*This post was originally published as two separate posts in January of 2016. Because both posts address the origins and philosophy of Montessori practice, we wanted to republish them together.
Anyone connected to education today has heard the following espoused as best practices:
Use of Manipulatives and Hands-On Activities
These are cutting-age, modern instructional practices, right?
Maria Montessori first began developing and implementing these techniques in the early 20th century.
She was a visionary, a pioneer, and a barrier breaker. It is only now, as much of her methodology is being embraced as research-proven practice in traditional, non-Montessori classrooms, that her brilliance is being fully revealed.
Maria Montessori defied convention from the very beginning. She was born in Italy in 1870 during a time when women’s roles were restricted. Despite the discouragement of her father, she dreamed of becoming a doctor.
Initially denied acceptance to medical school, she was eventually allowed to enroll; obtaining admission, however, was only the first of the challenges she would face. She endured hostility and harassment from some of her classmates and professors. Additionally, because it was considered untoward for women and men to be in the presence of a naked body together, in order to do the requisite cadaver dissections, she was required to work alone and at night. Despite this adversity, she graduated from medical school in 1896 and became one of Italy’s first female physicians.
Her early practice involved working with children with disabilities, and it was this work that ultimately drew her to education. She was a keen observer and data collector. She deduced that children are innately drawn to learning and discovery. From this, she began developing manipulatives to support student learning. Anyone who has had the privilege of witnessing division of fractions using the skittles, or multiplication of polynomials using the binomial or trinomial cube (a material that is first introduced to three year olds) understands the magic that transpires when the “what we do” of mathematic algorithms becomes supported by the “why we do it” that comes with concrete comprehension. I have seen many adults become wide-eyed when the “flip the second fraction and multiply” rule for fraction division becomes clear once demonstrated using Montessori materials, or the complex algebraic concepts built into the binomial cube and trinomial cube is revealed. One of the most quintessential Montessori materials is the moveable alphabet, which allows very young children to successfully tackle the complex tasks of reading and writing, and to find pride and joy in doing so.
In 1906, Montessori was invited to oversee a school for children from low-income families in Rome’s inner city. It was here that she determined that her educational methods were equally effective for children without disabilities. From this work, the Montessori Method was established. This, however, was only the beginning. As noted at the beginning of this article, many of the “newest” educational practices have roots in Montessori’s model. While Montessori education is far too complex of a subject to fully describe here, there are five fundamental components, which capture much of the philosophy. These were revolutionary ideas when Montessori first introduced them; today they are standard practice in most well run classrooms – traditional and Montessori, alike.
Beauty and Atmosphere
Natural or soft lighting
Conscientious use of color
Inclusion of plants and/or animals
Well-maintained materials and furnishings
Decorated spaces that do not create distractions
Variety of work spaces: tables, individual desks, floor, counters, etc.
Student supplies readily accessible
Structure and Order
Clear expectations for academics and behavior
Directly communicated and reinforced routines and procedures
Structured assignments which provide models, rubrics, guidelines, and control for error
Freedom with Responsibility
Choice in assignments related to level of difficulty and/or method of presentation
Development of self-monitoring through use of controls,checklists,planners, etc.
It is exciting to be a part of something that remains in the process of self-creation. While secondary Montessori education was something that Maria Montessori envisioned, she did not develop a secondary program, herself, instead leaving it to future generations to do so.
Those of us working in Montessori secondary programs today are that future generation of whom Montessori spoke. Turning her philosophy into comprehensive practice is our “big work.”
Montessori identified four distinct planes of development: birth to age 6, ages 6 to 12, ages 12 to 18, and ages 18-24. Her work initially focused on the first two planes; however, during the 1920s, she began studying the needs of the adolescent. Her philosophy on the educational needs of children in this third plane of development can be found in her book, From Childhood to Adolescence, which was first published in 1948. In that text, she writes:
“The need that is so keenly felt for a reform of secondary schools concerns not only an educational, but also a human and social problem. Schools, as they are today, are adapted neither to the needs of adolescents nor to the times in which we live. Society has not only developed into a state of utmost complication and extreme contrasts, but it has now come to a crisis in which the peace of the world and civilization itself are threatened. More than to anything else it is due to the fact that the development of man himself has not kept pace with that of his external environment.”
It is almost eerie how resonant her words remain today.
Montessori had a vision for a more developmentally appropriate model of learning; she referred to adolescents as “Erdkinder,” or “Earth’s children” because she believed that they were best served by working outside the classroom in a farm-like natural environment. While this is unrealistic in light of the many requirements of modern education, the pioneers in the secondary Montessori movement have used this philosophy as a foundation, and have outlined curricula for effective Montessori programs that also align with state and district academic requirements. The fundamental elements are outlined below. Many of these overlap with what would be expected in any Montessori classroom, while others are specific to a secondary program.
Establishment of a peaceful community
daily student-led community meetings
fostering a sense of belonging through communal learning and collaborative work
In this model, the teacher serves as a guide to the community of learners. She supports the valorization (growth of positive qualities) of the adolescent, demonstrates wisdom, caring, and thoughtfulness, fosters cooperation and collaboration, and is responsive to the many needs of her students.
Secondary Montessori education is a burgeoning practice. One that by many accounts was initiated a mere 25 years ago, but which is rapidly gaining momentum. It is the type of instruction that so many of us have been seeking – teachers, students, and families alike. Our forthcoming book will describe this in much further detail; perhaps you are waiting with bated breath for its publication!
It happens every year, so one would think I would be used to it by now. The school-year seems to move along, as slow as molasses, at times feeling somewhat interminable. And then, suddenly, it’s over. This catches me entirely off-guard. And I’m not ready.
The curriculum has been taught, the tests have been administered, the paperwork is complete, the culminating projects are finished, and yet I am still not ready.
I’m not ready to let them go. I’m not ready to say good-bye.
I am not ready to have my 8th graders move on to high school. And even though my 7th graders will return to me next year, I’m not ready to spend 12 weeks apart from them.
I know that sounds ridiculous. It probably is ridiculous. But I don’t transition well. Every year it takes me a week or longer after the end of the school year to complete the check-out process that somehow every other teacher manages to get done by the last day. But I’m not ready.
However, this year, exactly one week before the end of the year, I looked around the circle at the faces of my students during morning meeting, and I suddenly realized that whether or not I was ready, my students were.
The seventh graders, who had entered our building in the fall looking for all the world like little lost lambs, were ready to assume the mantle of leadership.
And the eighth graders had become so strong, self-assured, and independent that they were ready to tackle the new demands and challenges of high school.
How had this leadership emerged? It felt abrupt when I suddenly saw it staring back at me in black and white during that morning meeting, but I knew that it wasn’t. I knew that their leadership had been cultivated and nurtured over time and through great dedication and diligence. But how? What exactly were the critical components that allowed that transformation to happen?
As I tend to do, when I saw them with new eyes that morning, I acknowledged it. I told my 7th graders that I had just realized that they were ready – ready to fill the 8th graders’ shoes, ready to lead our community next year. And I asked them how they had learned to do this. Their response did not surprise me, but it did delight me. They said, “The eighth graders taught us.”
And, of course, that is how it had happened. This is peer transmission of culture, and it is a powerful thing.
Being social and engaging in peer relationships is the primary motivating force of the adolescent. As a result, they can teach each other far more powerfully than any lesson presented by an adult. This is why peer pressure is such a powerful phenomenon.
Teen-agers desperately want to fit in, to belong. They crave this social inclusion, and while adults often fear its power to lead children astray, peer pressure can be positively channeled to guide students toward valorization as well.
“Teens join peer groups in an attempt to differentiate themselves from their families and grow more independent … When most people think of the phrase ‘peer pressure,’ images of underage teens participating in destructive behavior spring to mind. But most people overlook positive examples of peer pressure, including situations where friends push teens to grow in beneficial ways.”
Students can reach each other more deeply than any adult ever could. Who better to teach them how to be leaders than their peers? This is the rich benefit of multi-age grouping in a classroom. Older students model expectations for younger students, and this results in powerful learning.
Multi-age groupings, like those seen in Montessori classrooms among others, readily allow the transmission of classroom culture to occur through peer relationships. And my students’ recognition of this was what I found so remarkable on that day when I looked around morning meeting and suddenly recognized their transformation.
Multi-age classrooms are a fundamental component of the Montessori model, but this philosophy is beginning to reach traditional education as well. A recent article in The Atlantic noted that, “Multiage education … puts learners at the center, socially and academically. On the social side, younger children look for guidance to older students who know the ropes, while the older students in the classroom organically learn about mentoring, leadership, and collaboration.”
This is exactly how it happens.
This mentoring, leadership, and collaboration is very intentionally constructed in the Montessori middle school classroom. At the beginning of the year, the eighth graders are asked to take on all the leadership roles. They are expected to model what positive leadership looks like in our classrooms. We overtly identify and discuss this – honoring the role of the eighth grade leaders. We also note that over the course of the year, the seventh graders will be provided with increasing opportunities to fulfill these duties, so that by the following year, they will be prepared to do the modeling for incoming students.
Initially, however, the eighth graders are given all the classroom leadership responsibilities such as: running morning meeting, helping new students manage a checklist of assignments, and reinforcing behavioral expectations.
Additionally, the language of leadership pervades our discussions with students. The poem “Great Leaders” by Meiji Stewart is displayed in each of our classrooms, and we use this as a tool to identify what leadership is. On a near daily basis, we say things like, “I need a couple of leaders,” “Where are my leaders?” “Can I get some leader volunteers?” or “It doesn’t matter where we are, we always behave like leaders.” Leadership is always referenced as an expectation for all, not just a quality that a few motivated students will demonstrate.
This is why student reinforcement is so critical. Every classroom has students who are internally motivated to lead and are responsive to teacher mentoring. Sometimes we call these students the “good kids” or “the bright ones” or “teachers’ pets.” A shift in classroom climate occurs, however, when all students are expected to demonstrate leadership, and I suspect that this can only be accomplished through positive peer pressure.
At Gamble, peer leadership modeling begins in earnest with the closing ceremony at fall camp. Camp happens early in the school year — within the first three weeks. The 7th graders are brand new to us, and their official initiation to the community occurs on the final night of the fall camping experience.
This ceremony is entirely planned by the eighth graders. In our community, it never fails that year after year, the eighth graders want to initiate the seventh graders by identifying and labeling their character strengths. This practice was begun with our first group of students, and each year it is handed down as tradition. This is a powerful example of peer transmission of culture.
So, invariably, just days before camp, a large group of eighth graders spend their lunchtime in my room frantically preparing certificates with individual names and character strength labels.
Listening to them discuss what they have observed in their seventh grade peers is so sweet. It sounds something like this:
“What about Dahlia, what’s her strength?”
“Oh yeah, she is. But that sounds kind of bad. How can we make it good?”
“I don’t know. Outgoing?”
“Yeah, that’s good. What about Ramon?”
“Ramon, I don’t know. He’s so quiet. I hardly even notice him. Ms. Taylor, what is Ramon’s character strength?”
“Hmmmmm … sounds like you need to observe him a little more. Do you think you can do that and then come back tomorrow and have a character strength for him?”
“Yeah, we can do that.”
This work of identifying character strengths requires them to do multiple things. They must review the various character strengths, intentionally observe their new classmates, and see them in a positive light. What an incredible way to begin leading a group of new students.
This type of leadership is a responsibility, an expectation, and an obligation, but it is also so much more. Because it is done by students year after year, it is seen as an honor, as something to be earned and entrusted with.
When treated this way, leadership becomes a somewhat revered role. I believe this is why I typically have so many students willing to take on leadership tasks, even when they know that it usually involves additional work. All I have to do is ask, “I need a couple of leader volunteers. Who’s willing to help?” And every time, many, many hands go up. It is an honor to be called on to complete these tasks, and the work is viewed not as a menial job, but as a responsibility to be assumed for the good of the group.
I giggled this spring upon overhearing the following exchange between two young ladies. We were outside taking a break from the stressors of standardized testing, and Aaliyah began picking up pieces of trash. Mi’Neasia looked at her and said, “What are you doing that for?” Aaliyah’s response made me so proud. “You know Ms. Taylor’s going to make us do it in a minute, so we might as well get started.”
Let’s be clear, no one likes to pick up trash. But Aaliyah knew that “Leaving a Place Better Than We Found It” was part of what we always did as leaders, and she viewed it as an obligation. She took the initiative before being asked, and then transmitted this expectation to a peer.
I am certain that if I, as the teacher, solely dictated the requirement of completing these types of extra jobs, I would be met with complaining and resistance, but when peers model diligent completion of the work, the entire experience shifts positively.
Of course, leadership doesn’t develop exclusively as a result of peer modeling. There must also be opportunities for leadership development built into the curriculum, but I do not believe that we would get nearly the same results without the benefit of students leading the way.
And like all growth, leadership doesn’t develop in one neatly-graphable, continuous line, and it isn’t developed overnight, or even over a few weeks. Although I was startled by my sudden recognition during morning meeting that the students sitting before me had become leaders, there was really nothing sudden about it. My students had been working on leadership all year, and it was the consistent guidance and direction of their eighth grade peers that had steered them toward that readiness. They recognized this and were able to articulate it.
