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Taming the Tedium of Testing, Part 3 of 3: Ideas for a New Educational System

on February 1, 2012

Ideas for a New Educational System

Welcome to the last part of this trilogy, in which I will share my dreams about what our schools could be. These are ideas I’ve been chewing on for years, and many of them are already being done successfully in other places. For the first time since the beginning of NCLB, we as a nation are being invited to rethink the way we teach our children. It’s incredibly exciting, and we need lots of out-of-the-box thinkers to help create a vibrant future for our children. I’m adding my voice here, but welcome other ideas, thoughts, and brainstorms in the comment section. So without further adieu….

1) Begin by calculating the amount of money our districts and states spend on test preparation each year. I’m sure these numbers are out there somewhere, and if we dig for hidden costs as well, I know the sums will be sizable. This is our budget. With this budget, do the following:

2) Reduce our class sizes to improve student/teacher ratios, and consider keeping teachers with one group of students for more than one year. I talk more about that here.

3) Meet kids’ needs, even if it means breaking the rules. Embrace rapid grade acceleration if an eight year old child is ready for high school material, and don’t make parents go through so many hoops. Better yet, consider grouping kids by ability instead of by age. It is not fair to expect our brightest children to entertain themselves in a classroom simply by teaching their peers. Providing opportunities for kids to teach kids is a fabulous and relevant concept, and if you read my blog regularly, you know that I actively promote this practice. But these opportunities must be balanced with true, ability-appropriate academic rigor.

I know that ability grouping is, to put it mildly, a controversial topic. But grouping by age simply makes no sense. Again, I think Sir Ken Robinson says it best. And yes, of course, I’m advocating for gifted kids here, and they are only one of a myriad of groups to consider. We all have our soapboxes. But I believe that individualizing our educational system  would benefit kids of many abilities and interests.

4) Create individualized learning plans for every student. Involve the student in making those learning plans, and let them have at least some say in what they want to learn. Use these as working, living documents with the students, referring back to them periodically through the year to assess (again, with the student) if the objectives are still relevant, if the student is being able to meet them, etc. Use these documents as one tool to assess student/teacher success. Yes, it’s messier than a standardized test score, but so much more tied to reality. It’s also more empowering for the student. I talk a bit more about that here.

Note that in order for the ILPs to work, they must be used effectively and regularly; otherwise, they simply become another form to complete. Years ago, I was a case manager for folks with HIV/AIDS who also had housing or financial issues. Each client and I would create personalized goals and objectives together, and discuss what each of us could bring to the table to achieve them. This jointly created document was the cornerstone of our work together; it served as the outline to our story. This is how I envision an ILP would work with students.

5) Honor teachers who think outside the box to bring creativity and student empowerment into the classroom. Offer and/or encourage attendance to workshops and trainings that further promote this type of teaching. Renee Boss adds here that adequate time to plan and collaborate with other teachers is key. She says:

Time teachers have for planning varies depending upon the school.  At most, elementary and middle school teachers get 45 minutes per day, but that is rare because usually that planning time is spent in parent conferences and doing all the mundane tasks….  High school teachers might get 50-90 minutes but that, too, varies depending upon the schedule at a school.  If a school has 7 periods in a day, a teacher would get about 45-50 minutes to plan for up to 180 students.  Again, it’s normal for teachers at any level to have to spend that planning time doing other things.  Same usually goes with before and after school.

I asked Renee if she had any ideas about where to carve out extra planning time, and she said:

…I think one way to make this happen is to hire staff who do all the … extra tasks usually charged to teachers.  For example, hall duty, lunch duty, morning duty, bus duty, walking kids to and from various places in the hallways (usually elementary and middle school).  Someone to make copies, clean up the classroom, be an extra adult in the room to listen to kids read, etc.

6) Add more meaningful parent-teacher-student conferences, using the individualized learning plan a central, vibrant tool. I’ve attended far too many parent-teacher conferences in which the student is present, but really, it’s just the teacher letting me, the parent, know how my kid did on the most recent state assessments. These meetings are completely useless to me. In order to have meaningful conferences, these meetings need to be team-based, with parents and students working as members.

