A Priority: Changing How We Talk About School

The following post first appeared on my Bluegrass Dispatches blog at the Center for Teaching Quality.

Wordle: Thunder words

In 2008, one of my first published articles challenged the dominant discourse in education. I was fed up with the way many of my colleagues and administrators conversed about teaching and learning, believing their words stifled innovation.

I heard grades, standards, depth of knowledge, future, rigor, and test scores all the time. But I wanted to talk about and employ pedagogy relating to community, inspiration, discovery, projects, and the present.

The way we talk about school has shifted a little bit, but it’s still dominated by language relating to content standards and testing, sometimes pushing aside more meaningful ideas and practice.

Our language reflects our philosophy, and I wonder how often we educators blindly accept words set forth before us without examining underlying belief systems behind the lingo. Here are a few phrases or words worth critically challenging:

College and Career Readiness (CCR)

It has a nice ring to it, no?  We all want our students to be prepared to succeed after they stroll across the stage after graduation. I can’t argue with that.  Are students really CCR by solely posting a minimal ACT score? Of course not, but this is way these words have been twisted. I’m bombarded daily with reminders of the need to increase CCR scores, and I’m tired of it.

Being CCR means a lot more than a qualifying test score.  It means being able to communicate using varied mediums and devices. It means being able to ask questions and solve problems. It could mean building student capacity to identify community and school issues, making their world a better place.

Focusing on CCR scores ignores the fact there can be meaningful, varied opportunities right NOW. Not in the future. “You’ll need that (insert content or test score here) years down the road” is simply an excuse for bypassing authentic teaching and learning in the present.

  • Let’s talk about how we define CCR in our schools. Let’s talk about what we can do right now, in order to provide students valuable skills and experiences in the present.

Achievement Gap

Like CCR, this discourse is focused on student deficit, rather than student strength. Sure, we’d love to see groups of students achieve on more equal levels. But by focusing on what students lack and trying to build a bridge to span these gaps, are we missing opportunities to explore student strengths? How are student schedules altered by focusing on student weaknesses? Then there’s the whole issue of how achievement is defined within this discourse, which is in the context of standardized test scores.

  • Let’s talk about what it means to focus on student strength instead of weakness. Let’s talk about different definitions of achievement.

Data

Yes, it’s great to make informed instructional decisions based on what we know, but you’ll be hard pressed to convince me that teaching and learning is best served by examining quantitative data.  Can meaningful experience in the classroom really be distilled to multiple choice data?

More educators should ask why? when it comes to quantitative data, like Esther Quintero questions in her Answer Sheet column at the Washington Post.  “Excessive faith in data crunching as a tool for making decisions has interfered with the important task of asking the fundamental questions in education, such as whether we are looking for answers in the right places, and not just where it is easy (e.g., standardized test data),” she writes. Quintero is right–we often aren’t collecting the right data or asking the right questions.

  • Let’s talk about why we collect certain types of data.  Let’s talk about embracing qualitative observations as an alternative or supplement to narrowly-defined multiple choice data.

I’ll admit I need to do a better job starting these conversations within my own building, and tomorrow’s inservice day will be a good place to start. How about you? What do you wish was talked about more in schools? Outside of school, what places/organizations use language that seems to distract from worthwhile goals? 

3 thoughts on “A Priority: Changing How We Talk About School

  1. I do appreciate your passion!

    I doubt I could ever teach…not that I am not a good teacher (people say I am) but for exactly the reasons you lay out here, an obsession with jargon and testing.

    I think it’s difficult-to-impossible to determine how ready anyone is for college, (which demands a tremendous skill set of delayed gratification, time management, self-care, study habits, etc.) just from some testing. It seems an exercise in ass-covering by senior administrators to keep their jobs by pointing to metrics they have met…not students truly succeeding beyond their hallways.

    The teachers and professors who “taught” me best were those whose passion and expertise were infectious. I did well in their classes, but which came first…their skill in teaching or my joy in learning from them?

    • Your last notes are thought provoking. I do feel inspired by those who taught me and that is partly why I’m a teacher today. I do believe that I did well in my classes, but those teachers were infection to an extent. Many times I walked out of their lectures and wondered why I didn’t feel the same way about the subject.

      I believe that the delivery a teachers instruction is key to bringing out the best in learning, but a student must have an intrinsic motivation to learn.

  2. Can you hear me clapping? I’m on my desk giving you a standing ovation. This is precisely why I left teaching in the states. If I had to sit through one more data carousel that showed us that POVERTY was the problem, I would probably have been institutionalized. I was fed up with talking about statistics rather than students. How can positive relationships with students be quantified? How can a students confidence and readiness for the world be tested?

    I will admit that I watched that movie Summer School in 1987. Mark Harmon is so dreamy as the PE coach needing extra cash. But the ending of the movie has still stuck with me….his students were considered failures statistically although their performance doubled. When we look at spreadsheets of data we don’t see the personal triumphs, we don’t see, as you said, their strengths. We only see where kids, on a whole, are falling short.

    Wish I could be there at your in service to help push the conversation on Community and Inspiration. Happy Thanksgiving from across the pond!

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