Each year, while the eighth graders are in Pigeon Key, Florida engaged in an intensive marine biology study that serves as our culminating middle school experience, the seventh graders prepare a celebration to honor them. It is a bit of a mirror image of the fall camp ceremony, and serves to pass the torch of leadership.
This year, as part of the ceremony they planned, they wrote this:
“Dear 8th graders, It’s been a long year with everyone. A lot of things have changed with improved grades, behavior, and leadership skills. It’s been a big transition throughout the year. Everyone has shown growth tremendously, and I would like to thank the 8th graders for showing me the path to be an 8th grade leader. Everyone will be missed.”
“I know not only 7th graders improved, but you did as well. You were once in the same position as us, now look where you’re at. You were such a big help to us because you taught us how to be the 8th grade leaders you are today. We will miss every, single one of you, and hopefully you’ll miss us too. Most importantly, as you go to the 9th grade, just remember that you’ll always be UL leaders. P.S. Try not to make Ms. Taylor too emotional when you leave.”
They were ready to move on, and they recognized this in themselves, and in each other.
Just one week after that culminating moment, we said good-bye. The seventh graders headed off into another long summer break, and the eighth graders did the same, prepared to engage in an entirely different academic adventure upon their return.
They had come so far, and, while they often tease me about being “too emotional,” I know that they, too, felt the bittersweet pang of farewell. For a full ten minutes after the bell rang on that last day of school, my teaching partners and I had students clustered around us for hugs and final words.
Lisa, who ended the year with beautiful grades, threw her arms around me, as I whispered in her ear, “You’ve worked so hard. Remember that first quarter conference when you had to tell your mom that you were failing? Just look at you now!” She burst into tears and hugged me even tighter.
Derek, an 8th grader, who was incredibly immature when he arrived at Gamble and who spent the better part of a year being the class clown, stood tall and gave me a tight hug, as he said proudly and confidently, “You know I’m gonna miss you next year in the 9th grade.”
And Astrid, a painfully shy 7th grader who has finally begun to find her place and her voice in our community. As is her way, she waited patiently and silently for her hug until all the more boisterous students had gotten a turn. I looked into her eyes, and saw such longing for recognition there. I told her what I know to be true: “You will be such a powerful leader for our new students next year. You know all the quiet ones? The ones who are so afraid to come to high school? You’re in charge of them next year, okay?” She silently nodded as her eyes filled with tears, and she hugged me good-bye.
And even Andrew, who had a very difficult year and will be repeating the seventh grade, waited for his hug, and then shoved a crumpled post-it note in my hand saying gruffly, “Read that.” It said, “Thanks for helping me do better and have grit. I will miss you these three months.”
I was almost certainly “too emotional” when they left. Because I was not ready. But they were. They were ready to move on to the next level of challenge, and that is what matters. That is how you measure a year.
 “Peer Pressure.”Teenagers and Peer Pressure – Causes and Effects. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 May 2017.
 Miller, Stuart. “Inside a Multiage Classroom.”The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 09 May 2017. Web. 27 May 2017.
It was the witching hour at fall camp. That tricky time that happens each day as the afternoon activity wraps up, dinner preparation must begin, and the canoeing group, which necessarily includes the bulk of teachers and chaperones, hasn’t yet returned to the campground. What this all means is too many wound-up students and not enough adult hands to go around.
I had just led our afternoon activity of a serious Olympic Games competition. This consisted of multiple activities such as wheelbarrow races, leapfrog races, football tosses, and one-legged stands. You know, all the famous Olympic sports.
Hilarity had ensued as student less-than-gracefully leap-frogged over each other and attempted to distract each other from standing stock-still on one leg for an unfathomable amount of time. The event culminated in a raucous Olympic medal ceremony replete with extremely off-key anthem singing.
And, this year, there had been a little thunder thrown in for good measure – just to help keep everyone calm.
And thus the witching hour began with 25 hyped-up adolescents and me. I needed to get them settled and working on their packets, so I could begin overseeing dinner crew, but I wasn’t at all sure how I was going to manage the transition.
I must have felt really desperate because I threw all caution to the wind and tried something new – all the while being absolutely certain that there was no way it would work.
I put on my best serious and quiet “Montessori voice” — not an easy feat on the third day of camp right after the Olympic games and just before an impending thunderstorm – and I said, “Do you guys remember last week when I told you about The Silence Game?”
Maria Montessori designed The Silence Game in her work with young children. She asked the children to be quiet, to “create silence,” and then she waited across the room from them and called their names individually in a barely audible voice. When a child heard his name called, he would walk across the room as quietly as possible and sit down silently.
I had introduced this concept to my students the previous week as the foundation of the practice of solo time that we use in the Montessori adolescent classroom. So in the controlled chaos of the moments just following our Olympic games, I told my students that we were going to play this game. I asked them to create silence, and when I tapped them on the shoulder they were to silently walk over to the pavilion area, have a seat, and begin working on their assignment packets.
I really did not think it was going to work.
But it did. This cluster of pubescent energy that differed little from a litter of puppies, closed their eyes and stilled. As I quietly moved among them, tapping them on the shoulder, they remained silent and practically floated, one at a time, toward the pavilion.
I very nearly giggled in my astonishment at the game’s success. But I shouldn’t have been so surprised.
In The Soul of Education, Rachel Kessler identifies the yearning of silence and solitude as one of the seven gateways to the adolescent soul.
“The longing for silence and solitude, often an ambivalent domain, is fraught with both fear and urgent need. As a respite from the tyranny of ‘busyness’ and noise, silence may be a realm of reflection, of calm or fertile chaos, an avenue of stillness and rest for some, prayer and contemplation for others.”
Montessori used The Silence Game to help young children develop focus and concentration as she asked them to remain silent for gradually longer increments of time.
In the busyness and constant engagement of today’s world, children need this opportunity to practice silence even more than they did during Montessori’s time. A recent study conducted by Microsoft found that the average human attention span has decreased from twelve seconds to eight seconds. To put this into perspective, the attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds. 
We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with stimuli such that, for many of us, silence and stillness are uncomfortable. We are easily bored and seek out the next engaging thing, often through ready access to mobile devices.
And yet there is plenty of evidence that our brains need this silence and solitude. Spending time in silence:
Relieves stress and tension
Replenishes mental resources
Allows the brain to access its default mode leading to deep and creative thinking
Classrooms are busy places. There is little time or opportunity to rest, and yet neuroscience is discovering that the rewards of silence are great.
In the secondary Montessori classroom, Kessler’s concept of an adolescent longing for silence and solitude is combined with Montessori’s philosophy that the child can be taught to focus by being asked to practice silence for increasing periods of time. We call this work “solo time.”
Solo time consists of a period of time lasting anywhere from ten minutes to forty-five minutes. Some schools practice solo time daily; other schools do it once a week. During solo time, students must engage in a silent, independent activity. Choices often include coloring, journaling, reading, sketching, puzzles, Play-Doh, Legos or other building material, or just sitting in meditative silence.
When the concept is first introduced, many students take immediate joy in participating in solo time, but quite a few students, and even some adults, actively dislike it. They find it hard to remain still, they are bored, and they are drawn to whisper to their peers, move around the classroom, or otherwise meet their need for greater stimulation. At the beginning of the year, after each of the first few times we “do solo,” we discuss, as a class, what this experience was like. Many students describe how challenging it is for them to be still and to refrain from interaction with others. Some require behavioral redirection to be able to comply with these seemingly simple expectations.
Over time, however, almost all students develop enjoyment for this quiet time.
Solo time is especially powerful when it is conducted outside. Sometimes, we are able to do this on school grounds; however, we also hold outdoor solo time during our overnight field experiences. Our most profound of these experiences is the 8th grade culminating trip to Pigeon Key, Florida. Solo time on Pigeon Key is especially transcendent because it feels so remote from “the real world,” and thus really provides the opportunity for deep silence and solitude. Students are powerfully affected by experiencing solo time in this setting, and they beg to do it more often and for longer periods of time.
Last year after the solo time on the first night on the island, Cavin wrote this in his journal.
“The solo time was literally the best solo time I’ve ever had. Like at first I was worried but then something helped me out, and I could really focus. It’s like you never notice how beautiful everything is with all the negativity around America and humanity. During the solo time I got to see nautical beauty and worry about nothing. It was like the first time I have been able to fully not worry about anything. It was pretty cool too, like I had wanted there to be more time.”
His words are especially profound because he had been battling depression all year, and had spent some time in the hospital due to suicidal ideation. What greater gift could we give him then an opportunity, even if just for a few minutes, “to worry about nothing?”
Solo time is just one way of embedding a practice of silence and solitude into the classroom.
It is all too easy to get caught up in all the things that need to be done in the limited time we are with our students. It doesn’t seem to matter whether we have five hours each day or just a single fifty-minute bell, the time is never enough. It’s hard to consider giving up any of this precious time to something as simple as silence.
And in the adolescent classroom, it can be equally hard to imagine that our students are actually going to cooperate in this. After all, the need for socialization is one of the critical hallmarks of the adolescent being. It is embedded in their very nature to interact nearly constantly with each other.
However, Kessler describes this gateway as a longing for silence and solitude. While on the surface, it may not be something students prioritize, they have a deep need for it.
In a similar vein, classroom mindfulness practices are growing and gaining national attention. A number of programs, such as Mindful Schools and CARE (Cultivating Awareness and Resilience for Educators) have sprung up both as a means to train teachers to bring these practices into the classroom, and as a strategy to support teachers in coping with the stressors and demands of their job.
Public schools in Baltimore, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and elsewherehave implemented the use of mindfulness both as a daily practice and as a way to help students calm down when they are engaged in conflict or misbehavior.
These programs are seeing powerful outcomes related to both reduced discipline and increased achievement. While there has not been a tremendous amount of research conducted on the impact of meditation on the developing brain, initial studies demonstrate some important benefits.
Mindfulness practices come at little to no cost, seem to have no negative impact, and have the potential for significant positive gains. Mindfulness is gaining ground as a structure that may be of great benefit to schools, teachers, and students, but why hasn’t this ancient concept been adopted sooner and more quickly in classrooms around the country?
I can only try and answer that question based on my own experience. I have been trained in bringing mindfulness practices into the classroom three times. Yes, I said three times. The first time I received this training was in 1999. Right. Eighteen years ago. I later completed two different mindfulness programs, in 2014 and in 2016, respectively. And yet I still have not implemented a mindfulness practice in my classroom.
Because it’s scary.
Imagine telling 30 adolescents to close their eyes, sit silently, and focus on their breath. Okay, admittedly, it doesn’t sound so scary when it’s written out like that, but in the moment it feels like the critical balance between control and chaos could be tipped at any moment. All it would take is for one student to say something goofy, or make a weird noise, or expose the practice as a sham, and suddenly, the whole class would be disrupted, and you would spend the remainder of the time trying to regain control of the group.
This is every teacher’s nightmare, but I have to admit I’ve never had this happen.
Each time I’ve dabbled in meditation in the classroom, it’s been incredibly well-received by students. Some students really appreciate it, and even ask for it. Most tolerate it without complaint, and none has ever been disruptive.
And yet, I still don’t have a developed mindfulness practice. #teachergoals2018
For now, we do solo time every week, and more frequently when we are on multi-day field experiences.
If, like me, you don’t feel ready to jump full-force onto the mindfulness bandwagon, there are many other ways, of bringing silent reflection into the classroom – including the establishment of a structured solo time.
CARE recommends implementing the following strategies as a way to get started:
Last week, my students and I were out of the building on a field experience. As our speaker wrapped up, he called on one final student who had his hand-raised. The student said, “I’d like to acknowledge you for taking the time to talk to us today and for answering all our questions.”
Acknowledgments are a regular practice at Gamble, and I typically ask students to provide acknowledgments for our hosts at the conclusion of our field experiences. This time, I had forgotten. But Peter had not.
When Carissa, who was sitting next to me, heard Peter’s unprompted acknowledgment, she turned to me, smiling, and whispered, “That means you’re doing your job right, you know.”
She didn’t know it, but her statement was akin to throwing me a lifeline. You see, it was just two days before spring break, and I was running from the specter of teacher burnout and losing ground fast. It was a race to the finish to see which would break first – the school year, or me.
Burnout is defined as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” (Mirriam-Webster)
Teacher burnout is described in many ways, but I found this list of warning signs to be particularly helpful.
Exhaustion – a fatigue so deep that there’s no way to “turn it off”
Extreme graveness –Realizing you go hours without smiling or laughing
Anxiety – The constant, nagging feeling that you can and should do more
Being overwhelmed – Questioning how you can possibly add one more task, expectation, or mandate to your plate
Seeking —Losing your creativity, imagination, patience, and enthusiasm
Isolation –Wanting to head for the deepest, darkest cave where no one will see your vulnerability
The stress and exhaustion of teaching is well documented. A recent Gallup poll indicates that 46% of teachers experience high levels of daily stress. This is on par with nurses, and tops the list of surveyed occupations.
Another indicator of stress and exhaustion is the statistic that 43% of teachers sleep an average of six or fewer hours a night. It’s little wonder then that “sleep” was the number one response my colleagues provided in answer to the question, “What are you most looking forward to about spring break?”
