One way of changing education is to change how we assess learning.
This isn't going to be a post about standards, but we need to start with them to get into the center of the discussion (this is not to say that standards are not a subject worthy of close consideration; rather, they are just not the main focus here, today).
- Standards define curricular goals and objectives.
- Textbook companies prepare packaged materials that are "aligned to the standards." These textbooks, in theory, are designed to address the curricular goals and objectives as defined by the standards (and for fun, ask a textbook rep to demonstrate how their texts "align to the standards." Ask them to define the process by which the texts are "aligned to standards." Then, get out the boots, and enjoy the hijinks that will ensue).
- Student learning is measured by a standardized test that claims to assess a student's base of knowledge as measured against the standard.
- The "quality" of a school is determined (in part or in whole) by how students have done on the test. Test results can be a key factor in closing down schools.
- The "quality" of a teacher is determined (and in many of the merit pay schemes, teachers are rewarded or punished) based on student scores on these tests.
So, let's take an enormous, completely unjustifiable leap of faith and assume that the standards actually define something meaningful, for one reason and one reason only: this post is not about standards, it's about assessment.
When a curriculum is defined by a pre-packaged text, teachers and students are relegated to content consumers. Teachers get the text; they deliver the text; they test on the text, and teacher effectiveness is tied to how students perform on the test that purportedly measures how well students "know" the content that has been delivered to them. Any process used to "learn" the material is overshadowed by the means of assessment that defines the experience, and defines one's success or failure within that experience.
It's also worth noting that in lower performing schools, there is more motivation to stick with the "proven" or "traditional" route of using a standards-aligned text, as this provides a level of cover and plausible deniability should a school not meet growth goals. In an environment where sanctions accompany low test scores, using alternative means of working with kids is equated with gambling with kid's futures - unless, of course it's happening under the auspices of TFA, KIPP, or a charter school. Higher performing schools - where socioeconomic level appears to play a role - tend to have more freedom to experiment, largely because the threat of sanctions for "failure" is missing.
This is why serious discussions about assessment are a necessary part of the dialogue around improving education. What would an educational environment look like where, in addition to or instead of a standardized test, students had the opportunity to show their mastery via two portfolios: one defined by the school, and the second defined by the student?
The process of building a portfolio (ie, of crafting the assessment) is also a learning process. Selecting and justifying elements in a portfolio requires a level of critical, reflective thought that is not present in either preparing for or taking current standardized tests. It's a more efficient means of mastering both material and life skills than the assessments that currently claim to measure those skills.
What would teacher professional development look like if a teacher was assessed on how they provided feedback on student work? What if teachers developed professional portfolios that included curriculum they developed, modified, collaborated on, and/or shared? Most teachers create curriculum on a regular basis as workarounds for sections of the text that are weak or not suited for their classroom; what if creating and sharing these units was made an explicit requirement for growth and development as a teacher? What if this ongoing creativity and collaboration was a factor in assessing an educator's professional growth?
These shifts are possible now; they require a change in how we look at assessment, which potentially could inform changes in what and how we teach.
Changing assessment is hard. Generally, more individualized assessment takes more time. From a business place, it's hard to plan a "disruptive" business around this because you can't really streamline the time required for good feedback. The challenge (and therefore the opportunity here) is to make tools that simplify and streamline creating portfolios of work that demonstrate learning. The benefit - especially when compared to other forms of evaluation, and certainly to standardized testing - is that the process of creating and justifying the artifacts that demonstrate learning is also a process that supports and reinforces learning.
But this is a subtle point, and one that is often buried beneath the time required to assess portfolio-based projects versus the time required to process a standardized test. Ironically, the quest for efficiency in assessment has occurred at the expense of efficiency in learning.