September 2010

Very excited about Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation: it offers great stimulation about the nature of contemporary innovation, and inspires us to think further about how our schools can be sites for innovation in our teaching and in our student learning.  (The book is released next week; I am quoting the reviewer’s advance copy)

Johnson’s book, I think, belongs right next to another recent favorite, Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus, in its enthusiastic embrace of the value and power of the internet to unleash and unite creative and productive energies from around the world as forces for good, for reform, and for innovation.   Johnson argues persuasively that the web, (and Twitter particularly) is our new coral reef where diversity of life is phenomenally abundant, and is our large metropolitan cultural crossroads, where good ideas meet, merge, and reinvent themselves. (more…)

Last week I spoke at the US Education Department about three “next generation” assessments which I believe can really expand and improve the way we assess and improve learning in our schools; what I didn’t entirely realize is that only two weeks earlier, Secretary Duncan himself had also spoken about next-gen assessments, and our remarks are remarkably aligned.

I have criticized, and many, many of my friends in the Twitter/blogosphere have attacked, Secretary Duncan’s perpetuation of NCLB’s unwarranted, narrow,  student soul-deadening, and distorting use and even abuse of fill-in-the bubble, standardized multiple choice tests of basic skills.   I don’t think we should necessarily eliminate these tests altogether, but I very deeply believe they must be supplemented extensively by tests which far more authentically assess the development of the higher order thinking skills such as analytic reasoning and innovative problem-solving, things that a bubble test can never capture.

I also believe, and also spoke about at the Ed Department, that when and where we do use multiple choice tests to evaluate more basic skills in math and reading, we should do so in computer adapted methodologies that configure themselves quickly to students actual skill level, inform us far more acutely about students’ proficiencies, and provide that information to teachers immediately, in real-time.

These two points are almost exactly parallel to what Secretary Duncan called for in his Assessment 2.0 speech: Beyond the Bubble Test: Next Generation Assessments on September 2.  It was also written about in the New York Times on September 4, US Asks Educators to Reinvent Tests, and How they are Given.   (For the record, I published my first piece on this same topic on August 4.)  I have been using already the term “next-generation” assessments, but I also appreciate the term Assessment 2.0, and I think readers here can expect to see it appear frequently in the future.

Duncan’s speech, which I extensively quote below, celebrates emphatically that we will in the future have authentic assessments which measure higher order thinking skills, and that we will have computer adapted testing which provides real-time assessments of basic skills.   He calls upon us to celebrate these valuable, wonderful steps “beyond the bubble tests,” and I join his celebration in offering two cheers.

However, he also says again and again that these will be coming in the future “for the first time,” and that they will not be available until 2014.   Hence my singular caveat and objection to his remarks, and  I want to say this loudly (!), is that both these kinds of “next generation” assessments already exist, in the form of the CWRA and the MAP from NWEA.   I should also point out that I believe St. Gregory is the only school in the country, (or if I am wrong, one of no more than a dozen at most), public or private, that is performing currently both of these assessments. (more…)

Jim Collins justifiably is renowned for his book, Good to Great; his book previous to that, Built to Last, is also terrific.  In it, he explains that the most successful and lasting companies reconcile two competing values:  they preserve eternally the core of their organization’s core purposes while still also stimulating progress by adjusting, updating, and refreshing their mission.   This becomes then one of the book’s strongest principles: Preserve the Core, Stimulate Progress.

This I think we have done; last week the St. Gregory Board of Trustees updated its mission of the past four years with a revised statement that most certainly preserves the core, promoting excellence in student development of character, scholarship, and leadership, while stimulating progress in the critically important area of 21st century innovation, and also by adding in the importance of our being a diverse learning community.

(I have put in at the very bottom of the post the previous, for those who wish to compare).

We did one other thing: we sought, admittedly in very general terms, to answer the question to what end?   Yes, it is our mission to challenge (and now also to support!) our students to excellence, but for what greater purpose?  So that they can make a positive impact in the world by pursuing their passions, appreciating and creating beauty, and, in what may be my favorite, by solving problems!


St. Gregory College Preparatory School, as a diverse learning community,

challenges and supports students to achieve excellence in character, scholarship, leadership, and innovation

and prepares them to make a positive impact in the world through pursuing their passions, appreciating and creating beauty, and solving problems.


