If you’re as passionate about improving education as we are, chances are you’ve had moments of discouragement, too. However, lately, we’ve come across several campaigns that had us smiling. We thought we’d pass on the optimism to remind us all that positive change in education happens every day–and to let you know how you can take part!
Student and teacher anxiety gradually mount. Expendable activities like art and P.E. begin to make way for multiple choice practice time. Policymaker, administrator, and parent debates rekindle. You guessed it, standardized testing season approaches.
Despite all the options available for more effective learning evaluations, the high-stakes, billion-dollar machine of one-size-fits-all government assessments continues to prevail in the US. After reading dozens of articles on assessment alternatives (and their comments), we started finding clues that may help explain why things haven’t changed yet.
Myth #1: Schools need to be evaluated like businesses:
Just because some great business strategies have been positively applied to school administration does not mean all of them can or should be. In the above comment, the writer complains about the lack of “product testing” for the new performance assessments given at a district. However, let’s consider the logistics here. Businesses can try out ideas and products on test subjects, and if they flop, they can bring in their test subjects for another try. Schools have no such luxury; their sample groups don’t get to repeat their 4th grade end-of-year assessments–they just move on to 5th grade. In the end, it takes bold schools like this one in Kentucky, this group in New York, or this district in Colorado to pioneer and make way for change for the rest of us.
Myth #2: When Adopting New Strategies, the Entire District Must Shift All at Once:
As the district experiments with performance based assessments, it’s finding it an easy transition in elementary school, but much harder in the older grades. “The poor middle school and high school students have already been acclimated to this way of thinking, so to give them a performance test is agony,” Morgan said. Those “remedial thinking skills” are what Douglas County hopes to prevent for the next group of students. (“Can Schools Be Held Accountable Without Standardized Tests?“)
The above excerpt makes a very valid point–after all, we spend years training students to memorize and regurgitate content for standardized testing. Can we blame kids if they’re a bit rusty when we suddenly ask them to access their neglected critical thinking and problem solving skills in 10th grade?
We suggest that new alternative assessment procedures be introduced in younger grades to acclimate students over time, rather than going for district or statewide plunges. This would give us a better idea of the assessment system’s effectiveness.
Myth #3: Parents can gain more insight into their students’ learning from the quantitative feedback of standardized tests than qualitative feedback:
The above comment reveals two problems. One, the parent doesn’t seem to understand that his/her son wasn’t being tested based on opinions–rather, he was being tested on how well he could write an opinion essay. And two, what if his performance was based on someone’s opinion? More specifically, what if parents had to rely more on teachers’ anecdotal notes and feedback than on scores from standardized tests? Do we really trust a bunch of figures generated in stressful, once-yearly conditions more than insights from a professional who spends an entire year working closely with children? Furthermore, once parents receive those solid numbers from standardized tests, do they even know what exactly it is they’re looking for to “know where you need to work on improving?”
Myth #4: Assessments provide accountability for schools–especially low demographic ones:
Without standardized testing—and lacking any other basis for comparison in their own educational experience—the students’ families had no way of knowing what I had assumed was obvious: that eighth graders on the other side of town were well past working on multisyllabic words or improper fractions. They had no way of knowing that their hardworking, solid-GPA kids were already far behind. (“The Good in Standardized Testing”)
Later in the same article, the author provided suggestions to use tests “for research, not judgement.” She gave excellent suggestions for improving the approach, like random, testing on small groups throughout the year, and clearly seems to value tests with more substance. However, even when it comes to using the numbers for research, there still remain major shortcomings that affect the poorest schools–schools that can’t afford books from which the multiple choice questions are drawn.
Myth #5: Multiple Choice is the Only [or best] Way to Learn About their Learning:
In the end, isn’t the bottom-line for assessments getting students, parents, teachers, and administrators on the same page regarding student learning? If that’s the case, we need to focus primarily on this objective as we think outside the box to uncover and share student learning. For your consideration:
- Performance testing
- Portfolio assessments (check out our guide on digital ones!)
- Shifting public thought in general towards the idea that “everything is an assessment” (Edna Sackson), and utilizing resources like class Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and more to better communicate the data all year round.
Benjamin Chun via Flickr Creative Commons (featured image)
Jasmeet via Flickr Creative Commons
If you’re a teacher, chances are, you’ve experienced parents upset over both too much and too little assigned homework. Have you ever wondered why opinions on the issue tend to be emphatic, polarized, and emotional? So did we. We decided to do some serious digging, and we were shocked at what we found…
Continue reading 6 Reasons the Homework Debate is a Mess
It’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy of efficiency as teachers. Standards and tests and data and reports bear down on us with pressure to make every. minute. count.
