By Alanna Kotler
We are having the wrong conversation about education. Year after year, it is reported how poorly students perform on standardized tests. And year after year, the conversations focus on classroom curricula (which should be more rigorous), the teachers (who need better and more training), and the professional development (which millions are spent every year). However, these conversations ignore the real change needed – the standardized tests themselves. Instead testing data is mined, discussed, collated, color-coded and then spit out to show what is wrong with curriculum, teachers, professional development and even our students.
What the data actually shows is that standardized tests do not measure what our students know or what they can do. The tests are outdated, for an outdated purpose, and many students continue to feel like failures as we use the tests to measure who they are and their trajectory of success beyond high school. This, along with the changing landscape of education, has brought about much research in the area of student disengagement in school, including the manifestation of behavioral challenges, absenteeism, depression and anxiety and a look at how tests inform the types of teaching and classroom environments that are being created in schools.
Samuel Betances, an inspirational speaker who talks about Trauma Informed Education (TIE), discusses how to reframe the way we look at students who act out or struggle in school. Well-intentioned educators and counselors have spent so much time asking students “What’s wrong with you?” when the question should be “What’s happened to you?” His words shine a light on the need to challenge conventional practice about how we look at students in this world of AP tests, SATs, ACTs and so on. There is nothing wrong with our students; instead they are part of a system that has “happened to them” where standardized tests play, I would argue, too big of a role in their learning. That is not an education system. That is a system built on a foundation of misleading results and flawed measures.
So, what do we do?
The challenges are vast, and it seems we stop short of trying small incremental changes because we (schools and educators) are lost in a sea of expectations. College admission seems to be the top reason why these test scores are so revered. However, as argued in his recent book What School Could Be, Ted Dintersmith suggests that college has become a pit stop rather than a road to success. Having a college degree no longer guarantees a job, and colleges are not preparing students for the economy they will enter. One vignette about MIT students gets to the heart of what our school system is “doing” to our students. These college engineers who received “stellar” test scores were unable to reason through lighting up a bulb when presented with the materials (Dintersmith, 95). This reinforces the point that grades and scores are not good indicators of future job prospects or success.
In thinking about these challenges, what are the implications for Jewish day schools? As independent institutions, day schools have (more) freedom and ability to be nimble in their pedagogical and assessment choices. The argument to stay the traditional course often times is that we need to position our students competitively for the college admissions process. As the pressures of college admission weigh on teachers and students alike, the way we teach at the upper levels becomes more about students’ transcripts than the real-world, relevant work students could be doing, or perhaps already are. As I have written before about innovation in schools, what could possibly be more innovative than changing how we define success and actual learning for our students? Admittedly, college admission has not quite caught up to the changing and improving trends in education, but day schools can join a movement that has.
The Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) is working to answer the (right) question: How can high schools show a student’s “unique skills, strengths and interests?” Its goal is to provide colleges with a holistic understanding of a student, while also allowing schools to provide “a rigorous, interdisciplinary curriculum that will best prepare our students for a complex and interconnected world.” To-date, out of the approximate 200 independent schools that are part of the Consortium, there is only one Jewish Day School participating – Gann Academy in Boston, MA. What would it take for more Jewish day schools to join the movement? There is no doubt that this type of change would be extremely hard and time-intensive, but this would offer a radical improvement for our students: interdisciplinary, real-world learning environments and curricula. With their distinct curriculum, including Jewish history, text and language, Jewish day schools could highlight the incredible skills, knowledge and analytical abilities that students obtain in a dual curriculum using a mastery transcript as a template.
Exploring the Mastery Transcript Consortium could move Jewish day schools in a new direction and provide our students with the type of learning that should be happening – student-driven, deep, meaningful and real-world-ready instead of test-ready. It’s time to change the conversation so that our schools move student learning in the right direction and ultimately bring the college process along with them.
Alanna Kotler is a Lead Consultant with Educannon Consulting. She works with Jewish day schools and leaders across the country focusing on curriculum auditing, development and implementation as well as leadership coaching.