Dear Architects of the Common Core,
How do you propose to test the skills and capabilities learned by the 8th graders at King Middle School in Portland, Maine? If you missed our recent NewsHour piece, you may watch it here. In just 11:38, correspondent John Tulenko and producer David Wald brilliantly capture how a 4-month ‘deeper learning’ project changed the lives of Liva Pierce, Emma Schwartz, Nat Youngrin and other young students.
John made four trips to Portland, beginning last October. He was there when the two science teachers explained the project: the kids were going to imagine and then design their own energy-generating devices that would improve people’s live.
The kids were clearly intimidated. Liva Pierce told John, “That’s way too much. I don’t know the first thing about electricity. I don’t know the first thing about windmills. I am totally going to fail.”
Emma Schwartz was equally pessimistic: “First of all, I can’t build anything, and I have never handled a screwdriver in my entire life or an electric drill. Like, this isn’t going to work.”
So what happened? Over the next four months the King School 8th graders worked in teams to build robots (and held a competition). Next they read extensively about wind power and then constructed their own wind turbines (another competition). These regular kids in a regular public school learned by failing, just as we do in life. For example, Nat Youngrin’s sound-controlled robot failed during the competition because as Nat explained, he hadn’t anticipated that the cheers of the crowd would drown out the sound of his clapped commands, making his system inoperable. But Nat didn’t quit; he learned and moved on.
The culmination of the final phase–designing energy-generating devices–was not a competition but a public performance. Each 8th grader had to get up in front of a large crowd of fellow students and adults from the community to explain their device’s function, the science behind it, and to ‘sell’ its practicality. Emma and Liva were poised, confident and determined. In just four months they had been changed–I would say ‘transformed.’
What knowledge, skills and capabilities did Emma, Liva, Nat and the others acquire? Here’s a short list: the value of teamwork; the importance of grit and tenacity; the science of electricity, wind, et cetera; the art and science of public speaking/communication; the importance of citizenship and making a contribution to society; confidence in their own power to create a meaningful life; and, finally, a sense of wonder. (I would also wager that the adults came away with a new appreciation for education, students and teachers.)
Is that overstating it? Watch the piece and decide for yourself.
But here’s my problem. I am following the Common Core story with interest and am pleased that we are going to raise standards and challenge our students more. I know the Common Core lists “Speaking and Listening” as one of its four English Language Arts priorities for grades 6-12, and that is broken down to include “comprehension and collaboration” and “presentation of knowledge and ideas.” That is, you folks are using all the right words and saying all the right things. That’s a step, or two, in the right direction.
However, so far I have not seen anything that convinces me that our system is anywhere near ready to test for the skills and capabilities that we witnessed those 8th graders acquire at King Middle School.
If past is prologue, things that aren’t being tested won’t end up being taught. It’s not just kids who ask, “Is this going to be on the test?” These days, when test scores determine which adults get fired, they’re probably the first ones to ask, “Is this going to be on the test?”
If it’s not tested, then say goodbye to that King School program and others like it.
After all, what sort of standardized paper-and-pencil (or computer-based) assessment can test for grit, teamwork, communication, innovation, ambition and the like? To test those skills and capabilities, we would have to be willing to go back to the days when we trusted teachers to assess their students. We would have to back away from our current small-minded policies that embrace test results as a way to judge, threaten and punish teachers–and instead use tests and assessments as we once did, to improve learning and teaching.
(Eduwonk’s Andy Rotherham has some other concerns about the Common Core here.)
I predict that parents, teachers and students would go to the ramparts before they’d allow marvelous programs like King Middle School’s “Expeditionary Learning” program to disappear.
And I also hope that millions of people will watch our report and say “Let’s do that in our schools because that’s what we want our kids to experience, and because that’s what we want our kids to be: confident and capable, just like those kids in Portland.”
Even if it means saying to hell with the tests.