St. Gregory honors the development of student character built on personal integrity, compassion, and respect.   (more…)

High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE)

NWEA’ Measurement of Academic Progress (MAP)

College and Work Readiness Assessment (CWRA)

NAIS Monograph: Student Outcomes that Measure School’s Value Added

St. Gregory students discuss the CWRA: Long version– click on More. (more…)

Susan Engels strikes another positive blow for reasonable discourse in thinking about education in her piece entitled Scientifically Tested Tests ; she is great asset for those of us trying to chart the right middle course.   In contrast to Alfie Kohn on the left, and, let’s say, Secretary Duncan on the right, she holds and articulates the thoughtful centrist position that this blog is seeking for regularly.

By shifting our assessment techniques, we would learn more of what we really need to know about how children, teachers and schools are doing. And testing could be returned to its rightful place as one tool among many for improving schools, rather than serving as a weapon that degrades the experience for teachers and students alike.

This centrist course is not one of obsessively testing with multiple choice scantrons; it is also not about summarily judging and condemning schools and teachers on narrow bases.

there are few indications that the multiple-choice format of a typical test, in which students are quizzed on the specific formulas and bits of information they have memorized that year, actually measures what we need to know about children’s education.

These tests are easy to administer, but to what return?  I am not the first to say that frequent multiple choice testing reminds us of the old joke of looking for the keys under the lightpost; they were dropped in the dark, but the man looks under the light because he can’t (easily) see in the dark.

There are flashlights; let’s use them.    Engels, whom I have praised here before, offers interesting suggestions about authentic assessments that do get at what we really want students to learn.

we should come up with assessments that truly measure the qualities of well-educated children: the ability to understand what they read; an interest in using books to gain knowledge; (more…)

Today’s Times Magazine (9.19.10) is devoted to technology in education, and I am happy that the general tenor is very positive.     Secretary of Education Arne Duncan comes awfully close to saying that every student should have a computer, despite his interviewer’s skepticism, and this blogger is delighted to read him say “often, as you know, the kids are way ahead of the adults.”

The opening piece is titled, wonderfully, Achieving Techno-Literacy: Computers are a Tool, not a Solution; I think it aligns nicely with my piece, In Schools of the Future, Students Learn by Doing, Digitally.  The author says of his son, after a year of home-schooling using on-line learning tools: “He had learned the most critical thing: how to keep learning.   A month ago he entered high school eager to be taught– not facts, or even skills, but a lifelong process that would keep pace with technology’s rapid, ceaseless teaching.”

Right now, though, I want to appreciate a much lower-visibility piece in the Times two weeks ago, by Gregory Mankiw, entitled A Course Load for the Game of Life.   Mankiw was President Bush’s Chair of the CEA and is the author of a standard Econ textbook; he was also, as I recall, my section teacher for Ec 10 (not lecturer, but small group section teacher); I spent many a morning in a classroom with him and 20 others learning Econ.

This piece is short but important: what do students need to learn for the modern economy and the fast changing world?  Well, Economics for one:

economics [is] “the study of mankind in the ordinary business of life.” (more…)

Regular readers here know I very frequently write about my enthusiasm for the CWRA; one of my most viewed posts is the video I produced of my students discussing how much they enjoyed taking the test.

Now we’ve received our first “institutional report regarding our student performance on the CWRA College Work Readiness Assessment), and we are happy to share it here for any and all interested.   It is thirty plus page.    The report itself is largely narrative and explanations; the key data are on pages six through eight.   Nowhere in the insitutional report are individual student names, or individual student scores, reported.

Our Upper School Head, Susan Heintz, and I have worked hard to generate from this report several key takeaways.

Thirty-three St. Gregory seniors (class of 2010) and forty-seven freshmen (class of 2013) completed the assessment during the school year 2009-10. Forty-nine high schools participated, with a total of 3,332 seniors and 1,775 freshmen. (Not all schools and students were included in all analyses.)  Freshmen at 153 colleges took the CLA, the college equivalent of the CWRA, providing the population for data comparisons.

CWRA Mean Scores

50th percentile performance Collegefreshmen StGfreshmen StGseniors
Mean Raw Score 1070 1107 1235
Mean Percentile (compared to college freshmen) 50

[by definition]

67 97


Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” Albert Einstein

I greatly admire Alfie Kohn.  I have read him since the eighties; I have only heard him speak once, over a decade ago, but it was unforgettable.   I am grateful for his piece in a recent edweek, “Turning Children into Data: A Skeptic’s Guide to Assessment Programs.”