This continual stress and exhaustion leads to burnout, but teacher burnout is more than just a problem for individual teachers and schools. It is so pervasive that it has profound impacts on the profession as a whole.
NPR cites the following concerning statistics: 
8% of teachers leave the field each year; only one-third of this attrition is due to retirement
50% of the teaching profession turns over every 7 years
40-50% of teachers leave the profession within the first five years.
Enrollment in teacher-training programs has fallen 35% in the past five years; a loss of 240,000 teachers
What exactly is it that causes such high levels of stress in teaching? Those who are not in the field of education are often stymied by this. “Seven hour school days and all major holidays and summers off,” they reason. “What’s so stressful about that?”
However, the difference between the working hours obligated by the contract (as described above) and the fulfillment of the contractual requirements of the job (as described below) is profound. I used to count my work hours each week, but after spending a year consistently tallying 65-70 hour weeks, I stopped counting. It was too overwhelming. And I’m not different from any of my colleagues. All of us work a tremendous number of hours beyond our contractual obligation. Some of this is expected. No one goes into teaching actually believing that the work will be contained within school hours, but how does a contracted thirty-five hour week balloon into seventy hours of work?
Let’s begin with the school day. For me, five of the seven hours each day are spent actively teaching. I am fortunate to have two “planning bells” each day; however one of these is used every day for different variations of team meetings, and the other one is almost always consumed by parent conferences or other meetings. On average, I have one bell (50 minutes) a week that I can actually use to plan.
During my half hour lunch, I open my classroom to students who need help with their work, or who are just seeking a calmer and quieter option than the cafeteria. I eat and work. Sometimes I forget to eat.
I have meetings after school every day with the exception of Fridays, and the third Thursday of the month. These meetings run for 60-90 minutes. Sometimes I have back-to-back after-school meetings.
All of the remaining requirements of teaching must occur outside of the time already listed above. These requirements include:
My friends in business can’t understand. They ask me why I don’t just delegate some of this work. “Delegate?!” I laugh. “To whom??” Teachers are at the bottom of food chain; most of us have no one to whom to delegate. (I am fortunate to have a paraprofessional on my team; however she is shared by seven teachers, so her time is spread very thin.)
There are additional stressors beyond those of limited time as well. Some commonly cited external factors are:
Lack of resources
Test score pressure
Changing assessments and expectations
Lack of parental involvement
Ever-increasing paperwork requirements
It’s not a mystery why fewer and fewer college graduates are choosing to become teachers. Those who do choose to enter the field of education join dedicated veteran teachers in seeing teaching as more than just a job. For most, teaching is a calling or a purpose.
Anything that is seen not just as a profession, but as a vocation, a mission, a passion, and a purpose requires an internal fire to fuel it. And all fires run the risk of being extinguished.
There is precious little fire-feeding oxygen left in American education, and this is showing up in extraordinarily high rates of burnout and teacher turnover.
So what can we do about it?
When I turned to the internet for answers, I was startled by what I found. There was certainly no dearth of advice, but all of it placed the responsibility for solving burnout on the struggling teacher herself, – “Teacher, heal thyself!”
“5 Ways to Prevent Teacher Burnout”
“6 Signs of, and Solutions for, Teacher Burnout”
“7 Self-Care Strategies”
“10 Steps to Avoiding Teacher Burnout”
And my personal favorite …
“25 Tips to Reduce Teacher Burnout”
Because that’s just what a stressed-out and overwhelmed teacher needs – 25 more things to add to her to-do list. Number 2 on that list, by the way, is “Smile.”
The message that these types of articles are sending is that burnout is a failure of the teacher to properly take care of herself.
I would be remiss if I failed to note that each of the suggestions on all of those lists are good ways to encourage people to take care of themselves, and they place the locus of control with the teacher, which is empowering. My issue, however, is two-fold: these articles attempt to treat the symptoms and not the problem, and they ask the teacher whose internal fire is dying to re-kindle her own flame, when she is likely the person least able to do this.
Let’s start with the problem. I am often told that I “shouldn’t work so hard.” That’s a nice platitude, but I find it profoundly frustrating because when I ask which part of my job requirements I should fail to complete, or complete with marginal quality, in order to save myself some time, I never get an answer.
I often say that the greatest challenge of teaching should be educating the students in our classrooms. That’s a hard job all by itself for a wide-variety of reasons. When it is made harder by policies, inefficiencies, and bureaucracy, we have done everyone involved a grave disservice. I have previously written about the seemingly insurmountable challenges placed on teachers by educational legislation here and here.
A friend of mine who has studied organizational management had this to say regarding teacher burnout, “I think with what we are asking of teachers the question is, ‘How could teachers not be burned out, and how can all of us (administrators, community members, school boards) help to combat this?’”
And that’s just it. If education is important to our society, then teachers must be deemed important as well, and all of us must help to solve the societal problem of teacher burnout. Our children need good teachers, and good teachers work very hard. Keeping them in the profession is a shared responsibility.
Some action steps:
Vote for school levies, even if you don’t have a child in school – resources, especially as related to staffing (the greatest single expense), are key.
Speak out against the school reform madness – especially if you are a parent in an affluent school district.
Don’t participate in teacher or school bashing, or allow others to do the same – the vast majority of parents are happy with their child’s teacher and school. The narrative that America has a preponderance of bad teachers and bad schools is simply not upheld by data.
Demand that your local school board set decent wages for teachers, and that they provide appropriate cost of living increases.
Support your child’s teacher – give the benefit of the doubt, encourage your child to develop independence, and nurture his or her self-advocacy skills before getting involved in potential school conflicts (see The Gift of Failure)
Acknowledge teachers for the positive work that they do – better yet share these acknowledgments with administrators. Parents with complaints readily share their concerns with administration; positive comments should be shared as well.
Don’t tell a teacher to “take time for herself – sleep, exercise, meditate, invite a friend for lunch, smile” unless you’re willing to help take something off her plate that allows her to do that.
If you know a teacher, ask how you can help – anyone can cut, collate, staple, hole punch.
Say thank you – again and again and again. This is why we do what we do.
I remain hopeful that those things can make a difference, but I don’t have much faith that the epidemic of teacher burnout will change soon. The anti-education “school reform” movement is powerful. It will take time to weaken its death grip on the throat of public schools.
But in the interim, all is not lost. Who better to support burning out teachers than those who know the industry the best – teachers. We are all on fire, but we burn with different levels of brightness at different times. We can each use our spark to help kindle the dwindling embers of another’s fire. A wise teacher I know said, “When we become a true community of educators in our building and in larger society, I find that I am not the island.”
Catherine McTamaney writes about this same thing in her book, A Delicate Task. “Teaching is hard. [We] are asked to give up so much of ourselves, to make ourselves humble and lowly before the child, to be servants, to be scientists, to be saints … but there are others on the path with us. We can lean on each other. We can walk in each other’s footsteps. Sometimes we’re at the front of the path. Sometimes we’re following another traveler. Sometimes we’re resting … Sometimes we’re so far ahead or behind that we can’t even see each other anymore. But we’re not alone. We are each other’s navigational stars.”
To be “each other’s navigational stars,” we have to be connected to one another, and we have to pay attention to one another. While I believe that all teachers can help each other to combat burnout, my interpretation is that this work should fall most heavily on veteran teachers, mentor teachers, building leadership, and administration.
In supporting each other, we must not simply be content to provide inspiration. We must work to create environments that make teaching easier without sacrificing the best interests of our students. Here are some of the in-building supports that teachers say help them to be more resilient.
Leadership that is supportive and non-punitive
Having someone willing to slow down and listen when they have a concern
The provision of more time to allow for planning and collaboration
Work that is equitably shared by everyone
Meeting time spent to facilitate efficiency and effectiveness in the classroom, not to create additional work
Follow-through: being able to trust that what was agreed upon will occur
Celebration of successes
Acknowledgment of good work
In my role as team leader, I’ve recently initiated a process to try and help with some of this. For each of the last two quarters, I’ve met one-on-one with every member of my team. To prepare for our meetings I’ve asked them to consider their responses to four questions.
What are three things you want to brag about from this quarter?
What is your current burning issue?
How can I help?
What I can do to be more effective in my role as team leader?
We’ve had some rich conversations, and I’ve gotten to know each of them better, but my great hope is that I’ve helped them to see the value in what they do, and to examine how they can keep improving.
The hardest question is always “What are three things you want to brag about?” At just about every conference, I hear, “I can’t think of three.” My response? “Yes, you can. Think harder.” And they do.
Asking them to identify a burning issue is the same thing as saying, “What do you most want to improve?” – except somehow it feels more approachable.
“How can I help?” is my favorite of the four questions. I’ve learned that it is much more powerful than its more common counterpart, “Let me know if I can help.” The latter provides an option to decline by omission; the former does not. If I ask about a burning issue and then don’t seek ways to help, I am essentially saying, “I see you struggling. Best of luck to you!”
The final question is purely selfish. I simply want to know how to get better at what I do.
I have only just begun this process, so I cannot say how effective it will prove to be in the long run, but I’ve gotten short-term positive feedback. Recently, I offered the opportunity to correspond via email if scheduling meetings took too much precious time. In response to this, one of my colleagues said, “Oh no. I wouldn’t want to give up the deliciousness of that meeting with you.” While I can’t say whether or not our meeting was “delicious,” we did have a powerful dialogue.
No single strategy will suffice to fix the great challenges and stressors in education. Teachers must remember, sometimes through the fog and the haze of exhaustion, that it’s really all about the students. The students are the most powerful motivators and sustainers of all. I, like many teachers, keep a file full of notes like this one.
We must remind ourselves, and each other, every day if necessary, that the work we do matters.
As Carissa said, “That means you’re doing your job right, you know.”
Imagine a standardized test being used to measure the healing of a patient, and the effectiveness of the doctor.
It would look something like this.
A doctor sees a patient through treatment of a condition, and at the end of a prescribed length of time the patient completes a bubble test to determine progress. It is irrelevant what the patient’s condition was at the start of treatment, what other issues the patient is experiencing, how long the patient received treatment, or how well the patient followed medical advice.
The physician’s perception of the patient’s progress, or any additional insights he or she might have, is also irrelevant. It is the bubble test result that will determine whether the physician is an effective practitioner.
This scenario is readily recognized as absurd, and even potentially dangerous, when applied to medicine. Why do we accept it as appropriate for education?
Yet, high-stakes standardized testing is viewed as not just appropriate for education, it is viewed as essential. So essential, that even in the face of dissent from the majority of parents and educators, our politicians continue to reinforce the myth that standardized tests are a fundamental method for assessing student learning, and therefore, by extrapolation, a credible way to determine the effectiveness of teachers and schools.
This false narrative was initiated with the publication of A Nation At Risk in 1983 and reinforced and perpetuated through Goals 2000, No Child Left Behind, and most recently, The Every Student Succeeds Act.
Ohio’s implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act is how I found myself standing at a podium providing testimony before the Joint Education Oversight Committee at the Ohio Statehouse.
“Ms. Taylor, do you believe that the state legislature can honestly check the required box indicating that stakeholder feedback was included in the Ohio plan?”
This was the final question I was asked during my testimony. I had been invited to the statehouse by the Ohio Federation of Teachers to serve as a voice for educators across the state, and to provide insight to the committee on whether the Ohio draft plan for implementation of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) accurately reflects the views of stakeholders and serves as a visionary document.
Being called for this task felt like a huge responsibility.
I walked into the room expecting something fairly familiar and comfortable. In my mind, I was anticipating a group of people sitting around a conference table. Instead there was a podium in front of a raised bench of legislators. This suddenly felt like an overwhelming responsibility. I was near certain that the entire room could hear my heart racing and my knees knocking.
I knew that my physiologic reaction was ridiculous. I have engaged in significant research and reflection on this topic. I know the salient points, and I know how to articulate them in a cohesive and powerful manner. And I am not afraid.
Except I was afraid.
This was more important than fear. To quote Dr. Seuss, “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.”
I speak for students, and for educators, and for our future society because high-stakes standardized testing is not innocuous. It is not just something we debate about at the dining room table. It is truly damaging.
However, we are up against a mighty foe – the testing industry and a social construct that school accountability measures are effective, necessary, and appropriate – and we must be willing to fight furiously against this.
Which is how I found myself testifying at the Ohio statehouse about ESSA.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was passed by the federal government in December of 2015. It replaces No Child Left Behind, and it allows states greater flexibility in teacher and school accountability measures.
One of the requirements of ESSA is the engagement of stakeholders in the process of developing state plans. It is this mandate that prompted the question asked by Representative Fedor. She is a state representative from Toledo who serves on this committee, and she is a friend to education.
The Ohio ESSA draft plan notes, “As part of the legislation, each state is required to conduct significant outreach to stakeholders to collect input for their state plan. Ohio takes this mandate very seriously and has already engaged 15,000 Ohioans in the development of this draft.”
In every section of the draft there is evidence of stakeholder feedback. However, startlingly, in several critical areas, this feedback has not been incorporated into the current plan.
Relative to required testing, the plan states, in the section titled Aligned Academic Assessments, that stakeholders emphasized the need to “strategically reduce tests where it makes sense to do so.” It goes on to claim that “while the state has reduced the amount of time students spend taking tests – down by approximately 50% from 2014 to 2016 – stakeholders expressed an interest in continuing to explore a further reduction in testing.”
