Catch 22

Six years ago I was in my first year as a school principal. I had spent my three years prior as an assistant principal learning the ropes of managing adults and trying to inspire growth and change, but I still had a lot of things to learn. As a first year principal, and a young one at that (I was 32), I felt like I had a lot to prove. I was working in a building that had stagnated in regards to their student achievement data. We had amazing teachers doing amazing things, but we just were not seeing the results. I was a believer, and still am, that the greatest way to inspire change is to provide great descriptive feedback. As a building administrator this meant that I needed to do a focused job of using the teacher evaluation process as more than a means to label teachers as good and bad (satisfactory or unsatisfactory) but to provide a reflective lens in which each teacher could grow and develop. To this date, the single most effective evaluation I ever conducted, was my first evaluation.

As a new principal I made a calculated decision to start the evaluation process with what I thought would be an easy path. I wanted to observe the teachers that had the best reputations, those who everyone believed were doing a great job, and just go in and validate all they were doing well. I wanted to use these teachers as guinea pigs. I thought that these teachers would be a piece of cake. Boy was I wrong, but in the most amazing way possible. The first observation I went on was career changing, and as a matter of fact is the inspiration for this post. The teacher I observed had her students engaged and interacting. There was student owned collaboration and student facilitation of classroom management. The teacher’s classroom was a well oiled machine. She was doing so many things the way teacher prep programs across the country would want every teacher doing them. As I began wrapping up my forty minute observation, in which I believed I had just witnessed a master teacher, I noticed something on display near the classroom door that generated a series of questions that changed my perspective of teaching, assessing, and learning forever. When I describe what this was, some of you will think, “Really, that’s it? That’s not a big deal at all.” But it is often in the seemingly mundane details that we can begin to uncover the largest truths. In two words written on this teacher’s monthly calendar, a calendar I didn’t even notice until I was walking out of the room, I uncovered a reality that has changed the course of my career.

This teacher was extremely organized. She was the envy of her peers because of her ability to have a lesson plan crafted for every day for an entire month. She had parent phone numbers on a Rolodex on her desk and had a reputation for returning all student work within twenty-four hours. Her organization was wonderful and also became the pivot point for all future conversations about effective teaching and learning at that school. On a bulletin board just inside the door to this teacher’s classroom was an assignment calendar. On it the teacher listed upcoming sporting events, band concerts, homework, and field trips. She also was so organized that on this given day she was able to write that the following Friday (I remember this observation was on a Thursday-eight days prior) were written the two words, “Test Day”. She had planned her instruction so far in advance that she knew what her students would be doing eight days later. As a matter of fact, I learned that she actually wrote that date on the calendar the week before. “Test day”- two words written on a bulletin board calendar have inspired every presentation I have made since that day.

Seeing those two words sent my mind racing in a lot of directions. I can honestly look back on it now and say I had no idea what I was thinking but I simply knew I wanted to know more. Taking a page out of my law professor’s playbook I decided to ask the teacher a question, or more specifically a series of questions. Later that day in our follow up conversation, after first complimenting her for her attention to detail and organization I asked this great teacher, “How do you know your students will be ready for a test next week?” This was an innocent question intending no judgment whatsoever, but I am sure it came across more like asking your grandfather at Thanksgiving dinner, “So tell me, why you are a democrat?”

After hearing the teacher’s explanation all of the instruction she would be providing to her students each of the next seven days and all of the “informal” assessments she would be administering as a part of each day’s lesson plan, I followed up with “If you know what the kids will know, why do you need to test them.” Seeing a puzzled look on her face, I then interjected with, “Or if you don’t know that the students will be ready, why give them a test?” I was on a roll. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had just stumbled on the test giver’s catch twenty-two. A series of questions that with each answer only complicates the prior response.  Do you give a test only when you know the students already know it all or do you give a test when you do not know what the students know?  If your students already have proven to you what they know are you just giving a test because you feel you’re supposed to? Are tests given to prove something that you think you already know or to confirm a hunch? In the real world the answer is  that we give tests only when other evidence has already confirmed something.

Because I have four kids at home, I know a thing or two about pregnancy tests. I know that most women do not wake up every Friday, pull a test out of their medicine cabinet and pee on a stick just to see if they are pregnant. I apologize for the crudeness of this example, but the fact of the matter is that very few women take a test unless they have some other cues prompting them to. More than likely a woman will only take a pregnancy test if she already feels like she knows the result. The test provides confirmation one way or the other. In our classrooms we have too many teachers who simply open up their file cabinets on Friday and tell our students to take a test with no indicators letting us know it’s the appropriate time and with no plan for what to do once we get the results. Each time my wife has taken a pregnancy test she has confessed to me that in the three to five minutes while awaiting results she has thought through how she was going to tell me another child was on the way, she visualized baby names, and tried to reconcile whether there would be disappointment or relief if the results were negative. To her the tests were a confirmation of a hunch, predicated by other evidence, that led to future action.

In our classrooms we need to stop giving tests to label our students as “got it” or “failing” and start using tests to see how our students are learning and progressing and to help determine what we as teachers are going to do about it. We need to stop trying to determine whether or not our students have memorized every word we have said or every word they have read and start focusing on where our students are in becoming learners. Testing learning is not the same as testing for pregnancy in which we can simply label the results as positive or negative, but are more like measuring the growth of a child at an ultrasound and comparing that to an anticipated due date. As teachers we help students conceive an initial thought, and our job then has to be to provide frequent and regular well visits to ensure growth and vitality. If we see areas of concern we then intervene and remediate. This is a different way of thinking for many, so how do we as classroom teachers and school administrators test that? It’s actually pretty simple.

We need to stop worrying about knowledge and start worrying about learning. If we value it, we test it. If our mission statements are going to state that we are creating life-long learners, we need to start measuring our ability to do that and stop measuring whether or not our students have memorized a bunch of text. Memorizing a spelling word does not create a person with an affinity for learning. Memorizing the dates of Civil War battles does not help students learn how to avoid similar conflicts in the future. We must begin to see all assessments as formative and must be willing to see all learning as a process not a yes, no proposition. Learning is not as simple as “got it” or “nope”.  All learning builds upon prior foundations and requires new understandings in order to grow to higher heights. The job of a second grade teacher is to not only provide a seven year old with a prescribed set of learning, but to also build a foundation for the learning that will occur in third grade. As a parent our job is not to create perfect kids, but to provide the building blocks for future successful adults. Teachers at every level  must first embrace the process of learning and begin to cast off the illusion that our job is to get children to simply memorize facts


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