Snowflake Schools: Apply Pressure Here

As everyone seems to be blaming American public education generally and its teachers specifically for our continuing struggles to score higher on standardized tests (see “A Nation of C Students” in a the December 16, 2013, Time magazine, for one example), we continue to shift responsibility away from those who largely control the outcomes on these tests (the students who take them) to those who can only try to influence the results (teachers/school districts).  This teacher-accountability trend has coincided with the national movement of avoiding any pressure whatsoever on young people through the “Nobody Fails” philosophy.

We’ve all heard extreme examples of this:  The “competitions” where nobody keeps score, the leagues where teams that lose every game still get trophies, and the constant calls of “Everybody’s a winner!” despite evidence to the contrary.  We’ve also lambasted overly competitive coaches and parents who go way overboard in demanding winning at the expense of decency and their children’s psychological well-being.

And there’s much that’s reasonable about this.  We don’t want our children to grow up feeling worthless because they don’t compete well in some game or twisted because they see everything as another must-win situation.  Being overly competitive, or overly thrashed by those who are, does not lead to acceptance, progress, or recognition of limitations; all of which are necessary components of maturation.

But like everything, we can take this too far.  When it comes to tests of any kind, we have to be aware of pressure’s role.  Not surprisingly, studies have shown that students who are overly anxious about a test will do poorly.  All that competitive energy or worry can lead to decreased performance.  However, the other extreme—the totally relaxed test taker—will also do poorly.  It turns out that a certain amount of stress actually leads to peak performance.  This will make perfect sense to those who follow sporting events:  We’ve seen countless examples of athletes who have done badly due to their trying too hard, being too charged up, or being overly concerned about not failing.  We’ve also seen just as many instances of those who were over-confident, who didn’t take their opponents seriously enough, or who weren’t feisty enough to use the talent they had wind up losing when they were heavily favored to win.

Public education could apply some of these lessons from the sports world.  Right now, the people running the schools (teachers and administrators) are suffering from too much pressure.  A manager who feels that any mistakes made by his team will cost him his job will not coach effectively.  Society has come to the conclusion that the problems with our schools largely lie with the adults working there; so instead of being allowed to take charge and lead, our teachers are more and more constrained by those who insist on high test scores (winning) at the expense of everything else.

Students, on the other hand, are generally indifferent to their performance on many of these exams.  , These high stakes tests often don’t have any major impact on the people actually taking them.  Basically, kids aren’t concerned about standardized tests until their junior years in high school when the ACT or SAT scores are one of the keys in determining college admission.  How many of you have any idea what scores you or your kids got on the Iowa or MAP tests?  How many of you even cared at the time?  And if you didn’t do especially well, did anyone call you to task or hold you responsible in any way?  Of course not, but more and more we are assigning liability to teachers for poor test scores, even though students couldn’t care less about a test that won’t have any impact on their grades.

This disconnect between the test takers—who have little motivation to try their hardest—and the test givers—who now have evaluations, raises, and even jobs tied to the results—has created such skewed stress levels for everyone that it’s no wonder schools seem to be in a state of perpetual testing crisis.  What makes these tests even more screwed up is how little feedback or learning takes place.  Students get the results without knowing which ones they got wrong, they have scant post-test review of the material in order to learn how they went astray, and nobody does an in-depth analysis after the test so those same mistakes can be avoided in the future.  And all criticisms about poor test results are leveled at the teachers, who didn’t even take the tests, but are compelled to spend increasingly large chunks of class time getting students prepared for them.

How well would the business world operate with these restrictions and lack of feedback?  “Well, Crandell, the report analyzing our new product created by those who work for you only scored in the second percentile, and 78% of other executives’ assistants nationally did better on similar tasks than yours did.  I’m not going to show you what your team did wrong or give you any instructions on how to help them do better, but they’d better improve next time, damn it, or you’re fired!”

