We are two-thirds of the way through our school year. Usually, this is the time period in which students start to get antsy. Winter is dragging on, gray skies remain consistent and school breaks are rare. While that may be the case again this year, I also find myself becoming increasingly unsettled as the year progresses.
My uneasiness this year is a culmination of years of reflection on my classroom mission. My district has taken on new initiatives the past few years (as all districts do) to solve the well-documented, disconnected nature between high school graduates and work place preparedness. One emphasis has been allowing teachers to communicate with business professionals in the area, discussing the skills they most want to see in potential employees and focusing on the four C’s (critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication). Another emphasis is more data-driven and focused on curriculum continuity and viability. We have aligned ELA curriculum to the ND Common Core State Standards and redesigned units to address possible gaps. We have created common unit assessments, focusing on what we believe to be the most important standards, and we are required to meet and discuss assessment results to evaluate our teaching effectiveness. The implementation of these two areas no doubt costs money and time. However, these initiatives are becoming increasingly contradictory.
The research and literature discussing skill-building for today’s work force mostly addresses the same concept: schools are missing the most important factors for encouraging future success. In his book Why School?, Will Richardson argues that schools are becoming obsolete. He says we are still operating under an “old world” system when teachers and information were scarce, instead of the current abundance of information that is reality. He says we should be focusing on “preparing students to be learners, above all, who can successfully wield the abundance at their fingertips. It’s a kind of schooling that prepares students for the world they will live in, not the one in which most of us grew up.” Instead of creating “learners”, it feels like we are putting an emphasis on the most assessable skills, not the most important.
Earlier this year my team created a learning goal for students for the purpose of evaluating our own professional growth. Of course, like many districts across the country, it needed to fit the parameters of a SMART goal (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely). We were told to look at the skills we value most at our grade level and attempt to build student growth. Here’s the problem, as a freshmen English team, we struggled to find ways to measure the most valuable skills we wanted students to attain. This struggle was multi-faceted: 1) the goal window consisted of 60 school days, or one-third of the year 2) we needed the assessment to be uniform and 3) it had to be an important skill set. As the graph below represents, the most important skills are the most difficult to assess, especially given the time parameters set forth by a SMART goal.
As a team, we settled on improving students’ comma usage to meet 80 percent proficiency according to a uniform scoring rubric. I can barely type it without getting bored. Ironically enough, an administrator rejected it and explained that “comma usage did not seem like something we have a passion for.” That is 100 percent correct. Unfortunately, all the areas we are passionate about are difficult to assess given the SMART goal parameters: critical thinking, resiliency, empathy, curiosity, creativity, etc. To appease the process, we broadened the goal and focused more on student growth than students reaching proficiency. It was still a “basic skill” on the “less important” side of the scale, but definitely easier to provide a uniform, viable assessment.
The process reminded me of a post from a couple of years ago by Dean Shareski (@shareski). He says “I’m not anti-measurement. I’m anti- simple. It’s the same reason I hated SMART goals. When the concept was first introduced to me as a teacher it seemed to make sense. You can’t improve what you can’t measure I was told. However, in all the years I was subjected to that idea, I don’t think I ever wrote one that I cared about. The moment I tried created a goal I realized it would be hard to measure. So instead I focused on writing goals that were easy to measure just to be able to say I had a SMART goal.” Like Shareski, I believe in accountability and student growth, but it should be more flexible to meet the needs of today’s learners.
We need to align our purpose. We can’t continue to restrict student assessments to a simplified, out-dated system and expect to prepare them for an ever-changing employment environment of complexity and “abundance.” In his book, Richardson refers to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) definition of 21st Century Literacies. He argues that the majority of students today are graduating “illiterate” by these standards. It is hard to disagree when we are required to narrow our focus to meet a restricting criteria.
It won’t be as simple or cut and dry, but we should look at systems that evaluate today’s 21st Century literacies. This also means examining a self-directed professional development approach and a longer, messier process to measure professional effectiveness. In the end, it will allow us to evaluate whether we are really developing “learners”. It will provide more meaningful results that will have an impact on student learning for years to come.
Jeremy Murphy is a journalism and English teacher at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, North Dakota. This blog represents his observations from his professional growth in his 11 year career. In no way should this be mistaken for advice or any form of professional expertise. If you are looking for an expert in teaching, English and/or life, you are on the wrong site. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @mr_jmurphy or email him at email@example.com.