And here is the statement regarding the testing requirements under the “new” plan. “As part of ESSA, Ohio will reexamine its testing requirements. The department is poised to work closely with the Governor, legislature, and education leaders to examine the pros and cons of adjusting the testing schedule.”
In other words: no change.
Additionally, while it is true that testing has been significantly reduced since the 2014-2015 test administration, this data is a red herring. It seems to imply that, over time, testing requirements have been reduced, and that is simply inaccurate. The 2014-2015 school year included the ill-fated implementation of the PARCC testing. Each of the PARCC tests included two administrations – one in February and one in April, thus doubling testing requirements. Thankfully, this double battery of tests was eliminated with the transition to the AIR tests the following school year. This change did reduce testing by nearly half; however if the 2014-2015 school year is removed from the data set as an outlier, then it becomes clear that over time, the number of mandatory state tests in Ohio has actually increased, not decreased.
The second area in the Ohio ESSA draft plan that I found concerning was the provisions regarding teacher evaluation. Currently, Ohio public educators are evaluated based on a combination of factors, and this varies based on the grade and subject area being taught, and that grade and/or subject area’s testing requirements.
Here is what Ohio’s ESSA draft plan says,
“Strong support for local educators – they understand the critical roles teachers and leaders play in helping students learn and grow”
“Educators do not believe that the current evaluation system is working as it should”
“Concern on the part of educators related to the calculation of student growth and its inclusion in the evaluation system”
“Ohio’s state plan requires a description of our methods for ensuring that students have access to quality teachers and leaders. Our plan will be based on those elements currently in state law and our existing equity plan.”
In other words: no change.
Currently, the Ohio teacher evaluation system is designed on a combination of factors. This is a complex calculation where 50% of a teacher’s evaluation comes from observational data assessed using the rubric of the etpes system, which includes 10 areas of assessment, each of which can be scored as: Accomplished, Skilled, Developing, or Ineffective. The remaining 50% varies based on the grade and subject area being taught, and that grade and/or subject area’s testing requirements.
For some Cincinnati Public School teachers, this remaining 50% comes exclusively from the value-added measure of standardized test results. For other teachers, 26% comes from the teacher’s value-added standardized test results, 10% comes from shared attribution – or the standardized test data for growth across the building as a whole, and 14% comes from “Student Learning Objectives” (SLOs). For teachers in non-tested areas, 40% comes from SLOs and 10% comes from shared attribution.
Clear as mud, right?
To add to the complexity, no one knows how these growth measures – called “value-added scores” are calculated.
Ohio contracts with Battelle, a private company, to generate value-added data from standardized test results. They consider their formula “proprietary information,” and despite evidence that these scores are invalid, they remain in place. The only mathematical approximation I have seen as to what this formula might look like is this.
(Fortunately, because of the transition to new assessment tools, test data from the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years have been under what is known as “safe harbor,” meaning that for the given years, standardized test data has not been included in teacher evaluations.)
An additional piece to consider is that when the state counts the required number of tests, they fail to mention the requirements of Student Learning Objective assessments (SLOs). SLOs are another type of growth-measure assessment. Depending on the district, these may be vendor-purchased or teacher-created tests. The majority of teachers must give two SLOs as a required component of their annual evaluation. Each SLO requires a pre-test and a post-test. So for every teacher, this is a minimum of 4 more mandated assessments. To be fair, these tests are far less burdensome than the state tests, but think about a high school student who may take seven classes. This student could take up to 28 SLO tests – two pre tests and two post tests for each of seven teachers. Add the state tests, and final exams, and, at some grade levels, the ACT, PSAT, or SAT as well.
Are you getting the picture yet?
Nevertheless, there remains more to the story. Currently, each of the state tests has 2 sections. Students with identified disabilities often receive an extended time testing accommodation; this allows them to have up to an entire school day to complete each portion of the test. I want to be very clear that I think this is an important provision.
As a special educator, I teach my students best-practice testing strategies. I teach them to read the questions before reading the passage. I teach them to read and annotate the text of the passage before beginning to answer the questions. I teach them to look back at the text. I teach them to use elimination. I teach them not to rush. I teach them to go back and check over all their answers – more than once. All of these things take time, and I have had several students who literally take the entire day to complete a section of the test. I do not want to restrict them in this.
However, many schools have high percentages of special education students. At Gamble, 36% of our students have identified disabilities. When this many students have the right to use the entire day for a section of the test, this provision drives the testing schedule. It is not fair, nor feasible, to give two sections of a test in a day to the general education population, while only scheduling one a day (as legally required) for the special education population. Doing so would mean that special education students would test for twice as many days as general education students, and would therefore miss the instruction being provided on the extra days of testing. This slower-paced scheduling increases the number of days relegated to testing.
At the high school level, there is yet another issue to consider. Passage of the high school state tests is required for graduation (unless a student is on the newly created vocational “pathway,” which has a whole different set of testing requirements.) Therefore, students who have not passed sections of the test are expected to retake these tests three times a year (one is a summer testing) until they achieve proficiency.
Let me provide you with a real-world, worst-case scenario. I taught Bryce in junior high. He is a student with an identified learning disability. He struggles academically, but performs especially poorly in a testing situation.
Bryce is now a junior in high school, and he has not yet passed any of the required tests – ELA I, ELA II, Algebra I, Geometry (or Integrated Math I), Biology, or American History, and he is currently enrolled in American Government, which also has a required test. Each test has two sections. Extended time testing is written into Bryce’s IEP, so he must be provided with the option of using the entire day to complete each section of each test. He is a student who needs this extra time.
Were you counting? That’s 14 school days (or nearly three weeks) of testing.
These tests are scheduled by the state and district at the end of April and the beginning of May, as they should be since they are intended to assess the entire curriculum, and an earlier testing session would further truncate instructional time. However, in high school, students must also take final exams. In every class. Because of the timing of the school year, these final exams are administered immediately following the conclusion of the state testing. That is now 17 nearly-consecutive days of testing.
I have not yet mentioned that Bryce also had to take 6 of these state tests during the first round of retakes in December (Don’t forget – 2 sections for each test, so 12 days) and the ACT in April. Before SLOs are factored into the equation, Bryce will have spent 30 days – or nearly 6 weeks of the school year – taking tests.
This is not just a nightmare; this is Bryce’s current reality.
And it is madness. Ultimately, it’s not even about student learning. It’s about assessment of public teachers and of public schools.
The test results that we put so much stake in and spend so much time thinking about and preparing for, are of little use in instructing students.
Does this come as a surprise? Let me explain.
The preliminary test results are generally released over the summer, and final data is usually provided at some point in the fall. At this point, the students who took these tests have moved on – to a new grade, a new teacher, and a new curriculum. The tests they will take next will be focused on the expectations of the new curriculum, not the old one, so knowing a student’s scores from the prior year is only marginally beneficial for a teacher.
In addition, what does this data show? It may seem as if this question should have an obvious answer. They show what a student knows, and therefore, by extrapolation, they show how well a student has been taught. Right?
I question this assumption.
Any teacher will tell you that his or her test scores vary from year to year – often wildly. Are we really that erratic in our teaching practices?
The value-added measures can indicate huge gains – more than two years of academic growth in a year’s time. That sounds great, but, as an educator who has received scores like this, I am not convinced that this is realistic. In the same vein, value-added measures can indicate huge losses – more than 2 years of academic decline in a year’s time. How is this even remotely possible? How is it possible for a teacher to be so bad that she or he causes a student to LOSE two years of academic instruction, while simultaneously providing instruction for the entirety of a year?
This makes no sense.
Early this year, I learned that my teaching partner and I had the highest test scores in the building related to student comprehension of informational text. I was asked what we did to have such success – how could this be replicated throughout the building?
I had to laugh. What did we do? We heavily taught literary text. We focused less on informational text last year than we ever had before.
It wasn’t really intentional. We just didn’t have time for everything, and we had generally chosen literary text standards over informational ones that year. And yet our test scores for informational text standards were much higher than they were for literary text standards. Go figure.
So, I don’t have the greatest confidence in the reliability of testing data as an indicator of much of anything at all. Besides, if standardized tests tell us such important information, why aren’t private and parochial schools demanding these tests? Why aren’t our politicians demanding that the schools that many of their children attend be implementing these tools that measure student learning and teacher effectiveness? Don’t they want the best for their children? Don’t they want to be reassured that their child is learning? Don’t they want to know the quality of their children’s teachers?
No, they don’t. They don’t because standardized tests are not an effective tool for assessing these important things.
We put students in public schools through this wringer of testing for what? If it doesn’t tell us about kids, and it doesn’t tell us about instruction, and it doesn’t tell us about teachers, then why are we doing it? That remains unclear.
It seems as if nearly everyone has one or more teachers who had a profound influence on their growth and development. Who was yours? Think about this person – or these people. Try to identify what it was that made them so influential, so impactful on your life. What were the qualities they possessed that inspired or guided you?
So to answer Representative Fedor’s question: Has the state effectively included stakeholder feedback in the development of Ohio’s ESSA draft plan?
In a word, No.
Stakeholders clearly said, “Fewer tests.” The draft plan indicates no change in the number of tests.
Stakeholders clearly said, “Amend the teacher evaluation system.” The draft plan indicates no change to the teacher evaluation system.
Despite more than a year to develop it, the draft plan doesn’t look much different from what Ohio’s educational legislation looked like under No Child Left Behind. To be fair, in both of the sections of the draft plan that I have critiqued, there is indication that changes could come in the future. However, Ohio has had more than a year to develop this plan, why isn’t change evidenced there already?
As I stated to Representative Fedor, and to the Committee as a whole, I was shocked to see the stakeholder feedback so blatantly ignored in the draft document. As an educator I feel devalued, disheartened, and unsupported by the state of Ohio.
The system is backwards. We have politicians telling educators what to do to prove themselves, rather than educators informing politicians about what it is we need in order to teach children.
What we don’t need are standardized tests. Politicians believe that these tests tell us important things about education. Teachers know that they do not.
Education is a service industry. Unlike manufacturing, service industries work with human capital. Our students are our raw material, and they are each unique individuals. They each come to us at a different place, they each have different external factors at play, and they each approach instruction in a different way.
Their growth and development is as complex as they each are as individuals. To try and measure this in a standardized manner is folly.
The Ohio state legislature wanted to know if the Draft Plan was visionary. Oxford defines the word visionary as, “Thinking about or planning the future with imagination or wisdom.”
Is the Ohio draft plan visionary? No. But then neither is ESSA. To be visionary, we must walk away from the folly of this testing madness.
There is precedent for this.
Just twenty years ago, we had a different system. There was no such thing as high-stakes testing.
Many schools gave standardized tests as a means to compare their students to students around the country. But not in every grade and not every year. It was one piece of the educational puzzle. It provided teachers and schools with some small amount of insight into student learning. But that is all. There was no school report card. There were no punitive measures for teachers.
We must walk back from the precipice on which we are standing. In just two decades, politicians and the testing industry have whipped us into a testing frenzy driven by the notion that these tests provide an accurate measure of school success, and that this is an appropriate way to hold schools and teachers accountable.
It is not.
To be truly visionary, it is not enough to simply demand fewer tests. We must change the paradigm. We must create a new narrative.
How to do this is, of course, the ultimate question. Teachers and parents must band together. We must arm ourselves with data and evidence. We must keep speaking truth to power. We must speak up again and again and again. We must have courage.
“For me, the United Leaders way of thinking has made me see the world in a new light. I’m much more gritty than before and much more willing to be brave and courageous and to try new things.” – Adalira
This was a student’s response to the prompt, “How do the ideas of grit and growth mindset impact you?” I expected to hear words about perseverance, grit, and optimism. References to courage and bravery surprised me.
Courage. And bravery.
Courage and bravery don’t always look like martyrs facing down veritable lions or tigers. Sometimes they look like an adolescent working on a math problem.
When Shauna arrived at Gamble, two and a half years ago, it was hard for us to believe that she had not already been identified with a learning disability. Her educational needs were profound, and her faith in herself had been severely impacted by years of academic difficulty. Math was the most challenging subject for her, and she often coped with this by putting her head down, refusing to do work, demonstrating resistance to instruction, and sometimes even crying in class.
It is hard, perhaps impossible, for a student to learn when she is this disengaged.
But a few weeks ago, during my Algebra class, I overheard Shauna say something that once would have seemed nearly miraculous. She was working on a math problem with a peer when I heard her say the words: “No, I don’t think that’s right. Look here in the notes. It says we have to do it like this. I think the right answer is like this,”
Getting to witness a student’s blossoming self-confidence is an extraordinary event – one deeply rooted in the concepts of grit and growth mindset – and it doesn’t happen overnight.
Dweck’s research has been so rapidly and widely embraced by the education community that it seems silly now, just six years after that training, to speak of it as revolutionary. But when Mindset was published in 2007, it was a radical concept.
Dweck proposes the notion that intelligence is not fixed. Rather, she argues that intelligence can be increased through the creation of new neural pathways in the brain. These neural pathways are generated through repeated practice, or perseverance, in a task.
