Friday, November 24, 2017

How to Argue with Standards-Based Learning

So you are a parent or student or teacher or community member who is currently facing the prospect of significant changes to education. You have heard the talk about standards-based learning and grading, maybe read articles or opinion pieces in the newspaper, maybe listened to a family member get upset or a neighbor or a colleague. And now you are ready to a) make a phone call, b) show up at an informational night, or c) write a letter to the editor.

In order to help you with this next step in the change process, here are some suggestions about how to argue with standards-based grading and learning.

Don’t challenge the intent, question the implementation.

If you are upset with the coming changes, do your homework and find out how your school and district is planning to implement them. The more you understand standards-based learning and grading, the more you will realize that it is not only logical, but will more readily prepare our young people for the learning they will face throughout their lives. Most professions have standards-based evaluation systems, most jobs require clear goals and proficiency in core skills, and most of our futures will require the ability to transfer skills and understanding to varied and challenging settings. One of the major purposes of school is to prepare our young people for the world they will inherit and influence, and the best way to do that it is provide them lots of instruction and practice with innovation, creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills. That’s what standards-based learning and grading is meant to enable.
“With well-designed pedagogy, we can empower kids with critical skills and help them turn passions into decisive life advantages. The role of education is no longer to teach content, but to help our children learn—in a world that rewards the innovative and punishes the formulaic.” ― Tony WagnerMost Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era
So question the implementation, not the intent. Making significant changes in how we teach, instruct, assess, and report learning will not be easy, and your school and district should have a plan to allow for these changes while providing safety nets for our students. Here are some questions you might want to ask:
  • What type of ongoing training will the teachers have to ensure they understand the purpose behind the changes?
  • What type of support will the teachers have along the way? Who are the people in the building the teachers can go to when they have questions, run into obstacles, or aren’t sure what to do?
  • Do the school leaders have a deep understanding of the why and the how of standards-based learning? Does the school board understand and support the changes?
  • What supports are available for students while they are learning a new set of rules about learning? Who is available to answer their questions if their teachers cannot? Who will listen to them when they are frustrated?
  • What supports are available for parents as they navigate these changes? Who do they talk to when things don’t make sense or their children are upset or they have questions about systems and structures that may look nothing like they are used to?
  • What will the report cards and transcripts look like? Will they be different? Will our students still have a GPA? If not, what additional communication will the school be doing to ensure our students are not at a disadvantage?

Don’t attack the research, request resources.

Research is tricky when it comes to education. Because there are so many factors that influence success (and so many ways to measure success), there is little accurate or transferable research about any pedagogical methods. For example, while many opponents to standards-based learning will say there is “no research” to show that it’s better, they forget that there is also no research to show that it’s not. The research we need to rely on in education is the most recent understanding of how humans learn combined with what we know about the future. When we look at what we now know about the brain and learning, there is no way we can continue to practice education as we have for the last one hundred years; we must adapt our practices--as we do in every other profession--based on the latest understanding in the field. When we combine that research with what we are coming to understand about our present and our future, it’s even clearer that we need to be preparing students differently. Students used to come to school to learn from those who knew more than they did. The goal was for experts (teachers) to impart their wisdom to a new set of young people and then celebrate when those young people could repeat back what they learned. We felt successful when students mastered a set of knowledge, understanding, and skills that we determined they would need. Now, that is not enough. We have no idea what our students will need in 20 years. Their world will look nothing like ours in many ways, and so we need to prepare them to adapt, transfer skills and understanding to new situations, and solve problems that we haven’t even realized yet.

"We hear from employers regularly about how ill prepared graduates are, even graduates from elite colleges, to take on workplace responsibilities. How creativity and imagination have been schooled out of them. How they seem allergic to unstructured problems. How they seek constant micromanagement and the workplace equivalent of a daily, or even hourly grade." Wagner and Dintersmith

So request resources from the school. Ask them to bring in local business leaders to talk to the community about changing needs and skills. Read
Most Likely to Succeed by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith--ask your school to purchase copies of this and run a book club. Get them to show the movie for the community. Email experts and researchers with your specific questions--so many of them are willing and excited to engage with the community and assist schools. Ask the school librarian to start a page on the website with resources, and request that they share titles that the school and teachers are reading to stay up to date on the latest research about learning and the latest best practices in pedagogy.

Don’t give in or give up, join in.

Finally, if you really want to write a letter, make phone calls, or show up at a meeting with something to say, let that something be in the name of improving education. Arguing that schools should stay the same or even return to the way they were for us is like arguing that we should bring back leeches in surgery, that we should revisit horse-drawn carriages in transportation, or be satisfied with the overpriced and clunky renewable energy sources. In all other areas of our lives we expect (and demand) progress and innovation. We want our tech people to be up to date on the latest bugs and fixes; we want our doctors to have access to the most recent studies; and we want our contractors using the most energy-efficient materials in our homes. In no other profession do we value the past and fear the future as heavily as we do in education. We want faster internet, we want more effective cancer drugs, and we want safer cars. So why don't we want the same for our schools? Why don't we expect our teachers and administrators to act on the latest research about learning? Why aren’t we demanding that that our local and national education leaders understand how the brain works? Why aren’t we furious at colleges and universities for holding fast to antiquated admissions and pedagogical practices (and charging hundreds of thousands of dollars to do so)? Why aren’t we holding our schools to the same standards of progress and innovation we demand in the rest of our lives?

"Even the most elite schools do no prepare students for the reality of work as it is today, let alone what it will become in the future. Most large organizations are undergoing a massive transformation as they move from industrial to innovation-economy business models. The students that thrive within today's education system are achievement driven, rule oriented, compliant, linear, singular in focus (i.e., a business or engineering major). The world of work today requires future leaders to be relationship or collaborative driven, rule-defining, creative and innovative, lateral and polymathic in focus. The gap is huge and sadly, I see only a few progressive school really stepping up to the transformation required to match that of our businesses."  Annmarie Neal - author of Leading From the Edge

Standards-based learning and grading is not going to change the world today or even tomorrow. And by no means is it the end game for the educational transformation that needs to occur. But based on what we now know about the brain, about learning, and about the future (and arguably, about the present), it is a a first step, a difficult, but achievable way forward. It has the potential to provide the foundation our schools and communities need to make real change, not for the sake of change, but for the sake of our future and our students' futures.

If you are really fired up, that’s great. Education needs more parents, teachers, students, and community members fired up. We need people willing to read, to listen, to question, to challenge, and to engage in the difficult but necessary transformation that is coming. Our schools are so intertwined with everything in our community, so steeped in tradition and weighed down by communal experience, and so intensely personal to each and every one of us that the only way we are going to make substantive, meaningful, and essential change is to join together and demand it.

So make that phone call, write that letter, and show up at that meeting fired up. But please consider fighting to make things better, not keep them the same.