A Tough Choice for Sublette County School District #1

Ever thought about being a school board member?  It’s not as easy as it seems.  And that’s during a typical year.  But over the course of the next couple years, being a SCSD #1 board member is going to be a daunting task.  The State of Wyoming is in the final stages of implementing a new accountability system that will have a significant impact on our instructional programs.   Board members will have a steep learning curve when it comes to dealing with a complex and comprehensive testing and accountability system, but that isn’t the tough part.  The tough part will be deciding whether or not to play along with an  accountability system that will, in my opinion, make or break the educational future of our students.

For the better part of 18 months, I have been engaged in a gradual conversation with our Board of Trustees regarding the nature of the accountability system in Wyoming.  To be blunt, the U.S. approach to accountability is killing our student’s chances of success in college and in the global work force.  And the new Wyoming accountability system takes this problem to a new level.  I want to be clear however, it’s not being held accountable that’s the problem; we have 10 years of accountability under our belts.  It’s the tests themselves that will undermine the future of our kids.

We often hear that being globally competitive is the reason we need all this accountability.  We hear it from business owners and politicians.  I agree.  We do need accountability and we do need our students to be globally competitive.  Why then, do we continue to test them in a way that inhibits their ability to be globally competitive?

If you want to understand the nature of testing students for accountability purposes, the Student Performance Assessment Series: Beyond Basic Skills: The Role of Performance Assessment in Achieving 21st Century Standards of Learning, is required reading.  Written by the Stanford University Center for Policy in Education, this seven part series delves deeply into what has been learned over several decades about the use of performance assessments for measuring higher-order thinking and performance skills.  Essentially, it studies what it takes to accurately measure the kinds of things we want our students to know and be able to do.

If you can learn what a few key “eduspeak” terms mean, these studies are relatively easy to read.  But for those of you that don’t have the time to do the reading, let me highlight some of the key findings:

  • Genuine readiness for college and 21st century careers, as well as participation in today’s democratic society, requires much more than “bubbling in” on a test. Students need to be able to find, evaluate, synthesize, and use knowledge in new contexts, frame and solve non-routine problems, and produce research findings and solutions. It also requires students to acquire well-developed thinking, problem solving, design, and communication skills.
  • The routine skills used in factory jobs that once fueled an industrial economy have declined sharply in demand as they are computerized, outsourced, or made extinct by the changing nature of work. The skills in greatest demand are the non-routine interactive skills that allow for collaborative invention and problem solving.
  • A successful education can no longer be organized by dividing a set of facts into the 12 years of schooling to be doled out bit by bit each year. Instead, schools must teach disciplinary knowledge in ways that also help students learn how to learn, so that they can use knowledge in new situations and manage the demands of changing information, technologies, jobs, and social conditions.
  • Since No Child Left Behind ushered in the use of test-based accountability to raise student achievement, scores have climbed on state tests throughout the nation, yet the United States has fallen further behind on international assessments of student learning.
  • PISA, the international test most commonly used to compare US students to students in other countries, focuses explicitly on 21st century fluencies.  It asks what students can do with what they have learned.  The PISA test defines literacy in math, science, and reading as the ability to apply knowledge to new problems and new situations.  This kind of higher-order learning is increasingly emphasized in other nations’ assessment systems, but often discouraged by the multiple-choice tests most U.S. states have employed (including the PAWS test).
  • Whereas, U.S. tests rely primarily on multiple-choice items that evaluate recall and recognition of discrete facts, most high-achieving countries primarily rely on open-ended items that require students to analyze, apply knowledge, and write extensively.
  • Furthermore, these nations’ growing emphasis on project-based, inquiry-oriented learning has prompted increased use of school-based tasks, which include research projects, science investigations, development of products, and related reports or presentations. These assessments, which are incorporated into the overall examination scoring system, help focus the day-to-day work of teaching and learning on the development of higher-order skills and use of knowledge to solve problems.

So…what does all of this mean?  In short, it means that we have an accountability system well designed for teacher accountability but poorly designed for improving student achievement.  It means the linchpin of our accountability system is not focused on the type of 21st century fluencies that we all agree our students need.  It means that the types of accountability tests we are giving are influencing the type of instruction our teachers provide.  If you give a test that focuses on recall and recognition of discrete facts, and hold teachers accountable for student performance on those tests, you are going to get instructional strategies that promote that type of learning.  And yet we marvel at the fact that our students aren’t performing well on international tests that assess for 21st century fluencies and that they aren’t prepared for college or the work force.