Dweck refers to this shift in cognitive understanding as “the power of yet” as opposed to “the tyranny of now.” Learning and development, she argues, are not a binary system. It isn’t an “I can” versus an “I can’t” proposition. Rather it is an ever-evolving continuum, and we need to shift our language to reflect what one is learning to do, or what one can “not yet” do.
Clearly, having a growth mindset is of value to all learners, so how can teachers and parents help to develop this attribute in children? Dweck says that the key for developing a growth mindset is to focus on effort, use of strategies, and progress. This is a shift from the traditional focus on achievement or on “being smart,” which Dweck claims leads to the development of what she calls “a fixed mindset” – the notion of an unchangeable level of cognitive ability.
Dweck argues quite convincingly, providing data to support her claim, that students who are regularly fed either the fixed mindset language of “being just not good at that” or, conversely, that of “being so good at that,” develop a near-paralyzing fear of failure. In the binary system of can and can’t do, when faced with a challenge, or when confronting error, students who have a fixed mindset tend to do one of three things – avoid the task, compare themselves to someone who has performed worse than themselves, or cheat. These students have been taught that their success stems directly from their innate intelligence or a lack thereof.
It is easy to accept that implying to children that they simply aren’t good at something is problematic. It is more challenging to understand that it is equally damaging to buoy self-esteem by noting mental acuity.
“You’re so smart,” may sound like positive reinforcement, but unfortunately, this belief has a dark shadow correlate. The covert message is that if success is due to natural intelligence, then any lack of success must be due to a lack of intelligence. And if intelligence is intrinsic, so too must be lack of intelligence. So every time a well-meaning teacher, parent, or coach praises a child for being smart, or talented, or athletic, they are unwittingly reinforcing the belief that these “gifts” are outside of the child’s control, and that therefore, when the child next experiences failure, that too is out of his or her control. If success and failure are outside of a child’s locus of control, then there is no reason to exert effort – either success comes easily, or one might as well not even try. For those with a fixed mindset, failure is a debilitating event.
However, students who demonstrate a “growth mindset” – an understanding that their success is dependent on their effort, and that learning and skill development are the reward for their investment of time and energy– prove just that. These students are functioning with a mentality of “I can’t do it yet,” not “I can’t do it at all.” These students are able to persevere through challenge without giving up, and as a result their performance improves. This is what leads to that blossoming self-confidence.
A few weeks ago, Shauna was working with a partner on a math assignment. The two were deeply and joyfully engaged in the task at hand – working with the slope-intercept form of linear equations. It was on this day that I was privileged to overhear Shauna’s words, “No, I don’t think that’s right. Look here in the notes, it says we have to do it like this. I think the right answer is like this.”
No one walking into my classroom would have seen anything particularly noteworthy, but that’s because they would only see the snapshot of that particular day, and not the movie reel of the last few years.
The important piece here is not whether or not Shauna was correct in her mathematical thinking; the important piece is that she exhibited the self-confidence to challenge a peer’s thinking, indicate a replacement solution, and provide reasoning to support her answer.
This was an act of courage and bravery.
And I believe it was a direct result of a focus on growth mindset in the classroom.
Much of Dweck’s insight focuses on language choices, and there are many options available on the internet of student-friendly versions of replacement language used for encouraging a growth mindset. Here is the version my team uses.
When we first introduced this concept, the students snickered; we snickered. It seemed strange and stilted to say things like, “I’m going to train my brain,” or “Mistakes help me improve,” but we were surprised by how readily students embraced this shift. It has now become completely commonplace to hear students use these phrases to encourage themselves or others. Just the other day, I heard Dalya, who was struggling to grasp point-slope formula, mutter under her breath, “This is hard. I don’t get this.” Moments later, I watched her take a deep breath, and quietly say to herself, “This may take some time and effort.” I witnessed her emerging courage and bravery– the creation of growth mindset in action.
If Dweck’s work revolutionized our understanding of learning, Angela Duckworth’s related philosophy on the importance of “grit,” shared via a TED talk in 2013 served as a rapid-propulsion catalyst for getting these paired concepts into the public eye.
Duckworth’s research indicated that what she dubbed “grit” – a combination of perseverance and passion – is the number one indicator of future success. This flew in the face of the commonly understood importance of intelligence and talent, and thus, fit neatly hand-in-glove with Dweck’s work on growth mindset.
The concept of “grit” exploded in education circles and rapidly became a mandatory buzzword. It stands to reason that teachers would naturally embrace this concept. The ability to cultivate student perseverance as a way to increase success provides hope for struggling students, and a construct through which we can understand the importance of increasing engagement and stamina in children.
Duckworth directly credits Dweck with having the best insight into how teachers can instill growth mindset, and by extension, grit, in their students.
In Mindset, Dweck outlines three strategies commonly implemented by students with a growth mindset when they approach a challenging task – essentially helping them to develop Duckworth’s concept of “grit.”
Keep trying (sustained effort)
Attempt a new strategy
Ask for help
But the ultimate question remains – how can teachers instruct and reinforce these practices? And how can we avoid inadvertently setting students up for more failure and frustration by implying that they just simply have to “try harder?”
To answer that, I think there is a third critical piece of research – The infamous marshmallow study.
This study, conducted in the late 1960s and early 1970s by Walter Mischel at Stanford University, examined the correlation between a child’s ability to delay gratification and better long-term life outcomes. In the study, young children were presented with a marshmallow (or a cookie or pretzel) and told that if they waited and didn’t eat the marshmallow, they would ultimately be given two marshmallows. The results indicated a strong relationship between the ability to delay gratification (not eat the marshmallow) and higher SAT scores, greater academic achievement, and lower BMI indexes in adulthood.
Since self-control seems to be an underpinning factor in both delaying gratification and persevering through challenge, Duckworth’s grit work is arguably related to Mischel’s marshmallow study. However, it is a replication and extension of Mischel’s experiment that I think reveals the key missing piece. (I first learned of this new research through this article written by my friend and high school classmate, Andrew Sokatch.)
In 2012, researchers at the University of Rochester recreated the marshmallow study with an additional variable – trust. This version of the study included two sets of tests. Children were first given a box of used crayons and told that if they could wait to begin coloring, these crayons would be replaced with a box of brand-new crayons. After the required time length, half of the children who waited were given the promised new crayons, and half of the children were told that a mistake had been made and no new crayons existed. Then, like the original study, children were provided a marshmallow and told that if they could wait, they would be given two. The children who had been rewarded with the new crayons were able to wait a significantly longer period of time to earn the second marshmallow than were the children who had waited on new crayons, only to receive nothing.
I believe that this provides important insight into the work of Dweck and Duckworth. We know that poverty is a critical factor in the academic challenges that many students face. We know that poverty often brings with it instability and inconsistency –the archenemies of trust. If we accept that the development of grit and a growth mindset are tremendous indicators of success, and we connect that to an ability to exert self-control, then we can readily see the direct connection in a student’s ability to trust in the environment, and in the adults in charge of that environment, with a student’s ability to succeed. And we then know where it is we have to begin. With trust.
When I began teaching growth mindset about five years ago, I hoped that concepts like “perseverance,” “strong-mindedness,” and “asking for help” would become common parlance among my students. But I never would have guessed that courage and bravery would be part of that. Grit and growth mindset are avenues to success, but what I didn’t yet understand when I introduced this idea was that before students can even begin down this path, they have to be able risk error. They have to be able to trust.
Learning is a risky endeavor. Learning requires mistakes – sometimes public ones. To learn, we must have courage, and we must be brave. For many students, it is much easier to avoid potential failure, to hide, to give up – the antithesis of grit — than it is to take the risk of making a mistake in order to learn and grow, in order to succeed.
Learning is an act of courage. My students remind me of this every day:
“Growth mindset has affected me strongly. I have struggled with many things that no person my age should go through. By powering through it, it has changed me in ways I didn’t know I could change. I have changed into a better person, and a very strong-minded one.” – Caden
“Grit means to keep trying – like in math we are knowledgeable to answer the questions given, and we all encourage each other to do better. I get gritty in language arts and in math because all of the hard problem in math and all the essays we have to do, but as a result, it pushes me farther, and I am determined to be successful because of my teachers. My teachers show us step by step to make us understand, and when I learn something new, I get excited and want to do more. [It] gave me a lot of courage to change and do new things.” — Dahlia
As teachers, our very first task it to get our students to trust us. And the more unstable and inconsistent students’ previous experiences have been, the more difficult it will be to establish trust. There is no substitute, and there are no shortcuts. The only way to establish trust is to uphold your promises, create a safe space, and to keep showing up again and again and again. Students have to believe that you’ll follow through on what you say, that mistakes are okay (and even encouraged), and that you will be there for them on both the good and the bad days.
Trust is a bit of a magic elixir, for once students trust, they can exhibit courage and be brave. They can risk making mistakes. They can face challenges and not lose faith – the essence of grit.
Shauna’s transformation into a “gritty” student did not occur overnight, and it would be inaccurate to say that it is complete, but it is remarkable. Over the course of two years, and through tremendous amounts of coaxing, modification of assignments, and a focus on growth mindset, Shauna has been able to conquer her fear of failure in math – to have courage and to be brave. This, in turn, has allowed her to learn. It would be inaccurate to tell you that she has become a brilliant math student. She remains the most challenged learner in my math classroom, and she still has days where she simply gives up, but these are becoming fewer and farther between. More often than not, she is one of the students with their hand raised ready to answer a question, and sometimes now, she is the student begging to be able to show the class how to work through a given problem.
When students can be brave and risk failure long enough to witness their own success, they can then begin to believe in their own ability to succeed– to persevere and “be gritty,” to develop a growth mindset. And we know that growth mindset leads to greater success. And hasn’t that been the goal all along?
Developing growth mindset and grit is a process. There is no such thing as, “Make Every Kid Gritty in These 6 Easy Steps That Will Work the First Time!”
However, there are some strategies that can help students develop growth mindset.
Directly instruct the concepts of growth mindset and grit.
Change your language to reinforce effort, not intelligence. I found this was easy to do for students experiencing challenges, but quite difficult for students who were demonstrating high-performance.
Find ways to incorporate student-friendly language shifts in the classroom, and encourage students to embrace them.
Normalize mistakes. I often tell my students, “If you’re not making mistakes you’re not learning.” Or as Dweck says, “So what should we say when children complete a task—say, math problems—quickly and perfectly? Should we deny them the praise they have earned? Yes. When this happens, I say, ‘Whoops. I guess that was too easy. I apologize for wasting your time. Let’s do something you can really learn from!’”
Don’t get so caught up in looking for proficiency that you miss growth – and don’t let your students do this either. Deliberately draw attention to their gains, and remind them that this is a direct result of their effort and engagement.
 Dweck, Carol. “The Power of Believing That You Can Improve.” Carol Dweck: The Power of Believing That You Can Improve | TED Talk | TED.com. TED: Ideas Worth Sharing, Nov. 2014. Web. 11 Feb. 2017. <https://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve>.
 Duckworth, Angela Lee. “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” Angela Lee Duckworth: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance | TED Talk | TED.com. TED: Ideas Worth Sharing, Apr. 2013. Web. 11 Feb. 2017. <https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_grit_the_power_of_passion_and_perseverance>.
 Sokatch, Andy. “On Not Eating the Marshmallow: It’s Not (just) the Kids; It’s the Context.”Medium. N.p., 01 May 2016. Web. 11 Feb. 2017. <https://medium.com/@asokatch/on-not-eating-the-marshmallow-its-not-just-the-kids-its-the-context-2687855c4fd1#.ftqr96ahm>.
 Dweck, Carol S. Mindset. London: Robinson, an Imprint of Constable & Robinson, 2017. Print.
It is that moment we live for as teachers. There is an energy in the room, students engaged in their work, with very little unfocused conversation, or perhaps no talking at all. Maybe students are eagerly calling the teacher over to examine their final product, or they are so immersed in their work that the teacher has become merely an observer. Or perhaps it is a classroom seminar, and the students are fascinated by the core question, pondering over possibilities. The bell rings. Students groan, “Aww, man, do we have to go?” “It’s that time already?”
It’s a narwhal moment. That is, a moment that exists, but is rarely seen in the factory model classroom where teachers hand out one assignment after the next, and then a bell rings to dismiss one group to make room for the next. Students have reached a state of optimal concentration. Immersed completely in their work, they have lost track of time, and perhaps even where they are. They are in a state that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (me’-hi chick‘-sent-me’-hi) calls “flow”.
It is not a rare phenomenon. Athletes, students, artists, and professionals of all sorts can experience this. Children can easily find this place when they are playing or learning a new skill. Young children paint with water and brushes on a summer sidewalk, see their art disappear, then trace and retrace the strokes of the brush. They perfect the moves with ever-circling, ever-delicate changes in how they hold the brush, or twisting the bristles with the angle of their wrist, each pass similar to the last, but slightly more perfect in the eyes of our budding expert. Then, suddenly, the motion mastered, they move on. Or less optimally, they are pulled away by parents with schedules too busy to allow the perfection of brush strokes, and their flow is broken by the business of the life of their household.
These moments, when they occur in the classroom, leave educators energized for hours or even days. It provides a “teacher’s high” that is far more effective at creating an innate desire to teach than our paychecks.
