So this weekend I had an epiphany. It is the weekend before Thanksgiving and most teachers are worn out. Students are also ready for a couple of days away from school. We are only about 4 weeks away to end of the semester so you can imagine, we are all tired and worn out. Upon the recommendation of my principal, I watched the video Most Likely To Succeed, a documentary that focuses on the shortcomings of our current educational system while exploring innovative ways that schools are reinventing educational experiences that will prepare students for the future. In short, the movie and the companion book Most Likely To Succeed: Preparing Our Kids For The Innovative Era, document the ways that students tune out to traditional education approaches.
Perhaps the most chilly point of the book and movie that resonates most with me that many schools have become simply test prep machines. These tests ranging from End of Course and End of Grade tests to SATs have created a culture in which students who test well are celebrated and those who may not test well are left to navigate through a system where they may never be successful. Further, it creates a learners who only see the purpose of education is scoring high enough to get to the next stage or step. In the movie, a group of students is asked if they would rather be prepared for the "test" or taught skills that will serve them in their future careers and aspirations. The students look at each other uncertain about how to answer. And then one student says "the test since it controls my future." This scene was a telling moment to me when I realized that we have done nothing more than to reduce education to a test taking / preparation factory. There is a lot of pressure put on students doing well on tests. There is a common perception that if a student does not do well on a test, then their future is drastically altered. As a teacher who taught his first ten years with a state end of course test, I was guilty of focusing too much on test preparation. I tried to ensure that my students were adequately prepared for the next phase of chemistry whether that was in college or in a company as a technician. However, I defined the success of a year based on how my students tests. It really is ridiculous to equate 180 days of learning into how my students did on a two hour test. Sometimes my students scored really well and I was so proud of them. But there were years when my students did not do as well and I naturally blamed it on myself. After all, had I failed them as a teacher if they did not score a level 3 or 4 on the test?
Later in my career, our state introduced EVAAS data where a complex model factors in previous testing experiences of students and predicts the influence of the teacher on the student's learning. If students test well above what they were predicted, the teacher is coded "blue." If students met the testing prediction, the teacher is coded as "green." And if students fail to met the growth expectations, the teacher is "red." The day that EVAAS scores are released is one of the absolutely worst days in the school year. Imagine being a teacher how is literally putting in every bit of effort that she / he can to help students. The teacher is staying after school to help students, staying in touch with parents on a regular basis, and providing lots of encouragement to students. So imagine if you are that teacher who literally stays 1-2 hours after school most day to tutor students and is heavily invested emotionally in the students's success. If you are this teacher and the EVAAS data comes back as red, you are crushed. Further, the effort put in by both the student and teacher is not acknowledged since the student did not make the necessary growth prediction. Additionally, no one can simply explain how EVAAS is determined (trust me, I have spent hours watching the tutorial videos and asking questions). But in the end, the process is as abstract as unicorns. To adequately understand EVAAS, you have to have an extensive background in statistics and data analysis. Since most teachers chose to teach students instead of taking advanced courses in statistics, it is difficult to comprehend the complex models used in calculating EVAAS. In the world of education, if an idea is so complex that it cannot be explained in less then three to four sentences, then most likely the average person will not understand the idea. This is the challenge of EVAAS.
As I think about the movie and the work that we are doing at North Rowan High School, I am even more certain that what we are doing now matters so much more than any curriculum standard. The skills and experiences that we are provided to our students in our design challenge courses are allowing to prepare for careers and job opportunities that do not currently exist. We cannot even imagine them. Earlier today, my Facebook feed included an article "The Future of Work Won't Be About College Degrees, It Will Be About Job Skills." The article highlights that the rapid changes associated with evolving technology coupled with increasing higher education costs have resulted in many freelance workers realizing that college degrees are no longer a guarantee of job security. Many large corporations, such as Google and Apple, no longer ask about education credentials not GPA. Instead they seek to find employees who can exhibit various skill sets. No longer is an education credential the "be all end all" that it once was. The article also points out that freelance workers realize the need to learn new skills periodically in order to stay relevant. As we move toward more innovation where we see previously unrelated fields beginning to intersect, then innovation is much more likely. I had a discussion last week with a colleague about helping our students find job opportunities that a computer or robot will not be able to replicate. Currently, technology has advanced so that computers can now write legal documents. As we consider what our students really need for the future, we must move away from giving them problems or work that can be easily googled. I am very guilty of that. We must allow our students the opportunity to developed skills for jobs and tasks that cannot be googled. We must provide authentic opportunities for students to share what they learned in a ways that demonstrated more than surface level understanding. Instead, we must push for experiences that result in deep, sustained learning where students can demonstrate what they learned and use these experiences to expand skill sets.
As I reflect back on what I have learned, I am guilty of teaching to a test and helping students see education simply as a test prep. We must work collectively to ensure that all students have the opportunities to develop deep level learning that results in enhanced skill sets. Further, we can no long discard any student simply because he/she does fit the mold needed to meet a test prediction or score. We have to move back to valuing students as people and keeping empathy as a focus. We must work tirelessly to provide opportunities for students to create and share authentic work that is meaningful. I am pleased that we have embarked on such as journey at North Rowan High. We are definitely learning as we go. We are consistently ideating what is best for our students and fixing what what needs to be repaired. We will continue to press on with this journey even though we don't know the destination. It is sincere desire to help our students learn the necessary skills to be successful in the future and we won't stop until we get it right.
The ideas shared here are my own and do not necessarily represent my employers, associations, or organizations. These thoughts are entirely my own.