There also seems to be an endless supply of initiatives to maximize our efficiency–many of which seem to simply offer more fodder for burnout, like some ideas found in the video below (at the proposition for increased class sizes for quality teachers, I could only visualize the exhausted expression of one of my mentor teachers the year they increased her first grade class size–because she could handle it, right?).
2/3/15 UPDATE: It appears that OpportunityCulture.org has removed their video after we published this post a couple of weeks ago. So, to fill you in if you missed it, the ideas we found most worrisome in the video included: 1) increasing class sizes for “excellent teachers” so more students could feel their influence (while decreasing class sizes for novice teachers); 2) implementing rotating classes for those “excellent teachers” so they could reach even more students each day; 3) an apparent oversight of the teacher-student relationship in general. Instead, their page now says the following:
“Watch this space for an updated motiongraphic, based on the experiences of the first pilot schools to implement their own Opportunity Cultures, showing the importance of models that let teams led by excellent teachers reach many more students, and let all teachers earn more and learn more—through more school-day time for collaboration and planning, and without forcing class-size increases.”
10/29/2015 UPDATE: A new video has been published. The model is explained differently, but the basis still rests on class-size increases for excellent teachers and efficiency, which still leaves us concerned about the lack of discussion on teacher-student relationships.
Kim Collazo’s response on Twitter brings to light what’s most worrisome about these kinds of ideas:
— kcollazo (@kcollazo) January 14, 2015
Empathy Over Efficiency
Efficiency values time-management; empathy values taking all the time that is necessary to build relationships. Both have their place in our classrooms, but we must be careful that the more aggressive pursuits for efficiency don’t swallow up the daily opportunities to foster our relationships. To learn more about why empathy is so important in every relationship, see the poignant RSA video below in which Dr. Brené Brown describes how to discern genuine empathy.
After all, what does it matter if our students ace every test and memorize every chart if they lack the ability to connect and reach out to one another in compassion and understanding?
Strategies to Convey Empathy
Whatever your subject matter, empathy should take a prominent place in all your instruction–both indirectly in general interactions with students, and directly as you point students’ attention to learning opportunities.
Love & Logic
- Even when students are in difficult situations that they created for themselves (ie, sloughing off in class), help them understand that you are still there for them. Start with empathetic responses like, “Wow, I’ve been there, and it’s such a hard place to be.” The suggestions for solving the problem can wait until after the student truly knows you understand and care.
- Starting with the youngest children who may cry out in frustration with using scissors, students can begin to gain a sense of authentic human connection when you respond with an empathetic, “I hate it when that happens to me!” Help them know they are not alone from the earliest age!
Take the time
- Joe Bower shared a powerful example of what taking the time to teach a child about empathy–while reflecting genuine empathy–looks like. “Working With Students When they Are at Their Worst” is definitely a worthwhile read!
- If your class begins to have more widespread issues, such as dishonesty or unkindness, take time during weekly class meetings to discuss it. Talk honestly about how those choices are impacting you as their teacher. Talk about everyone’s observations on how it’s impacting the class. Then brainstorm possible actions everyone can take to solve the issue.
Cause & Effect
- Have frequent conversations in which students picture themselves in another’s shoes.
- Discuss possible personal struggles that peers may be experiencing, and which we would never know about.
- Read books like Patricia Polacco’s Thank You, Mr. Falker that explore the impact of bullying.
- Engage in process drama activities such as Decision Alley that get students thinking about different perspectives
- Display the quote below by Philo, and frequently brainstorm ways we can be kind
We were impressed by one school’s use of Twitter for a teacher-led professional development chat. We’ve written on Twitter’s potential for professional development before, so we thought it would be a great idea to share what that looks like in action! We interviewed Principal Matt Webster (@MWebster158) and teacher Laura Komos (@LauraKomos) at Martin Elementary School to find out how they did it and how you can get started, too!
Storify of “mock Twitter chat”:
— Laura Komos (@LauraKomos) October 17, 2014
Questions they discussed:
- Q1: What’s one new (tech or non-tech) tool or idea you’ve tried with your kids recently?
- Q2: What is a tool or technique you’d like to learn more about?
- Q3: How are you utilizing the Collaboration Rooms in the Husky Hub?
- Q4: What are your other students doing while you meet with small groups?
- Q5: What does your Target/RtI time look like?
How often does your school’s staff have PD Twitter chats?
- Matt: The #martin158 chat that you saw was a specific PD session at Martin today. We have a PD Menu at our school (new this year) that is driven and created by the teachers wants and needs. One of the October sessions happened to be Twitter as Resource. Part II of this PD session was a mock twitter chat for new users to experience and learn the ins and outs of a chat on Twitter. Other PD sessions offered over the next 2 months include:
- Flipped Classrooms
- 40 Book Challenge
- Picture Books to reinforce Figurative Language and Comprehension Strategies
- Virtual Fieldtrips
- Independent Practice Time – Differentiating
How does the Twitter chat support other PD at your school?