Why are these narwhal moments of deep concentration, where a person is so in the flow that they lose track of time and space, so rare in the classroom? And how can we create this flow more readily? There is an answer, and the tools for creating a space where it happens more readily are in the hands of teachers.
A hot trend in classroom engagement these days is “gamification”. Hoping to capture or perhaps replicate the intense fascination some of our students have with video games – losing hours in front of screens mastering delicate moves of the hand and wrist not unlike our sidewalk artist above – teachers are turning to technology to help students keep score of their work and even earn awards called badges for completing assignments. These are artificial attempts to emulate the very real and reproducible experience of “flow”. Flow is not gamification, exactly, though it does involve bringing parameters to the classroom that we most commonly associate with gameplay.
In his book Flow, Csikszentmihaly gathers other people’s descriptions of what he calls “optimal experience”:
a sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. (p. 97)
That is what we want in the classroom. So let’s break down that description he provides, and see what we can do in the classroom to make it happen.
A sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand.
The chart used to describe flow shows the y axis as the challenge, and the x axis as the learner’s skill level. As long as they are matched, a person can experience flow. Dancing, hitting a tennis ball, reading a book, learning an instrument, constructing a model – all activities are susceptible to this model. If the challenge outstrips the skill, a student becomes anxious, agitated or frustrated, and is likely to quit, or to certainly fall out of flow. If the task is too simple, and their skill level exceeds the challenge, the learner becomes bored or worse.
What can we do to match a student’s skill level with the challenges at hand? Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky described this area just beyond a person’s current skill set as their “zone of proximal development,” or ZPD (often pronounced “Zo-ped”). He describes a learner in this state as rapt in attention, and likely to even be verbalizing their thought process – talking out loud to guide themselves through a challenge. A student who is zo-pedalling their way through a challenging task looks a lot like a student in “flow”. Striving at the edge of their skill set, they are talking themselves through the finer points of the task. Vygotsky was observing one aspect of flow, life in the channel between anxiety where the challenge was too great for their skills, and ennui, where the challenge was too little to engage their interest.
So first, we have to know where a student is in regard to specific skills or objectives. Detailed testing, or close grading of student work, can provide the necessary level of insight. Better than assessment, careful observation can give a teacher the clearest picture of a student’s development of targeted and necessary skills. In an era of online tests and automated grading and feedback, a clipboard and a well-constructed observation chart is still the most powerful observation tool available. A trained professional educator remains the most sophisticated data collection tool in our schools. With the information we gather, we can provide targeted coaching in the student’s ZPD. Is the student struggling with capitalization? Specific practice in capitalization is needed, not writing another 5 paragraph essay. Is the problem with borrowing numbers in subtraction? Let’s target those skills.
In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle examines many examples of small geographical areas that suddenly produce a pool of great talent, with most of his examples coming in athletic talent. In each case, the practice that those athletes are doing is specific and targeted on key skills of a large puzzle. An example from his book is of a group of soccer players who mastered the intricate footwork to win one-on-one challenges on the field. They practiced by playing an indoor, small-room version of the game that depended entirely on mastering this close-action ball control. These athletes were playing a modified version of the game, working in their ZPD, while mastering a talent that can be a pivotal difference in a soccer match.
We can do this for our students, giving them practice on a skill they are mastering. We can also allow them to self-select work just “above” or just “below” where we think they are. They will almost always make the right decision for themselves, if we would let them. The Montessori method of instruction allows students access to shelfwork that is beautiful and engaging, and to which students can return again and again. A student may return to a beadboard to practice multiplication and understanding the relationships of groups of ten. Another may return to a book that is technically below their reading level, followed by their engagement and curiosity to investigate another aspect of the reading that is not determined by the book’
A goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing
Well, one would think the modern classroom would be the very model of this description. We are asked to emphasize specific standards, micromanaging and micro-reporting results from testing with information on specific objectives and strands mastered. We have online gradebooks that allow the student and parent to peer inside the gradebook. Here one sees the making of a transparent classroom with everyone fully aware of each student’s strengths and weaknesses.
Unfortunately, that is not what has been created.
In too many cases, students report their homework as “read these pages”, or “do those problems.” Students still describe work as the task, and not the skill to be learned. More targeted work might ask students reading the same novel to complete different work based on their strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps one student would be asked to gather information about a specific character, to learn how the author used actions and dialogue to reveal their true nature, while another student would be examining similes and metaphors for their impact on the reader and what they revealed about the action of the book. This work could be scaffolded based on a student’s skill level, and in fact could be worded in such a way that students could do similar work in different novels as their skill level and reading level increased.
We have the tools to have this kind of conversation, and yet we too seldom have it. We have not done a good enough job drawing the students in to conversations about their progress acquiring specific skills. In fact, it is a conversation we often are ill-equipped to have.
This is a daunting task. Several years ago, Cincinnati Public Schools adopted an elementary grade card that reported not merely a letter grade for student performance, but instead gave parents a detailed list of skills and where their child was in mastering them. It came to its demise rather quickly, somewhere between the questions from the parents of “but how is my child really DOING?” and frustration with printing a 3 to 5 page report card for each child 8 times a year.
That was likely not the answer. So what about standardized test results?
For reasons entirely out of our control, our students are forced to sit through hours of standardized testing each year. If we then ignored the actual, meaningful data this effort generated, it would be us, and not the state, who was wasting the students’ time.
This year, Gamble Montessori looked closely at our AIR test (the current state graduation test) results at our instructional leadership team meeting. The scores were poor, in almost every measure. It was a shocking departure from years of success on the preceding tests, the PARCC (which had been discarded by the state after one year of use) and the Ohio Graduation Test. It was stomach-turning. However, we reasoned that since our students might likely be taking these tests for years to come, and would spend hours engaged, AND we got somewhat detailed strand information back, it made sense to focus on shoring up our weaknesses.
Guided by academic coaches, a specific role in Cincinnati Public Schools used to support principals in helping improve teaching in their building, we looked at our math and reading data. With additional input from our math and English teachers, we then chose a strand, a somewhat narrowed set of related standards, in which to focus. Then our teams built 90 day plans of action to focus on those areas, with a hope to see improvement in our next semester’s data.
This kind of conversation is becoming more common at Gamble and other schools.
“But Jack, this blog is ostensibly totally against standardized testing, and now you are talking about using test results to guide instruction.”
Much like I might use a student conflict to teach students about how to avoid conflict, there is no inherent crime in making the most of a bad situation. We are required to give the tests. We are evaluated by them. They determine a student’s qualification to graduate. Those things are true.
We can take the information provided and make it part of our dialogue. If we combined our close observations with our homework and classwork results, and the information from the tests, we could more clearly articulate where each student was and where they needed to be in every key strand. The result would be students with a clear understanding of our expectations. If we then made clear where they needed to get and gave them feedback and personalized work, the student would feel more supported, and less burdened, by homework.
Additionally, it doesn’t hurt to make acquiring specific standards a bit more fun. You can move a student’s ZPD further up the skill set by asking them to do something faster, or with fewer words, or in partners, or by evaluating others’ work with a rubric. Gamification attempts to meet this need, but can often do it in an awkward and inauthentic way, by tracking the number of attempts or minutes on task over time. Gamification seems to think that placing a screen in front of a student creates engagement, or that learning can only happen if the teacher can make something fun, or if a tangible reward is given at the end. This can be motivating to some, but the artificiality of it will quickly lose its luster for the student who is used to playing video games with plots developed by Hollywood screenwriters and animated with teams of technical artists. A teacher can certainly try this out as a way to engage students in a particular activity. The goal is to make the objectives clear to students, and provide a structured classroom environment where they have “clear clues” about how they are performing on the specific task and in the class overall. However, expecting this to stand in the place of authentic conversations about learning about topics of interest to students is short-sighted and damaging.
Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted.
Maria Montessori once described an optimal classroom experience of her own, exclaiming, “the students are now working as if I did not exist.” Her careful preparation of the classroom environment, filled with work that engaged students by meeting them just beyond their current capability, allowed this to happen. Eager students concentrating on number beads or parts of speech work, or perhaps carefully coloring an illuminated letter with precisely sharpened colored pencils, perhaps a student with her face wrenched in concentration … AND THEN A BELL RANG.
And everyone packed up and left.
The factory model has a way of doing that. Of pulling the rug out from under a teachable moment. There is great happiness in the narwhal moment of disappointment at the end of the bell. The hidden sorrow in the anecdote above, where interrupted students express surprise and shock that time has passed so quickly, is that the interruption happens at all.
A teacher can help concentration happen by creating longer and longer blocks of productive work time in her classroom. Clear rules about entry and exit procedures are necessary. A student knowing where to put completed work, and how to silently request the teacher’s attention with work, is a student who can focus on developing in the standards.
There is no harm in taking days at the start of the year to teach these very discreet skills. How can a student request a bathroom pass without interrupting others? Where is the stapler? What do I do if the stapler is not where it should be? No such skill is too small to teach so a student may master the use of their time and space, without interrupting others.
Providing work that is repeated and familiar, such as specific rules for highlighting and notetaking for every text in every subject, prevent confusion about how to interact with each new text. Utilizing blocks of time for extended big work, like writing and editing, or silent reading, with provisions for silent transition into other work as a child’s individual concentration shifts, can help stimulate concentration.
Many aspects of the conditions of flow in the classroom are within a teacher’s purview. How we communicate the work and allow for students to articulate it, and how we match specific tasks to a student’s level of performance are choices we make each day while planning lessons. How to structure feedback and goals and rules are part of our annual planning for opening days, starts of new semesters, quarters, or even the day after midterms.
There is an interesting caveat to all this talk of what is possible. Csikszentmihalyi also described conditions under which a person will be unable to achieve flow. Clearly from the examples, a student who is challenged beyond their ability will become anxious, and be unable to perform well at all. A child who is asked to do a task that is too simple for them, will fall into boredom or ennui, and quickly seek activities to become a distraction to himself and others in the classroom. (Being too challenged can mask itself as ennui. Beware the student and parent who assert that disruptive behavior is happening because the child is too smart for the work they have been given. This allegation is often made without either parent or student providing any proof that the work can be completed at an acceptable level!)
Flow can never be achieved, he argues, in a person who is self-conscious, self-centered, or experiencing anomie (a breakdown in the connection with societal values) or alienation. In these cases, a child must be brought back into a sense of community. Only here, where a student feels a sense of belonging to the larger group, can he experience the blend of challenge and success that makes time disappear.
This is a continuation of a previous post. Part I can be viewed here.
During the second quarter of this school year, my teaching partners and I led our students in an intensive exploration of the concepts of racial bias and institutional racism. The impetus for this work emerged from a combination of concerns about what we saw happening in our country at large, and being aware of a microcosm of the same occurring within our school. We opened the dialogue through a series of seminar discussions. A more detailed account of these initial pieces is provided in Part 1 of this post, as linked above.
Throughout the time that we were seminaring on the issue of implicit racial bias, students were also engaging in novel discussions and assignments on After Tupac and D. Foster – a coming of age story about three African-American girls growing up in Queens in the mid-1990s.
Students were making connections between the novel and their own lives, as well as connections to the greater societal issues around them. It was at the end of one particularly provocative and rich discussion, where students had explored the motifs of stereotype, injustice, inequity, judgement, and racism, that Beau and I hit on the idea for our culminating group project.
Our work together in development of this task was a beautiful example of co-teaching at its best. Beau and I bounced ideas back and forth, and then worked through determining how to best structure each piece, so it would be accessible to all learners. (A copy of the complete student work packet is available here.)
We were so delighted with how the project developed through our collaborative work that on the day we introduced the task, we were practically shimmering with excitement. We hoped to convey this glee to our students, but, while a few reflected our enthusiasm, the majority of them looked back at us with expressions that clearly said, “I’m sorry, you want us to do what?!” They recognized the complexity and rigor of the task ahead, and the challenges that inherently arise through group work, and they were understandably apprehensive. Yet, we remained confident that we could support them in being successful with this challenging assignment.
The final two weeks of the quarter were dedicated to working on the project and groups predictably cycled through the various stages that come with any major task – excitement, anxiety, frustration, despair, pride, and relief. It was an intense time.
The project began with a creative representation of theme in the novel. Each group had to craft a theme for the novel based on the motif of racism. They then had to identify four scenes in the text which supported their theme, select a compelling quotation, provide reasoning for how this related to their theme, depict the scene, and construct a storyboard containing all these pieces.
They selected quotes like these:
“Cops always trying to bring a brother down. I’m coming from the park just now, trying to get home. I’m running down the street, and this cop just stopped me talking about ‘where you running from?’ I said, ‘I’m not running from I’m running to. Some days I’m thinking why God gave me these legs to run if it’s gonna mean getting stopped by some cop every time I try to do so.”
“’Brother in a suit is just a brother in a suit,’ he said. ‘His black head still sticking out his neck hole.’”
Students then created illustrations like these to represent the events of the novel.
Students were then required to connect their theme to the concepts explored in our seminar pieces (our supplemental texts): implicit bias in schools, stop and frisk policies, the Black Lives Matter movement, police relations with communities of color, and perceptions of race relations. None of these are easy or simple concepts.
