  What I will do is lead and work in such a way as to elevate the learning of the students I serve in deep and powerful ways.  I will make it my objective to identify the areas in which our students need to learn more.  Our team will provide them with rich learning experiences.  Until I am proved wrong, I remain convinced that performance on standardized tests will be excellent as a byproduct of this approach. Because we understand the nature of standardized testing, we will also prepare student to articulate their learning in other ways as well.  We will continue to work to improve student learning.  When we say that however, we will not mean “score more points on tests.”
This stance should not come as a surprise to anyone I work alongside every day.  We are on the same page, although each professional in the building is expected to voice his/her own opinion, even (or especially) in dissent.  Anyone else worried about the impact this might have need only examine our track record; this philosophy is not new, just newly affirmed.  I propose that we expect much more from our students than correct answers.  I propose that we see the ability to draw inferences as an indispensible skill.  I propose an academic environment where the acquisition of knowledge is the floor of learning upon which synthesis, evaluation, and creation are built as a matter of course.  I propose preparing young people for a future that sees problem-solving, synthesis and collaboration as basic skills required of all productive members of society.  I reject the lie that teaching children to answer more questions correctly will have any positive impact on their future.  I will not be a party to decision-making that stems from that basic assumption.
Lest you think me naive, I am fully aware of the magnitude of what I am saying.  If it were an easy position to take it would not be necessary to take a stand at all.  I am also prepared to accept the turbulence that this stand may create.  Lieutenant Worf was willing to resign his position as a Star Fleet officer to stand up for his convictions.  I sincerely hope that advocating for deep reflection on our current collective practices will not require me to face a similar choice.

photo credit: albertogp123 via photopin cc

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Big Bad Wolf or Mirror, Mirror?

Someone told me this week that teachers at my school are afraid of me.  You can well imagine that this would be unwelcome news to a leader who is working hard to build a culture of autonomy, innovation, and excellence.  Furthermore, I take great personal pride in developing relationships with everyone on our team.  I spend a great deal of time engaged in professional conversations in the hall, in the lunchroom, and in classrooms with teachers.  Perhaps some folks seem less comfortable around me than others, but scared?  Surely not!  

Once I heard the whole story, though I began to hope that it is true. You see, according to my “source”, teachers aren’t scared of me personally or of how I will treat them.  The issue is that I make them uncomfortable.  Professionally.  This is great news to me because it is exactly what I am trying to do.  I believe that no great accomplishments are achieved by individuals who are satisfied with the status quo.  I also believe that leadership by fiat does not lead to sustainable change (with apologies to those of my local, state and national superiors who appear to believe otherwise).  The conclusion I have drawn as a result of these beliefs is that I must engage in the practice of asking reflective questions.  So I do.  All the time.  So much so, in fact that my assistant principal asked if I was feeling all right on Friday when I didn’t ask her any questions about an update she gave me.
It seems to me that if through reflection a teacher comes to the conclusion that his/her practice could be improved and seeks the means to do so, such a change is much more likely to become permanent than any methodology or technique or strategy I could mandate.  I’m trying to change the way my teachers think about teaching and learning.  If they do, changes their practice will follow naturally.  If they do, the impact will last the rest of their careers.  Such paradigm shifts will also have an excellent chance of being so powerful as to infect their peers, both now and in the future.  
In the meantime, though, it would be much easier for everybody if I would accept the fact that I work with the best faculty around and relax a little bit.  Unfortunately, I have funny ideas about what standards we should be holding ourselves to.  Maybe we’ve been asking the mirror the wrong questions for too long.  One thing the National Board Certification process taught me: the day I stop reflecting on my practice should be the day after I retire.  By my calculations, that day is still a good twenty years away.  Until then, I intend to continue huffing and puffing.  

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A Time to Mourn

My friend (and the principal with whom I was a high school AP) has told me more than once that the most difficult part of the principalship is losing a student.  Last month I discovered for myself that he is right.  Early on the  Sunday morning  after students returned to school for the Spring semester, I received word that a very well-liked eighth grade student had been killed in a hunting accident.  Our school has been through such a difficult range of events since then that it is difficult for me to process the fact that it has only been three weeks.  Being an educator is already like tunneling through a mountain with a toothpick, but January was about as difficult a month as I have experienced.  We had already started the semester without a 7th grade science teacher.  Before the month was over, we also had an early release, a late start, and a short week, all while trying to cope with this staggering loss. 

I am well aware that the collective experiences of these last weeks are not unique to our school and might possibly be nearly normal for some schools.  However, in case such events would be as traumatic to your school as there were to ours, let me share a handful of factors that have helped us cope and find our new normal. 
1. We grieved together.  This young man was loved by his classmates and teachers.  We wept in sorrow that first week.  All of us.  In classes and hallways and bathrooms and in front of his locker.  What we explicitly chose not to do those first few days was swallow the lump in our collective throat and get on with preparing for the standardized test scheduled for May.  We acknowledged through our actions and our words that we are human and relationships trump the acquisition of knowledge every time. 
2.  We remembered our friend.  Although we are in the heart of Alabama territory, most of the school wore orange and blue that first day back because Will was a huge Auburn fan.  Students wrote notes and cards those first couple of days and put them on his locker and all over the walls in a front hallway. We did not try to stop them – in fact we encouraged them to do so.  We all left school to go to his memorial service – 80% of the students and a higher percentage of the faculty/staff.  We planted a tree in the courtyard in his memory.  The basketball team warmed up in blue and orange (as did the first team we played against on the road) and the baseball team designed a decal for the back of their batting helmets.  I’m no expert, but I believe the symbolic significance of these actions were especially important for middle school students.  Doing something was important to them. Equally important was the opportunity for each student (who wanted to) to contribute directly. 
3.  We had a plan.  I alerted the entire faculty and staff about what had happened hours after I knew and we all met early Monday morning to discuss our plan.  Part of the plan was to stay calm when things fell apart.  We knew it would be difficult to predict how the student body would respond, but we were on the same page and adjusted as a cohesive unit.  I don’t think you can successfully script how to handle events like this.  On the other hand I believe that blundering into them without thinking could make the problem worse instead of better. 
4.  We had help.  Seven school counselors from around the system were at our school the first two days after this happened as were several social workers and Employee Assistance Program counselors.  I believe it is very likely that we would have been overwhelmed if it had not been for their amazing support.  The insight and suggestions several of them shared was very valuable and they all demonstrated an amazing talent for working with young people.  Even the adults needed personal support and counseling.  On the day of the memorial service, the entire Curriculm and Instruction team came over from the Central Office to allow every single employee who wanted to attend to do so.  The outpouring of love and simpathy from the community was amazing.  It sounds like a no-brainer but crises require larger teams than most schools are able to keep on staff.  I am grateful that we had so many folks willing to support us. 
5.  We are figuring out how to live with grief.  The notes are down, the counselors are back at their own schools, we are drafting Punnett squares and journal entries, we have a dance next week.  We haven’t forgotten.  We aren’t healed yet.  Nerves might be stretched a bit thinner than most Februarys.  The counselor and assistant principal’s offices have been getting more traffic than usual.  Even the principal gets caught weeping in his office once in a while. But we have decided to honor this young man and his life by living our lives.  And by carrying on the school culture he helped nurture and sustain. 

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