And yet, I wish for more.  The quote Kohn provides from Einstein atop his piece (provided atop my piece) doesn’t call for ignoring all data; it declares that there is indeed data that does and should count, but that we need to be choosy and skeptical about what data we use and how we use it.   Unlike Einstein’s quote, in Kohn’s piece there is not a single thing which he suggests should count; it only about what we shouldn’t count.  As a result, it strikes me he has misappropriated Einstein for his purpose.

As regular readers here know, I think we need to be serious about setting our goals as an educational institution, and then identify what we  things we should count to measure our progress, hold ourselves accountable for success, and most importantly, guide our continuous improvement.   I think too that what we choose to measure sends signals, to teachers, to parents, and to students, about what is most important, and we should be intentional about the signals we send.   (more…)

Last week Robert Samuelson in Newsweek took on the topic of The Failure of School Reform, and came to the conclusion that it is because students don’t like school (OK), and that this is the fault of our students (!).

The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. The unstated assumption of much school “reform” is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers. The reality is [otherwise].  Motivation has weakened because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard, and don’t do well.

Seriously.  This is infuriating, demeaning, disrespectful, and ultimately, deeply detrimental to the cause of improving American education.   What’s worse is that Thomas Friedman, whom I generally admire greatly, picked up on this too, reinforcing the message Sunday:  “There is a lot to Samuelson’s point.”

Now I appreciate where Friedman then went with his discussion: we certainly do need to reassess our national values, and put much more emphasis on production over consumption.

We had a values breakdown — a national epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism. Wall Street may have been dealing the dope, but our lawmakers encouraged it. And far too many of us were happy to buy the dot-com and subprime crack for quick prosperity highs.

But let’s not confuse the Wall Street abuses and the get-rich-quick values for the problems of our undermotivated high school students, and let’s not blame our kids for the fact that school is boring them.   (more…)

[cross-posted, is I am doing more frequently, with Connected Principals]

I’m a fan.   Khan Academy‘s visibility and popularity seems to be fast-growing, especially since getting such a laudatory piece on CNN: Innovation in Education: Bill Gate’s Favorite Teacher.

By any measure [it is] the most popular educational site on the web. Khan’s playlist of 1,630 tutorials (at last count) are now seen an average of 70,000 times a day…His low-tech, conversational tutorials -only his unadorned step-by-step doodles and diagrams on an electronic blackboard — are more than merely another example of viral media. (more…)

Last week, St. Gregory hosted its Upper School Curriculum Night; I attended many classes, and viewed many wonderful examples of outstanding, innovative, technologically integrated lessons informed by contemporary best practices happening at our school.

Some notes about what I observed.

In AP Chemistry, Dr. Scott Morris offers a full set of lectures by podcast, available for all students (they are public) who might have missed a class, or needs to review difficult material.

In St. Greg’s brand new Design/Build Tech Innovation class, Mr. Dennis Connor explained that this course was designed in an unconventional manner.   Rather than beginning with the educational content or skills outcome, and building a course to get there, the Science teachers who designed this course set out to provide a rich, project based learning experience for our students.

In this class, students are collaborating; they are identifying projects they want to accomplish and researching how to do so, developing their research skills togo with this.   The teacher explains they need real science knowledge to make their projects fly, and need use math in many steps along the way.   This is a pass-fail course; it not about grades, but it is about a real-world experience.   Projects vary widely; some students  are building medieval trebuchets and some are designing apps for iphones.  “I push them, and push hard, to ensure their projects are educationally valuable.” (more…)

Remarks to the student body this morning.

I used to work with a teacher, a history teacher, who was a great teacher, popular, smart, funny.  But one thing always bothered me: it seemed that any time I walked past his classroom’s open door, I would hear him answering a question with the words, “well, actually.”   Actually, he would say, what students had read in a textbook was wrong; actually that historian we were studying was mistaken; actually what happened in this historical event was actually different from what is commonly believed.

I have to tell you, this bothered me.   I don’t think the word “actually” has an appropriate place in the language of teaching and learning.

Our world isn’t composed of truths and falsehoods, or certainties that can be claimed by the use of the word actually.   I realize that I am speaking more about Social Studies, History, and English than I am about Math and Sciences—and there are things that we can be certain about, I know—but I think that in every area.  there are many things about which we can never use the word “actually.”

One of my all time favorite Supreme Court Justices (you do all have your own list of favorite Supreme Court Justices, right?)  is Justice David Souter, who retired in 2009.   In June he gave a speech at Harvard in which he argued against the use or concept of “actually” in judicial interpretation.  Some think that the Supreme Court’s job is to decide what the Constitution “actually” says, or “actually” mean.   (more…)