Sunday, July 3, 2011

If your school teaches to the test, it’s not the test’s fault. It’s the leaders of your school.

So David Brooks wrote a column in the NY Times the other day about the school reform debates. This is not my attempt to add to the debate. I don't have the time to add to the fray. He ended his column though with a rather enticing line though: "If your school teaches to the test, it's not the test's fault. It's the leaders of your school."

The line invoked in me the most irritating response, I both agreed wholeheartedly to it and wholeheartedly was aggravated by it in the same moment.

I am a principal of an elementary school in a high pressure, high stakes environment. 70% of our students qualify for free/reduced lunch. We are the most ethnically/racially diverse school in our school division and in the entire region. If you just look at AYP during my tenure at the school, the results are mixed. One year, we did not make it, one year we did, one year we just barely missed it, the the jury is still out on this past year. We are in our second year of formal school improvement with the state. We are a public school choice school and have mandated outside tutoring as part of the NCLB law. I attend monthly meetings with the state department of ed and turn in data reports to them on a regular basis. Everything in this world tells me as a leader to lead a school that teaches to the test. Every meeting, every statement, every webinar, every powerpoint. The words teach to the test are never used, but it is always implied.

The past two years, however, we have embarked on a different journey. Along with a focus on data and results, we have implemented different strategies through our intensive work with Responsive Classroom and Expeditionary Learning:
  • Intensive community building through classroom and school-wide morning meetings
  • Student led parent conferences for every single student, Prek-5
  • Learning expeditions (you can see them here) at every single grade level
  • Instructional rounds for all teachers (learn about them here)
  • Extensive use of formative assessment strategies
Now, I know many good educators would look at that list and say or think that those strategies would increase student achievement for everyone. I agree. But, the prevailing wisdom in the world in which I partially inhabit (the high stakes world) does not push or even nudge school leaders in that direction. We do the right thing at Greer because we have a culture of professionals who value the strategies above. The does not mean we never doubt ourselves, or worry we are doing the right thing. But we have held the course. We also have a superintendent (@pammoran) and a school board who support our work as well.

Our school is going in the right direction with both our school culture and yes, student achievement, slowly but surely. The school has a vastly more positive and learner supported feel than it did four years ago. But David Brooks, and most other policy wonks, would look at our data and label us as failing. We are not failing, and I would argue we are improving in a more authentic way than most other schools.

What David Brooks fails to realize is that for a school leader to swim up the fast flowing stream of "not teaching to the test", it takes an incredible amount of support, collective courage, and belief in children to accomplish doing things the right way. Most people in education right now, because they are in schools that don't face these issues or they simply refuse to face the issues themselves, don't really have an idea of how tough it is.

David Brooks certainly does not. He is pretty darn clueless.


  1. I am not an educator and I am only the parent of an unborn child, I do however think and form opinions on life. I agree and love what you are saying. I firmly believe that one of the reasons teaching to the test isn't working is because we make it SOLELY the educator/principals fault and pin no responsibility on the parent or student. The best educators in the world can inspire students, but the student must desire to be inspired. A lot of my teachers inspired me, but I chose not to be inspired by some of them.

    I think we all as humans need to take responsibility for ourselves and not always blame someone else.

  2. I want kids who love learning so much that as they struggle to beat the odds of poverty, language barriers, and handicapping conditions they will thrive and continue to see learning as joyful, interesting, and valuable for life - just as all children do when they first enter school and which many lose within just a few years.

    While lots of drill and kill worksheets, scripted lessons, round the clock direct instruction, and practice til perfect tests might lead to high test scores, I believe kids and teachers in schools with that bent exist in a mindless environment, not a mindful community of learning. The fallacy of NCLB has always been that someone sitting in DC can see into a school and determine its status based upon visible numbers alone. To quote Dylan " don't know me."To quote W. Edwards Deming - originator of the quality movement: "The most important things cannot be measured."

    I would put the learning work of your kids and teachers up as a model for any school. Failing? I think not. Instead, you're beating the odds by teaching children, not tests. You can't begin to measure the breadth and depth of growth among children there with a multiple choice test. People know that in our community- but neither the USDOE nor David Brooks have dropped in lately to see what the kids are doing.

    When they do, the kids will be ready to show them what learning looks like when it's done with passion.

  3. Responsive Classroom is not an academic intervention or program - it is a social skill developments program most appropriate, in my opinion, in Pre K to 3. Our elementary school used it and, in a district of 6 K-6 schools with similar demographics, ours was always the worst performing school academically. Kids were nice, though.