They took the theme they had identified from the novel and expanded it outward to where they saw it represented in the real-world. Once again, they had to find evidence in the form of a direct quotation from one of the supplemental texts, and then develop reasoning to link that quotation to their theme.
The final component of the project was, perhaps, the most emotionally challenging. Students conducted an online search for images which reflected the topics they had discussed through both the novel and the supplemental texts. Many of them were shocked by what they saw.
As one student was searching for photographs, she exclaimed, “Oh, I can’t use this picture; it’s too upsetting!”
My response was, “I told you that these images might make us uncomfortable. That’s okay. It’s important that we feel uncomfortable.”
Finally, each of these components was assembled into a comprehensive display.
As the projects began to be completed, students and teachers alike witnessed the tremendous power in the work.
Josh Vogt, Gamble’s 11th and 12th grade social studies teacher, came to see how things were progressing. Josh has done considerable work on the concept of social justice, so his feedback was particularly valuable to us. He spent nearly an entire bell with us, looking at every group’s work and asking probing questions of our students.
When I spoke with him later that evening, his response was profound. He acknowledged the depth of the exploration. He shared that he wished he had been able to spend the entire quarter working on this unit with us, and he requested that I take photos and video of the project exhibition the following day, so he could share it with others doing this work around the country.
As a teacher, I was deeply touched by this praise, but I knew that it wasn’t me who most needed to hear it.
The following morning we prepared for the gallery walk of the completed projects. The tone in the room was a combination of anxiety and pride. Beau and I explained the structural and behavioral expectations of this task. Among other things, we asked that students remain silent during this activity. I clarified that the reason we set this expectation was to honor both their tremendous amount of effort and to be respectful of the seriousness of the subject matter. I also shared with them what Josh had said – that he was so moved by the work that he had been brought to tears, that he was proud that they had accepted the challenge to tackle this topic, that he found the work of such quality that he wanted to share it with others around the country.
An outside expert’s view of their work carried so much more weight than directions given by the same teachers they hear day after day.
Even with the reinforcement of Josh’s words, I anticipated having to repeatedly enforce the expectation of silence.
Once more the students surprised me. There was no need for any kind of redirection. For nearly an hour, as they viewed each other’s projects, they were silent. There was hardly any sound at all beyond the shuffling of feet as students moved between displays. They carefully examined each project, taking notes as directed. In all honesty, I have never experienced anything quite like it before. The tone was nothing short of reverent. So much so, that at the end of our time, several students expressed disappointment that they had to go to their elective classes, rather than spend more time looking at the projects. Here is a short video clip chronicling the gallery walk.
Later that afternoon, we concluded our project experience with a final seminar discussion. We focused on two primary questions:
How does the issue of racial bias impact us as a nation, as a community, as individuals?
How might we as a nation, as a community, as individuals address this?
The conversation vacillated between hopeful and hopeless.
An 8th grade boy optimistically indicated that he believed things were going to get better. As evidence, he proudly specified the work that we had been doing as a class, and Mr. Vogt’s intention to share it with others who were working on the same issues nationally.
One young woman angrily noted, “We can talk about it, and we can do things, but it won’t make any difference because of all the racist people who won’t change. You have to want to change in order to change, and they don’t even care.”
And then we talked about Change Innovation Theory – the idea that change is led by Innovators and Early Adopters, and it develops into a movement that grows such that the wave of the majority will do the work of influencing a resistant minority.
And with that, the bell rang and we ran out of time.
The issues addressed through this project are difficult ones. They are hard realities, but we do our students – of all colors and backgrounds – a disservice if we don’t being these concerns to the forefront and provide our students with ways to explore them.
For my students the conversation has only just begun, and the real work of change has yet to be started, but I am proud to teach Innovators and Early Adopters. They will change the world, and I hope that they will start with our school.
Sixty-seven percent. That was the number I was banking on. I was running discipline data, and I already knew that 67% was my golden number – the percentage I didn’t want to exceed.
But . . .the results were yielding something different.
90%, 87%, 85%, 90%, 82%, 84%
These numbers weren’t just above 67%; they were way above it.
As I ran quarter after quarter of discipline data, I kept hoping to see something different, a change in the trend, or at least an outlier or two.
But that wasn’t the case. Every quarter, the same pattern emerged: our Black students were involved in disciplinary infractions at far higher rates than any other racial group, and at far higher rates than their representation in our population would indicate – 67%.
As Gamble’s Positive School Culture Committee Chair, I had begun this process because we were curious about a blip we saw in the student survey data related to school climate. When we disaggregated the responses by race for the questions that dealt with fairness of consequences, we noted that our black students felt that consequences were less fair than our white students. The rest of the responses were fairly consistent across racial demographics, so it caught our attention when we saw that 52% of our African-American students felt that consequences for misbehavior were seldom or almost never fair; whereas only 34% of our white students felt this way.
It wasn’t a huge gap; it was just bigger than anything we had seen in response to the other survey questions. However, it caused us to pause and reflect on what it might mean. This survey question was about student perception, but we realized that if we disaggregated our discipline data the same way that we had for the survey data, that we would be able to compare reality to perception.
Which is how I found myself repeatedly staring at my computer screen in disbelief and horror as every quarter showed nearly the same thing about our discipline data – our Black students were markedly over-represented.
I shouldn’t have been so shocked. These results aren’t different from what has been widely reported nationally: students of color face harsher and more frequent disciplinary consequences than their white counterparts. In fact, the national data shows a significantly wider discrepancy than the data at Gamble. Proportionally, our data notes that every 1.3% of high-level consequences were assigned to 1% of our Black population; whereas nationally 2.3% of high-level consequences were assigned to 1% of Black students.
Doing better than the national average is not, however, something to celebrate. The cost of these high-level discipline responses is high. We know that suspensions and expulsions lead to a decreased likelihood that students will graduate from high school and an increased likelihood that these students will wind up incarcerated. On average, one out of every three African-American males will be incarcerated during their lifetime.
None of this was new information for me. I just didn’t want any of it to be true at Gamble. I wanted my school to be different. I didn’t want us to be culpable. I wanted my students to be protected. Unfortunately, that’s not what our data indicated
Schoolhouse Rock taught us, “Knowledge is Power.” Now that we had the knowledge, what were we going to do with it?
Turns out, it’s easier to compile the data than it is to address what it shows. There is no quick fix solution.
We decided that the first step was to be transparent — to share the data and to acknowledge our concern about it. To this end it was shared on teacher teams and at PTO; some of our high school teachers shared it with students as well.
Those of us who teach junior high chose not to share it with students. We didn’t know how to craft the conversation in such a way that it would be structured and pro-active, and we didn’t know how to guide our students toward recognizing both the gravity and the complexity of the situation.
So, for more than a year, we did nothing.
Although, I suppose, it wasn’t really nothing. It weighed on all of our minds as, tragically, during the same time frame, police shootings of black males – another example of implicit racial bias – was repeatedly in the public eye.
Eric Garner, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, Jerame Reid, Tony Robinson, Philip White, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Brendon Glenn, Sam DuBose, Gregory Gunn, Philando Castile, Terrence Crutcher …
It is not possible to see this list of names and not worry which of my students could join them.
We knew that we had to talk with them about all of this, but the prospect of that was so intimidating. I know there are other teachers, like this one, who were braver than I. There were teachers all over the country who were having these difficult conversations with their students.
It wasn’t that we didn’t want to have these discussions – we did – we just wanted to make sure that we did it “right” – that we found the right materials, that we structured it well, that we prepared students correctly, that we tied the content to our cycle of study, that we identified the perfect time to have the conversation, and that we did everything within our power to ensure that it was a productive conversation, rather than a damaging one.
While each of these factors is important, waiting for this confluence of perfection was, of course, a subtle kind of avoidance. Waiting on perfect, allowed us to do nothing.
But, finally, this October, we began to find some traction. Our second quarter novel, After Tupac and D. Foster, included thematic undercurrents of racial bias. In light of this, Beau, my teaching partner, also assigned a reading about a study of implicit racial bias in preschool classrooms: Implicit Racial Bias Often Begins as Early as Preschool, A Study Finds by Yolanda Young.
With this assignment, the die was cast. Although we didn’t even realize it yet.
We didn’t yet know how profoundly this beginning would impact the entirety of the quarter, but we did know that we needed to be very conscientious about how we prepared our students for engaging in this conversation. Because we wanted all students to receive an identical message about the expectations for how we talk about these sensitive topics, we arranged the room to accommodate both of our seminar groups at the same time.
As we do before any seminar, we reminded students to keep their comments relevant to the text, to disagree with statements rather than people, to give everyone opportunities to speak, to not form alliances, and to be open to changing their minds.
But this time, because of the emotionally-charged subject matter, we had to provide additional guidance. We had never before explored such challenging content with our students. This type of careful preparation is critically important before embarking with students on any topic that is likely to elicit strong reactions.
We instructed students to give each other the benefit of the doubt. To be careful of their words but also to be honest and to risk making a mistake. To recognize that we might inadvertently hurt each other’s feelings and to be willing to share these feelings and question one another as a means of seeking understanding.
And then we began. It felt a bit like jumping off a cliff.
But, like in most things, our students rose to the challenge beautifully, and we had a powerful and engaging discussion. We hadn’t planned to bring up the school discipline data, but in both groups, the conversation naturally led in this direction. When that moment appeared, (and it happened nearly simultaneously in both groups), we openly shared the disproportionate percentages, and explained why they were concerning.
The students’ response was flabbergasting. I was prepared for them to be angry. I was prepared for them to be indignant. I was prepared for them to blame us.
I was not at all prepared for them to discount it entirely.
“That used to happen at my old school.”
“My teacher did that last year. I always got in trouble just because I am black.”
“I have a friend who says that happens at his school.”
And most notably, “Well, that probably happens in high school.”
The closest they came to seeing the data as personally impacting them was by claiming that if it was a problem in our building, it must be something that happens in our high school program and not about junior high … or them … or us.
Their interpretation is simply not true; the data contains no indication that there are differences between grade levels, and I am still dumbfounded as to why they responded in this way. Perhaps, like us, they simply needed more time to process it.
We hadn’t intended to make the concept of implicit racial bias and its impacts the subject of all our seminar discussions for the quarter, but the deeper we delved into the subject, the more there seemed to be to discuss. We decided to run with this idea, and each week throughout the quarter, we seminared on a different aspect of racial bias.
At times, our conversations were uncomfortable.
When reading about “Stop and Frisk” policies, a student asked whether that meant that every police officer who engaged in this type of policing was racist. That’s a touchy question to answer, but it helped us examine the difference between individual racism and societal racism, as well as the difference between overt racism and implicit racism.
During one discussion, a white student courageously noted, “Somewhere, deep down inside, everybody is at least a teeny, tiny bit racist.” This comment elicited strong reactions, but it helped us to turn the lens on ourselves.
On several occasions during the quarter, when given behavioral redirection, students accused us of racial bias. That felt terrible, but these challenges helped us to reflect carefully on our reactions and responses to student behavior.
It was through this process of self-reflecton that I realized that we had made a mistake – we had skipped a step.
Maria Montessori said, “It is not enough for the teacher to love the child. She must first love and understand the universe. She must prepare herself, and truly work at it.” This is one of my favorite quotations, and yet I had forgotten it here.
The teacher must prepare herself. It was not just our students who were impacted by these difficult conversation; we were experiencing this, too. We had been guiding them, but had failed to use our resources to prepare ourselves.
Confronting the societal demon of racism in a mixed-race group of colleagues is a daunting task. We agreed to commit one meeting a month to discussing this topic through the lens of a variety of resources that we would take turns providing. Like we did with students, we established special meeting norms for creating a “Courageous Space” in which to engage is these conversations.
This work is an ongoing process, but so far we have watched Bryan Stevenson’s video Confronting Injustice and read John Metta’s article “I, Racist” and engaged in rich conversations on each.
None of this is enough. None of it marks our ending place, but taken together, it is our beginning. We have embarked upon this journey. It is a complicated one, and it requires us to be brave. And to be humble.
It requires us to take a hard look at both what is happening around us, and what exists within us. Next week’s post will detail the initial work we did with our students to help them synthesize their learning and their experiences, and to guide them toward activism.
 U.S. Department Of Education Office For Civil Rights. “Civil Rights Data Collection Data Snapshot: School Discipline.” CIVIL RIGHTS DATA COLLECTION 1 (2014): 1-24.Education Week. U.S. Department of Education, Mar. 2014. Web. 1 Jan. 2017. <http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/rulesforengagement/CRDC%20School%20Discipline%20Snapshot.pdf>.
 Amurao, Caria. “Fact Sheet: How Bad Is the School-to-Prison Pipeline?” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 01 Jan. 2017.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, D.C. 20202
Governor John Kasich
Riffe Center, 30th Floor
77 South High Street
Columbus, OH 43215-6117
Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria Ohio Department of Education
25 South Front Street
Columbus, OH 43215-4183
Dear Secretary DeVos, Governor Kasich, and Superintendent DeMaria:
I write to each of you, in my position as a teacher in the Cincinnati Public Schools, to ask for your assistance. I include both federal and state politicians here, as in the past when I had the opportunity to address concerns to a member of the Federal Department of Education, I was told that these issues were under state control, but when, while working as part of a committee examining the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), I addressed the same concerns to members of the State Department of Education, I was told that these issues were under federal control.