And what would be said to my assistants using the school model?  Nothing, as they would have already been given praise and raises for just completing the project and “giving it their all.”  Schools now heap all kinds of positive reinforcements on kids simply for showing up.  Students at various area schools are given tokens/stamps which they can redeem for prizes like iPods because they washed their hands after going to the restroom or raised their hands to answer a question (regardless of whether or not their response was correct).  And although schools get the same thunder and lightning that occur when low and high pressure fronts collide in nature, we don’t get the life-sustaining rain those collisions provide.

Two adjustments would improve this situation, allowing standardized tests to have both more meaning and more impact.  First, and most importantly, teachers need to be in charge of their creation.  The key problem with the way public education currently works is that those outside the classrooms keep trying to control what goes on inside them.  That model simply will not work, no matter how much pressure is exerted on the teachers.  It’s frustrating how many times humans have to relearn a basic truth:  The one who will have the most control over how a worker does his work is the worker.  We have to move from forcing teachers to do things that consultants, state officials, and/or federal programs determine they should do to a model where teachers call the shots when it comes to standards.

The more things that get in the way of the teacher/student relationship, the worse the outcome.  Students have to know that their teachers are in charge, that they are the ultimate judges of performance and grades.  Anything that happens in the classroom should be coming from the teacher, period.  That doesn’t mean that teachers shouldn’t be engaging in intense work outside of their classrooms with their colleagues and other experts to figure out what those standards should be, but once the bell rings and the little darlings are in their desks ready to learn, they need to understand who’s in charge.  And we’re not talking about just discipline or bathroom passes; teachers need to lead when it comes to material, curriculum, and evaluation of performance.

When I taught, I had the reputation as one of the toughest graders at Hinsdale South; something I shamelessly cultivated because it helped to establish my classroom cred as the smartest person in the room, as the one who was in charge, and as the one who knew best what should happen next.  No, that wasn’t true (especially the smartest part), but my kids were always aware that my demands and standards were something they had to meet.  And with the way students would exaggerate about my class’s rigor when talking to my future students (typically eighth graders), my legendary toughness created a healthy amount of performance anxiety for my students before they even set foot in my classroom.

So, students need some pressure to strive for success once teachers have determined what needs to be done.  If this sounds like what should be going on every day in schools, that’s only because this “revolutionary” idea is exactly how schools were originally designed to work:  Teachers were the ultimate authorities on what was to be learned, what activities students would do practice the material to be learned, and how students would be assessed to see if they had learned.  Schools still function that way to a certain degree; it’s just that now those demanding accountability have intruded to the point where much of the curriculum is no longer based on decisions made by teachers, but instead by consultants and politicians.  But this change in who is pressuring whom hasn’t enhanced education in the least and has contributed to undermining the authority that teachers need to get the most out of their students.

Standardized tests, then, need to be significantly more local and created by the teachers who will be administering them to the students in their classes.  And the results of those tests need to be used as student assessments, not merely as ways to evaluate schools or teachers.  Johnny and Sally will definitely care more about their tests if they know that the grade they earn will affect their report cards or their being promoted to the next grade.  We need to shift some of the pressure from teachers to students, and the simplest way to do that is to use teacher-generated standardized test scores to evaluate student learning, not teacher performance.  Sure, some of the kids will still blow the tests off, but the percentage will be much lower than now.  Not trying on many standardized tests has virtually zero impact on students today; make the scores impact grades, and I guarantee you will get greater student effort.

In short, we need to give teachers the same authority over standardized tests as we do their pop quizzes.  Not only will students try harder, but the tests will actually reflect the standards teachers have determined to be the most important for the students to attain.  It’s unfortunate that outside sources have so corrupted the basic relationship between teachers and their students, but at least the solution to this problems isn’t all that complicated.  That doesn’t mean we’re close to changing the testing system back to the way it is supposed to work (Did I mention that testing companies rake in millions of dollars every year administering standardized tests?), but there’s little doubt that we know how to make testing work much better than it does now.

For more analysis of standardized tests as well as improving public education in general, check out http://www.snowflake-schools.com/.

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