It’s time for SCSD #1 to make a choice.  It’s time to say that we recognize our focus has to be on building 21st century fluencies.  This means changing the way we teach and the way we think about tests like the PAWS.  If we stay focused on assessments like PAWS we will, in my opinion, be short-changing our kids.  I believe that in the long run, focusing on instruction designed to foster higher-order thinking skills will better prepare our students for the future that awaits them as well as resulting in higher test scores on the PAWS.  But in the short-term, I also believe that it would result in some fluctuating PAWS scores as teachers make the transition to a new way of doing business.  A transition of this nature can take five years or more.

In all reality we have been highly focused on changing the way teach for some time.  Our instructional frame-work has been changing and our data shows more 21st century fluencies are being incorporated.  But as long as we see PAWS and MAP scores as the indicator for success, our teachers will continue to focus on recall and recognition of discrete facts.  And who can blame them?  The accountability system says their job is tied to student performance on these tests.

So what’s a district to do?  I say we make a tough decision.  We trust our teachers and make a complete leap to an instructional framework that emphasizes 21st century fluencies.  One that focuses on project-based, inquiry-oriented learning.  Let’s treat every subject the way we treat drivers education.  Rather than just determining what students know.  Let’s find out what they can do.  For those of you with teenage driver’s, you know how big that gap can be.

Let’s give the teachers and principals some time get this done and understand that scores are going to be unpredictable for a while.   We do what high achieving nations do.  We quit preparing for the PAWS and MAP tests.  We embed open-ended assessments into the curriculum that require students to analyze, apply knowledge and write extensively, and we provide that data to our Board of Trustees to use as accountability data.

It would require courage to swim against the prevailing current that is the Wyoming Accountability in Education Act.  It would require patience as our teachers and students embraced a new way of teaching and learning.  And it would require a deep understanding  that what worked to educate our generation won’t work for the next one.  I think our students deserve our best, and I think this is necessary to provide them with the best.  I’m ready…are you?

About Jay Harnack

Superintendent of Sublette County School District #1
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4 Responses to A Tough Choice for Sublette County School District #1

  1. Mary Jane Kleven says:

    Bravo Mr. Harnack! You have previously recognized the difference in the quality of teachers in the classroom in previous blogs and I believe, it is the single most important method to improving the education of the students, which extends to the classroom, which extends out to the school, which in the end, affects the whole district. We can supply the teacher with all the 21sr century materials of computers, smart boards, new instructional curriculum, etc, but it is the freedom and flexibility within the classroom to expand and incorporate materials from a variety of sources that will help students become independent thinkers and learners. When I see teachers and students having to follow a Basal program page by page, anwering the questions at the end of the Chapter, and these questions are basically fact-based questions. I wonder if the teacher is allowed to go beyond the text book so students can question, evaluate and come to their own conclusions?
    Teaching students to direct and take charge of their own learning and how to find their own answers with guidance versus spoon-fed worksheets. I also think another often over-looked aspect of a good teacher is one that motivates and encourages all students to learn and achieve. Having posted goals and learning objectives, of course is important to keep everyone
    focused on the objective of learning, but if the teacher is only teaching with 1 teaching style and
    many students are not actively engaged, then only the brightest students, or the student that
    learns with that 1 learning style (lecture) will succeed. We can arm the students with 1 to 1 computers and have the latest programs to show math polygons in 3-D, but studies show that
    the learning styles and brains between boys and girls are very different at certain ages, and that
    works for some but not all students. So, in conclusion, it is the teacher, with on-going guidance and knowledge that can take a diverse population of individual learners and motivate, encourage, teach, and guide to become life-long problem solvers, independant thinkers and students who can adapt and grow with our ever-changing world. We cannot take out the human part of teaching, no matter how good or expensive the latest curriculum or computer program is touted. Thank-you for this blog, and I know we have some great teachers in our district, and
    with on-going enrichment and encouragement, we can bring this district up to the top.
    Keep up the great work at the top, but it is the ground forces and the morale that will win this battle.
    Mary Jane Kleven

  2. Kris Ewert says:

    It is said that knowledge is power… not so much. Knowing what to do with knowledge is power. You, Jay, and your amazing teachers will empower our kids by embarking upon this upstream swim. Put me on your list of people to help in any way possible. We have you as our general and with the support of parents and community members the morale that Mary Jane mentions can be brightened. So, let’s formulate a parent/grandparent group of ground force volunteers to assist in any way possible. Count me in.

  3. Val Ornelas says:

    Great assesment! I support the plowing foward toward my child’s sucessful future.

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