Sunday, June 12, 2016

It's Time to Decide What's Next in Ed

Stanley Howe CC License
Over the last decade, education has developed a dual personality. One is the high stakes assessment driven culture that focuses on a narrow top-down curricular vision. It is a vestige of the 20th-century vision for education. It is organized, clear in its means and outcomes. The yardsticks are set, and we are all measured against them. After trying this way for the better part of 20 years, we can say a few things. The first is that the accountability put in place helped shine a light on educational inequities that were sometimes hidden by local reporting practices. Accountability done well showed clearly the "achievement gap" and its relationship to income and other inequalities. However, the neo-liberal expectation that exposing certain inequalities will lead to a self-correcting system through a system of rewards and punishments has failed miserably.

At the same time, educators have realized that the post-industrial economy presents new challenges and need a decidedly different educational output. The vision was not necessarily new (Dewey was right) but it was now deemed necessary not just by humanist but also by business leaders. The call for education that is creative, problem-solving oriented, and includes soft skills is now coming from all sides. The problem is that we cannot do both at the same time. At least not well.

We have tried for a while to claim that working on 21st skills will also lead to growth in test scores a-la Dr. Seuss and Jack Prelutsky (Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!). The linear nature of tests defies this logic. From an effort perspective, you get more "bang for your buck" (the buck here is time) if you focus only on tested skills than if you work on a complex wide array of outcomes many of them long term. My mentor Lee Swanson used to call it confusing the independent and dependent variables. In this case, limited measurement gives you a false sense of impact.

What I see in the field are schools trying to satisfy both personalities. Let's score high on the test with a narrow curricular vision AND be creative. The reality is that our days are too short, and both teachers and students find it very hard to pivot from a structured almost canned curriculum to creativity and soft skills and then back again.

The question is how to combine the advantages of the accountability era, namely accountability that shines a light on inequities, with 21st-century curricular goals. The answer is simple. Technology. Technology allows us to record everything students do. The need for a narrow window of time in which all students are measured on a narrow set of skills can be replaced by a flexible system that records everything that students do and tags their growing abilities. My personal work with Actively Learn is an example of how this can be achieved. But for that to work, we need to put our attention to making sure that we have the right personality.

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