- Matt: What we plan on doing is turning the #martin158 practice chat into a monthly chat where we can post questions and discussion on PD topics that have already happened or are upcoming.
How did you initially approach PD Twitter chats with the staff?
- Matt: We introduced Twitter to the whole staff last year at a staff meeting (phones were required J). Followed that up with this PD Menu session and will continue it with monthly chats using #martin158
Tell us about some of the logistics of a staff Twitter chat.
Matt: For the PD, it was all staff interested staying after school experiencing it and asking questions together. We have 100 staff (1,025 kids 3rd-5th) so not all are interested. But the interest is growing. We ask a lot of questions as admin and try really hard to follow up. So if a teacher or group of teachers say they are interested in learning, in this case, how to use Twitter as a tool, then we make sure to offer it to them. I feel very fortunate to work with a lot of great people in this profession at this school. It’s not hard to find an “expert” to lead the way on a particular topic. Those interested step up and make it happen.
What are some of the effects of the chat on your staff?
- Matt: As a result of today, people left excited–a number of them stayed and asked questions based on the tweets they read. I imagine by next week a few new ideas will have been tried in classrooms because of the chat today. Martin went 1:1 in 2012 and with that came a number of changes including a new reading curriculum, new technology of course, but also a new approach to PD and teacher support. I was the assistant principal that year and became the principal the following year (2013-2014). I see my primary role as an administrator at Martin, to one of support for our teachers so they can do what they do best which is to positively impact our students.
- Laura: Since the chat, I have noticed several of the participants using Twitter to connect with colleagues from other schools in our district as well as teachers from other places. I’m excited to see what the future of #martin158 brings to our professional learning!
What have been some challenges of PD Twitter chats?
- Matt: We haven’t encountered any thus far that have been problematic. We have a very passionate staff that want to do what’s best for their students and utilize new resources to do so. What is comfortable for some right now is using resources and relationships on twitter to grow their practice of teaching.
What advice would you have for other school administrators and teachers to get their schools started on PD Twitter chats?
- Matt: As with anything else in education the first question should always be student focused… what do we want our students to learn? And then follow that up with, what will we do when they do/don’t learn it? For us, Twitter is just another tool or resource to help us design plans and lessons in an attempt to help our students learn. For other administrators I would simply say that if there is a desire to connect to other professionals, be inspired by other ideas, and connect to other people doing great things, then give it a try. A collaborative culture is present in every highly functioning school. Twitter allows you to take that one step further and collaborate with educators all over the world.
Thank you so much Matt and Laura!
Featured Image: The New School
Looking for some lively discussion among passionate educators? Or professional development that applies to your personal goals? Or some inspiration for one of your current classroom challenges? Or even just to broaden your PLN? Then join in on one or all of these favorite Twitter Chats!
A Few Handy TwitterChat tips:
- Introduce yourself when you join in.
- Use the chat hashtag in every comment you make so others in the discussion can see it!
- Download a platform like TweetDeck to more easily see all the incoming Tweets (they come fast during a lively discussion).
- Questions are listed by the moderator as Q1, Q2, etc. Start your tweets with A1, A2, etc. to correspond with the question at hand, and try to stay on topic! If you get inspired to begin an offshoot discussion, you can always DM (direct message) an individual!
- For more support to get started, check out or posts on Twitter in the classroom and PLN’s for beginners.
- What: PYP stands for the Primary Years Programme for the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, but you don’t have to be a PYP teacher to join in! We’re all about inquiry, passionate learning, and honest reflection.
- When: Every other Thursday at 7 pm ET
- Info & Archives: http://pypchat.wikispaces.com/
- Sample Questions discussed:
— Chris Beddows (@MrBeddows) October 9, 2014
— Chris Beddows (@MrBeddows) October 9, 2014
- What: 5th grade teachers gather to discuss a variety of educational topics, which are voted on every Friday through Sunday.
- When: Every Tuesday at 8 pm ET
- Info & Archives: https://5thchat.wikispaces.com/
- Sample questions discussed:
Q5: High school Ts often say that creativity is gone by the time kids get to them. Why? How do we change that? #5thchat
— brian fahey (@brianfahey61) October 8, 2014
- What: The International Reading Association (@IRAToday) moderates this chat. Anyone interested in discussing ways to promote literacy is welcome!
- When: Second Thursday every month at 8 pm ET
- Archives: https://storify.com/search?q=%23IRAchat
- Sample questions discussed:
Others We Haven’t Tried Yet that Also Look Promising:
- #edtechchat: Mondays at 8 pm ET
- #geniushour: 1st Thursday of each month at 9 pm ET
Want a way to keep up with current practices in education, to receive feedback from experts, and to connect with other educators around the globe? A PLN allows you to achieve all this and more!