  4. Matt,
    I think what you are saying spot on and has been the right argument against "teaching to the test" since NCLB began. I knew another principal in another district when I asked them straight out if they teach to the test. This person said "yes, but we don't like to think of it like that". Translation: to the parents we will be rebels and say we want our kids to learn a broad base of information. But secretly all we care about is the test.

    Your efforts at Greer to take on a school that has challenges like no other in the county is admirable.

    There are two thoughts I have had about your school that actually I have talked to my teaching partner at my school about.

    1. We both agree that since we do not work at a school like Greer we feel that we are not as quite complete as teachers. To experience your population would really determine where we stand as teachers. Your school is a school where really the quality of the teacher is the most important aspect of your school, as many of your kids not enjoy the luxuries of pre-school, expensive tutoring, or summer enrichment programs. To teach at your school, will show the depth of the skills a teacher has. Many teachers at the "better" (which is code, imo) schools would be found less than "golden" I am sure.

    2. As a school your turnover rate has lessened each year. Teachers are staying at Greer. The revolving door of your school prior to your arrival is a testament to your leadership style. No one wants to be labeled a failure and no one wants to continuously be blamed for situations that cannot be controlled by the school, yet most have stayed on since you have been there. Thats one of those immeasurable stats that doesn't show up but plays a major role in the success of your school.

  5. I feel your pain Matt! After reading another article about NCLB and RTT, I worte this to ease my suffering.:)
    "The Teacher and the Politician"

  6. David Brooks' post has hung with me since reading it, and the same line bothered me. I appreciated your thoughts on that, but even more, am excited to learn more about some of the things you are doing in your school to reach the "whole child." Very glad to have found your blog by way of #cpchat.

  7. Brian D- thanks for your comment. Pam, thanks for your comment and support. Anonymous, RC is just one aspect of what we do, my goal is to have a rigorous and kind curriculum for kids. Andrew, I really appreciate your comments from our knowledgeable perspective. Old school teach, thanks for the share. Aflicklin, I will keep sharing.

  8. As a former urban school leader, I get what you’re saying, Matt. But you're right: if you have the courage, support, etc. to do what’s right for kids, test scores will indeed take care of themselves. I know this from my experience as an administrator and as a consultant working with many schools serving at-risk kids, where test scores have gone up because school leaders and teachers focused on teaching rather than testing. And from what you’ve described, sounds like you’re doing this too, which is great.

    Just a couple of points to add. First, there’s a difference between teaching to the test and teaching the test. May sound like semantics, but it’s not, as I explain in this blog post:

    Second, you may not be an educator, Brian D, but you're right on with your point about student accountability (though I wouldn’t extend it to parents as you have). In fact, a common first step in my work with struggling schools is to get them to do LESS for students. Sure we need to set kids up for success by providing them the structures and supports they need to be successful. But then get out of their way and let them decide whether to take advantage of those structures and supports and experience the consequences of their decisions. Feel free to contact me for more about this. I also write about it a lot on my blog including a post titled "When Helping Students Hurts Students":

  9. Creating the culture of a learning community is an incredibly difficult task, especially in a culture so tied to "the right answer," "the immediate answer," and a disdain for extended thought. Which is why school leadership - counter to what Gates, Broad, Brooks, and Bush think - is so complicated.

    Matt has allowed a learning community to develop by providing an essential platform of trust for his teachers and his students. They are safe in his school, despite the threats from Federal Regulators, safe to explore, to try, to fail, and the result is rather remarkable, no matter what a New York Times columnists who has never attended nor sent his children to a public school thinks.

    But this is an extended leadership question. Matt can provide this environment because those above him have given him an umbrella of safety (however leaky it might feel sometimes) under which he can operate. Sadly, as in most good school districts/divisions, that is where the safety zone stops. With states and the US Department of Education providing hailstorms, not safety.

    This is a particular issue in a school like Matt's where not every child, not every parent, is "safe" outside of school. I firmly believe that "we" - as humans - need to be cognitively unsafe to learn, but in order to be cognitively unsafe you must be physically and psychologically safe - otherwise what is happening is "reaction" - not "learning."

    So Matt has a task the headmaster of Mr. Brooks' private school did not. He has to create a shield of protection around his learning community. Those in "educational reform" like to ignore that need, but it is essential. And in my opinion, simply the fact that that shield exists at Matt's school, means his school is a great success.

    - Ira Socol

  10. Love how you're using the rounds process to help drive improvement. I just finished reading the book and found exceptionally invigorating in my work as an admin. When you wrote about the discrepancies in your achievement levels from year-to-year, I immediately thought of where Elmore et al spoke about how schools needs to build shared understandings and shared practices, and move collecively to have a positive impact on teaching and learning. I was going to suggest the book until you mentioned the rounds process!

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