As a result, I invite all of you to engage in the conversation together in hope that rather than finger pointing, we can begin to seek solutions.
As we implement new education legislation, I ask that teachers be treated as the experts we are. That we are not just included in the conversation, but that we are leading it. The data demands it, and our children deserve it.
An Artificial Crisis
Politicians and the media have had a field day “exposing,” and attempting to address, what has been described as an educational crisis in America. I, too, believe that we are facing a crisis; however, unlike many in the school reform movement, I do not think that teachers and schools are at the root of this crisis. Rather I think it is the very reform efforts themselves – known generally as the “school accountability movement” — that has caused this concern.
I do not blame the Common Core State Standards. Many people conflate the Common Core State Standards with school accountability measures, but, to be clear, while there are some overlaps between these issues, the CCSS are not to blame in isolation for the challenges we are facing in education today. As a teacher, my personal opinion is that the jury is still out on CCSD, and will remain so until we have experienced several cohorts of students whose education has occurred entirely under CCSD. There are some who believe that this set of standards is not developmentally appropriate for students. This may be, but to be clear, the Standards themselves are merely goals to aim for. I am happy to have a high bar set for both my students and myself, as long as I am given time, support, and resources to attempt to meet that bar, and with the understanding that since students all start at different places, success lies in moving them toward the goal.
The standards are not the problem. The problem is the methodology being used to monitor them.
A Look at the Data
There is a body of information indicating that the supposed “crisis” in American Education has been misreported, and that this myth has been supported and sustained by a repeated skewing of the reported data.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a national database that has tracked student progress in reading and math since the early 1970s. It is given to students at ages 9, 13, and 17, and the tests have been carefully monitored for consistency over the course of nearly 40 years. The results of this data indicate that reading and math scores have remained fairly static from year to year, with both increasing somewhat over time. For example, the 2012 data indicated that for thirteen year olds, the average reading scores increased by 8 raw points and average math scores increased by 21 raw points, since the first data reported in 1978.
This does not look like a crisis at all. The “educational crisis” hysteria has seemed to predominantly come from information comparing United States’ educational data with that from other countries.
Whenever we compare educational outcomes, we must be careful to monitor for external factors – for example, when comparing data internationally, we must take into account that the United States educates and assesses all students until the age of 18; whereas some other countries place students in various forms of tracked models and do not include all of these groups in their testing.
Additionally, the United States has a very high child poverty rate. The 2012 UNICEF report listed The United States’ child poverty rate as 34th out of 35 “economically advanced” countries, with only Romania scoring lower.
We know that poverty impacts academic achievement, and this must be taken into account when comparing U.S. scores internationally. For example, when the oft-cited data from the Program for International Assessment (PISA) is disaggregated based on economic status, we can see a trend that clearly indicates that the problem is poverty, rather than instruction.
United States’ schools with fewer than 10% of students living in poverty score higher than any country in the world. Schools with student poverty rates that are less than 24.9% rank 3rd in the world, and schools with poverty rates ranging from 25% to 49.9% rank 10th in the world. However, schools with 50% to 74.9% poverty rates rank much lower – fifth from the bottom. Tragically, schools with 75% or higher poverty rates rank lower in reading scores than any country except Mexico.
Couple this with the 2013 data that indicates that a majority (51%) of public school students live in poverty in this country, and we see the true depth of the actual crisis of poverty, and its impact on education.
A Crisis of Poverty
Schools with the lowest rates of student achievement are typically those with the highest number of disadvantaged students and the fewest available resources. The problem runs deeper than just funding, however. Children living in poverty often have a specialized set of social-emotional and academic needs. Schools with high percentages of economically disadvantaged students cannot be treated in the same manner as more affluent schools.
Education is neither a business nor is it a factory. We do not start with identical raw materials, and act upon them in a systematic way to produce an identical product. In the same vein, we cannot judge instructional efficacy in a single manner, with a single measure, and expect to get a consistent result. Teaching is a service industry, and we work with human capital. There are myriad factors at play that influence what appropriate expectations are for any given student, but poverty is likely the most impactful of these factors.
Children living in poverty are more likely to be coping with what has been labeled “toxic stress”– caused by a high number of identified adverse childhood events. Factors such as death or incarceration of a parent, addiction, mental illness, and abuse, among other things, have been labeled as adverse childhood events. Poverty, itself, is considered to be a type of sustained adverse childhood experience, and it also is a correlate factor, since living in poverty increases the likelihood of experiencing other adverse childhood events.
We know that these types of severe and chronic stress lead to long-term changes in children’s mental and physical development, and that this directly impacts their performance in school. “On an emotional level, toxic stress can make it difficult for children to moderate their responses to disappointments and provocations. A highly sensitive stress-response system constantly on the lookout for threats can produce patterns of behavior that are self-defeating in school: fighting, talking back, acting up, and, more subtly, going through each day perpetually wary of connection with peers or teachers. On a cognitive level, chronically elevated stress can disrupt the development of what are known as executive functions …, which include working memory, attentional control, and cognitive flexibility.”
We know that children living in poverty face greater academic challenges than their middle and upper class counterparts, and yet, instead of helping this situation, the school accountability movement has chosen to vilify the wrong thing (teachers and schools), and has used standardized test scores as the weapon of choice to add insult to injury.
A Moving Target
In Ohio, there have been so many moving pieces at play that it is impossible to get a statistically valid measure. Over the course of the past three years, schools, teachers, and students have had their performance assessed using a different measurement tool each year. The 2013-2014 school year was the final year for assessment using the old Ohio State Standards and the Ohio Achievement Assessments. In the 2014-2015 school year, we switched to a combination of Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) and American Institute of Research (AIR) assessments based on the Common Core State Standards. Due to the legislation passed which illegalized PARCC administration in the state of Ohio, in the 2015-2016 school year, we administered AIR tests for the full battery of testing. During those same years, Ohio increased the number of grades and subjects areas tested.
In addition to these changes, the identified percentage of correct responses for proficiency on each test has changed each year, and the percentage of students scoring proficient in order to schools to be considered successful in achieving Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) has also increased each year.
So, the standards have changed, the tests have changed, the acceptable percent of correct responses has changed, the required percentage of students achieving proficiency has changed.
It is, therefore, not surprising that scores have remained anything but static. For the 2012-2013 school year, Cincinnati Public Schools was rated as being in “Continuous Improvement,” while the school where I teach was deemed “Excellent.” For the 2015-2016 school year, the Cincinnati Public Schools received four ratings of “F” and 2 ratings of “D,” while the school where I teach received 3 “F” ratings and 2 D ratings. (As a high school program, we are not rated in the area of K-3 Literacy.)
There are only two ways to interpret this. Either, over the course of three years, the quality of instruction has declined precipitously (across a district of nearly 3,000 teachers), or the data is invalid. The former assumption is nonsensical; the latter is terrifying based on the weight this data carries when making educational decisions.
Teacher performance evaluations are linked to test scores, School and district report cards are based almost exclusively on test scores, and, student graduation is based on test scores. But if the tools keep changing and the target keeps moving, how is it even remotely possible to measure improvement?
This concern is compounded by the subjectivity of the scores determined for proficiency – the cut scores are neither norm-referenced nor consistent from year to year.
For the 2015-2016 testing, in reading and math, across all grade levels, the percentage of students projected to score proficient or above ranged from 52-66%. This means that even on tests where students were “most likely to pass,” it was anticipated that only 66% of students would do so, and for other tests this was as low as 52%. For many tests, the reality was significantly worse. Only 21% of students taking Integrated Mathematics (Math 2) across the state were deemed proficient or above, and only 24% of students taking the Geometry test scored proficient or above. This is an awfully broad-scale problem to make the assumption that the issue of concern lies with students and teachers, rather than with the testing itself and with the structure of the system of accountability.
And once again, we see that poverty plays a role in these outcomes. For the 2015-2016 school year, 94% of urban schools in Ohio received ratings of D or F. Because of school accountability, and the high-stakes nature of the tests, scores like these cause the testing pressure to ratchet up. Low scores necessarily result in greater time and resources being spent solely to improve these scores. Some call this “test preparation;” others call it “teaching to the test.” Testing and school accountability result in too much time spent on testing, and on teaching curriculum that loses much of the flexible, creative, engaging, and in-depth instruction that keeps students engaged in learning and educators engaged in teaching. As one former urban school principal, concerned about the state report card, said during a faculty meeting when a teacher dared question how testing was detracting from her carefully crafted curriculum, “The test IS the curriculum! What are you, STUPID?!?!”
An Unavoidable Outcome
In 2013, the American Federation of Teachers reported that in heavily tested grades, up to fifty hours a year was spent on testing and up to 110 hours a year devoted to test preparation. Schools with high percentages of disadvantaged students bear the greatest weight for this, as they tend to have the greatest required gains in testing outcomes. The Center for American Progress notes that students in urban high schools spend up to 266% more time taking standardized tests than students in suburban schools.
And this is the fundamental problem with school accountability measures. They have caused the American public school system to become overly focused on a single measurement of success, and that measure is most punitive to populations that are already struggling.
Standardized test data is one measure of academic achievement, and as such it is valuable, but it is nothing more than a single data point. However, this data point has become so important that it is driving every other aspect of the educational train.
I want that data point – I want it for each of my students individually, and I want it for my class collectively – because it tells me something. But it doesn’t tell me everything, and we are treating it as if it does. How can the snapshot of a test score – given on a certain day, in a certain amount of time, with a specific type of questioning – tell me more than what I know as a result of working with my students hour after hour, day after day, for 40 weeks? It can’t, of course.
A Teacher’s Plea
Teachers are professionals, and we should be treated as such.
We are required to hold, at minimum, a Bachelor’s degree in teaching one or more subject areas; we also must complete significant amounts of additional training every year, and, at least in Ohio, to submit this to the state for re-licensure every five years. Most importantly, teachers are highly practiced in assessment and interpretation of results through our daily work with students and our careful observation of, and reflection on, student learning .
Education is complicated. Student growth is broad and deep, and sometimes happens in fits and starts and other times grows slowly and consistently. This complex process could never be adequately measured by a series of tests.
I know my students. I know when I am moving too quickly or too slowly, and I know when they are succeeding and when they are struggling. To assume that the state can determine this, and can make judgments on the effectiveness of my instruction based solely on a single measure is folly – especially when we know that students in poverty, the teachers who educate them, and the schools that serve them, will be judged most harshly by these measures. In fact, standardized test scores may tell us very little about a teachers’ impact or a students’ future success.
As Paul Tough writes, “A few years ago, a young economist at Northwestern University named C. Kirabo Jackson began investigating how to measure educators’ effectiveness. In many school systems these days, teachers are assessed based primarily on one data point: the standardized-test scores of their students. Jackson suspected that the true impact teachers had on their students was more complicated than a single test score could reveal… He created a proxy measure for students’ noncognitive ability. Jackson’s new index measured how engaged students were in school – Whether they showed up, whether they misbehaved, and how hard they worked in their classes. Jackson found that this was, remarkably, a better predictor than student’s test scores of whether the students would go on to attend college, a better predictor of adult wages, and a better predictor of future arrests.”
School Accountability measures with their fundamental focus on testing reduces teachers’ ability to focus on nurturing students’ “noncognitive ability,” and this is damaging to students and teachers alike — perhaps irrevocably damaging.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is moving us in the right direction by removing the requirement that teacher evaluations be linked to standardized test outcomes, but it doesn’t go far enough, and it leaves the window open for states to continue this practice.
As a nation, we must move away from our obsession with testing outcomes. The only group that is profiting from this is the testing industry. And with 1.7 billion dollars being spent by states annually on testing, they are, quite literally, profiting, and at the tax payers’ expense.
The most critical solution to this is to untie student, teacher, and school accountability measures from testing outcomes, or to combine these scores with a variety of other measures of success. In addition, we need to dramatically reduce the time spent on testing by requiring tests in fewer grades, or not administering tests every year. No high-performing nation in the world tests all students annually.
An Expert Opinion
We are not in an education crisis. We are in a crisis of poverty that is being exacerbated by the school accountability movement and the testing industry. At best, this movement has been misguided. At worst, it is an intentional set up to bring about the demise of the public education system – mandatory testing designed to produce poor results which leads to greater investment made in test preparation programs provided by the same companies who produce the tests, coupled with a related push for privatization of the educational system. All touted as a means to save us from this false crisis.
Politics, not education, got us into this mess, and it is politics that must get us out of it.
We must not go further down this rabbit hole. The future of our educational system, and the future of our children, is at stake. No one who has not worked in the sector of public education should be making decisions about our school system without careful consideration of the insights of those who will be directly impacted by those decisions.
As we move forward with a new federal administration, and as the state of Ohio makes decisions relative to implementation of ESSA, I beg you to not just include teachers and parents in the discussion, but to ensure that we are the loudest voices in the conversation.
I hope that you will consider the issues raised here, and most importantly, that you will listen to the voices of the teachers and parents who are trying so desperately to be heard.
Thank you for your time. I am happy to engage in the conversation further; feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kristina L. Taylor
Intervention Specialist; Team Leader
James N. Gamble Montessori High School
2015 Educator of the Year
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