Friday, April 25, 2014

Important Tests: Part of Quest or Cause to Obsess?

If I asked you which of two students, a college senior or a third grader, was more obsessed about an important test that loomed on their educational horizon, what would you guess?

I listened in on two conversations recently: One was eavesdropping and the other was watching a colleague work with some third graders. On my flight into Pittsburgh, I overheard a college senior tell his seat mate that he was flying home to take the MCAT exam. He thought it would be a good idea to get a solid night's sleep in his own bed, be around the support of his family, and have a home cooked meal. The test was obviously important to him. He did not seem overly stressed, just wanting to do his best for this important step on his quest to go to medical school. His attitude seemed entirely appropriate and right-sized.

The next day a colleague was talking with a group of third graders about their experiences of school in a district in Ohio. She was asking general questions about why it was important to do well in school, why paying attention was important, and why they thought teachers wanted them to be successful. These third graders kept coming back with the same answer no matter what the question: "To do well on the OAA."  "To pass the OAA." "The OAA." "OAA." In a word they were obsessed. Third graders. Our own Q-Team in the building had made a dozen "We Will Rock the OAA" type posters and were planning and OAA pep-rally. Does this seem appropriate or right-sized to you?

I wanted to hear that it's important to do well in school so that you can become a doctor or a lawyer or a baker or a candlestick maker or whatever you want to be. That paying attention was important because you can't learn if you don't pay attention. I wanted to hear that their teachers want them to be successful because they know their teachers care about them. After 30 years in education am I that naive?

How did we get to a place where a roomful of 8 year olds think the entire purpose of school is to do well on a state standardized test? How did we make that the goal of education? Aren't tests, as the student on the plane seemed to know, a means to the end of a young person's aspiration? Isn't there a way to have students take the test seriously without obsessing? What have we done to make elementary students think the test itself is the end, the purpose, the telos of the third grade?

Sadly, I am not naive and I know the answer to this. We have made students think the test is the goal of education because we have made teachers think it is the goal of education; and we have done that by making schools think it is the goal of education; and we have done that by making districts think it is the goal of education; and we have done that by making the stakes-based-on-test-scores so high for schools and districts. At the highest levels of our state and federal education accountability systems those tests, given on one day, the primary measure of how a school will be judged as successful or not.  Even though those tests do almost nothing to measure curiosity, creativity, collaboration, technical proficiency, or interpersonal skills--some of the very qualities it actually takes to be a successful person in the modern world. Nor do they measure the Self-Worth, Engagement, or Purpose than we know leads appropriately to the the academic motivation that sees tests as a means to an end.  Prior to the test, teachers spend a lot of time and energy talking about the importance of the test. After the test, schools play games and go on field trips and watch movies.

We have done this.  And we can change it.

Friday, April 18, 2014


I have heard Dr. Russell Quaglia speak any number of times. He is always motivational and inspirational whether one-on-one or with our QISA staff or in a hall filled with thousands of people. His closing keynote at ASCD 2014 was no exception. His passion for student voice and for trying to make schools a better place for all kids is fueled by a deeply held conviction that students are the potential, not the problem, in education. Their experiences, their insights, their judgements, their decisions and actions, when partnered with ours, can significantly change the educational landscape.  Let's be honest, 20 years of "Ed Reform" with only the adults at the steering wheel have gotten us exactly the results we are getting. They are good, but it's past time to take it to the next level.

While Russ inarguably has a fiery and dynamic speaking style, part of what roused the attendees at ASCD 14 instantly to their sustained standing ovation was the data he shared with them from over one million students. Over the years QISA has surveyed hundreds of thousands of students from all over the world and have spoken in focus groups to thousands upon thousands more. We have worked alongside students whose ideas for improving their school have been both innovative and practical. They have pointed out the insanity of punishing a student with ten unexcused absences with an out of school suspension, of dress code policies that do not allow for ripped knees, but do allow shorts when it gets hot, and of students who listened to an iPod during study hall being sent to an in school suspension room where they are allowed to listen to an iPod. They have engaged in projects that have brought healthier food into their school cafeteria and better people flow to the cafeteria lines. They have worked with teachers to make classes more engaging and figured out ways to help students struggling with transitions into their school.

What Russ Quaglia did at ASCD, what he established QISA and the Aspirations Academies Trust to do, and what, indeed, he has spent his life doing, is to amplify the voice of students. Russ is a megaphone. For many years his call to the cause of student voice sounded to many like catering at best or pandering at worst. To some it still does (see the last 2 paragraphs) and that's because often student solutions are counter-intuitive to adults. But now it is increasingly apparent that we need students to be our active partners and not just the passive recipients of our well meaning efforts. Are you ready to listen, learn, and lead?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

On Thinking Pink

The first general session keynoter at the ASCD conference I referenced last week was Daniel Pink. Mr. Pink has written a number of best-selling books that might be considered business books, but have a broad appeal because the topics are broadly human. Education has been one of those crossover fields for his work, which is why he was asked to speak to 9000 educators is L.A.

A Whole New Mind, for example, is about the importance of combining linear, logical left brain thinking with intuitive, creative right brain thinking given the current set of economic, political, and global challenges. There are obvious implication for school systems that prepare those new, whole minds.  Drive is about how autonomy, mastery, and purpose are far more motivating than the carrot and stick, no matter how big the stick or how many carrots are offered. Again the target audience is business managers who need to motivate employees, but the implications for teachers who need to motivate students are inescapably present.

His most recent book, To Sell is Human, is also about motivation and was the basis of his ASCD talk. The key paradigm shift in business has been from a world in which sellers had an advantage for knowing more about their products than consumers--hence: Buyer Beware--to a world in which consumers have as much information about products as the sellers from whom they purchase. He calls this information parity and the same phenomenon exists in education.  We hear it all the time in focus groups as students wonder out loud why they need to go to school and sit in classes to learn information that can easily be learned anywhere at any time online.

This shift requires a new approach for anyone who is trying to convince anyone else to "buy" what they are "selling"--whether it's a washing machine, an opinion, or that doing your math homework will help you be a successful person. I will leave it to your reading of the book to learn about that ABC approach, but the A stands for "Attunement". Or if we can let go of the A, which sets up a great mnemonic, what can be called "Perspective Taking".

Mr. Pink's point is that a key to motivating our students in a world with information parity is that we need to become adept at taking on their point of view, of seeing what our classrooms look like from their side of the desk. Indeed, this is the core of QISA's work and what we believe is the game changer in the school change effort. It is what My Voice and iKnow My Class surveys are all about. It is why we conduct hundreds of student focus groups every year. It is the driving force behind our MAAP. It is why we insist that our Demonstration Sites give students a seat at the table where meaningful decisions are made. It is why student voice has become a movement in education such that it is becoming a key component in teacher evaluations.

Do students have a voice in your school? Are you prepared to listen and attune yourself to their point of view? According to Pink you need to consider what students think if you want to motivate them.