My son’s second grade teacher had this mastered. We communicated by phone and email weekly, working together to make Ian’s education more interesting and challenging for him. She let him pursue some of his own interests, and differentiated for him according to his needs. For example, since Ian was already skilled in narrative, she allowed him to forgo class worksheet time (which he hated), and instead research the history of Halloween. He researched at school, wrote his paper at home, and then shared it with the class. This arrangement happened because I was a vocal advocate for Ian, and she was an intentional, mindful teacher. But what if this method was the new standard?

Oh ho, you say. Look at all the time you are asking for! Weekly communication?? One-on-one learning plan review?? Family collaboration?? First off, I want to formally recognize that not all families have the same advantages, and that people with serious health, family, financial or other difficulties will not necessarily be able to bring an equal or interested voice to the table. I get that. But even without parent involvement, a teacher-student designed learning plan would boost the student’s sense of ownership is his/her education. And that could make all the difference.

Secondly, yes, I acknowledge that this method takes time. But how many teachers bemoan the huge amount of time lost to test prep and test taking? My answer: every one that I have ever talked to. My suggestion is simply to divert this wasted time into meaningful time. My husband Jamie teaches English at our local university, and for ten years has provided one-on-one conferences in his composition classes. He cancels classes for a week and instead schedules 15 minutes with each student individually. The student comes to his office and reads her paper out loud to Jamie. They discuss the writing together. Almost unanimously, students say that these conferences are their favorite part of Jamie’s classes – that they learn as much in that 15 minutes than they do in the rest of the class altogether. Periodically sacrificing group time to provide meaningful individualized instruction is simply a good idea.

And lastly, in case this all feels too daunting, I dream that districts would be willing to try this individualized approach by setting it up in one school to work through the new methods and “get the kinks out” so to speak. Even with the kinks, I for one would be quick to get behind it.

And there you go. I’d like to invite conversation here about these ideas, as well as your own thoughts and opinions about how we should be educating our children.

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6 responses to “Taming the Tedium of Testing, Part 3 of 3: Ideas for a New Educational System

  1. Anthony W says:

    Can I add being the parents into the classroom via twitter, blogs, video streaming … I, for one, find period reports and test scores pointless … Show me what you and my kids class are actually doing every day – keep us connected.

    • What a fabulous idea, Anthony! I think bringing parents into the classroom would benefit everyone. I think about volunteering or physically observing when I think of that, but hadn’t considered a technological connection. That would help full-time working parents be able to connect too. I wonder if anyone’s doing this….

  2. Why learn what the inside of the box looks like, when the outside is in 3D?. In other words, learning is´nt about whats inside the box. Its about what sourrounds us !

  3. Lisa says:

    As one homeschooling parent to another (well, our son is now in college, but I still definitely feel like a homeschooler!), I applaud this post. Once one sees how much of what we think is necessary for learning–constant assessment, a strict schedule of what to learn when, even grades themselves–simply isn’t necessary at all, it’s much easier to open our eyes to the possibilities for classroom education. Like your husband, I teach at a university, and I’m allowed (even encouraged) to individualize all the time, for the simple reason that it works.

    A non-profit organization for which I’m a Director, SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted), is also concerned about how the lock-step methods we currently have make it more likely that children, especially very young children, will be misdiagnosed with ADHD. The consequences of our current system can alter lives, and not for the better.

    I’ve very happy to have found your blog!

    • Thanks so much Lisa! I’m a big fan of your work, and love your Creative Home Schooling for Gifted Kids book. It was a life-saver when we started this journey! I agree, as a homeschooler, I’m now seeing so many new possibilities for the public school classrooms. I still care about our public education very much, and want to be a part of the solution(s) to our current issues.

      Anyone reading these comments should surely check out SENG as well. You do amazing work there, Lisa!

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