New curriculum report shows schools strong in content and weak on thinking skills

This quote caught my eye from Scott Floyd over at the Texas Bluebonnet Writing Project:

Sure, with how we teach now kids can pass the “test” but can they make it in the real world that is devoid of standardized tests to prove mastery? If one of your students is standing over you as the doctor in the ER trying to decide which procedure to do on you to save your life, will she have to have a highlighter, peppermints, a bottle of water, and a TAKS game plan to save you?

He goes on to talk about what students need in today's world.

And then, this incredible article from USA today came across my desk entitled Schoolteachers, professors differ on what students should know. Any good educator won't be surprised with the topic:

“State learning standards may help high school teachers focus their coursework, but college faculty say they're focusing on the wrong things, says a report that finds a “significant gap” between what high school instructors teach and what college faculty think entering freshmen ought to know”

What do kids need to know? Less concepts and more thinking skills! This is based on a report from the ACT National Curriculum survey (a must read for curriculum directors).

Standardized Testing at the Coffee Shop

At the local coffee shop today, all I could hear was several parents who have kids in public school complaining about how their children have been doing CRCT review for SIX WEEKS in EVERY CLASS! Many of them are fed up but don't know where to go and have no alternative.

Not everyone can afford to send their child to private school (although our fees are about 1/3rd of most private schools — [we are a very rural community and do a lot of fundraising — I have strawberries and cookie dough to sell right now, if you need any!?])

And yet, it strikes me, although we do a little test review here at Westwood (more how to take the test than anything), it is rare that any of our classes fall much below the 85th percentile in any subject with most in the 90th percentile in the nation. And honestly, looking at our IQ tests, we really have the full range of intelligence levels.

So, What is the difference?

Here is what I think:

  • Relationships with students (the John Merrow podcast was about that this week — Tim Howe principal of McNair Elementary in Ft. Bragg, NC),
  • a strong curriculum, (we have a strategy of keeping what works and fixing what doesn't)
  • research based best practices,
  • a lot of training for the teachers,
  • incredible teachers who love teaching and are there for the kids (we make about 2/3 of our public school counterparts and have no health insurance),
  • incredible administration,
  • extremely supportive parents/grandparents/alumni/friends,
  • and people who are willing to put a lot of blood sweat and tears into the education of their children.

Do we test? Yes, every test is cumulative. However, we no longer have end of semester exams but rather, projects and large genuine assessments in all subjects except math. We're not perfect, but it is a whole lot better than making kids bubble letters for the last six weeks. That is demeaning to the children and the teachers. And when it is time to bubble letters, our kid's shine!

The Master Race of Circle Coloring Kids

If we were creating kids who would have to fill in ovals, we're doing pretty well at coloring circles, I think.

What Businesses Want
When I was a businesswoman in the business world, I didn't always want someone who always agreed with me and spit back what I told them.

I wanted:

  • Problem solvers and original thinkers who pushed the envelope.
  • Forward thinking, organized, motivated, excited, people with a great work ethic and a good, solid education but who realized when they didn't know something and knew how to find out how!

OK, some of my pundits will accuse me of getting “preachy” but I have spent enough time (10 years) working with public education teachers to know that many of them are getting fed up with the “system” of trying to produce test scores instead of well educated students.

We've got to make the main thing the main thing, let the teachers teach, and help the students think.

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10 thoughts on “New curriculum report shows schools strong in content and weak on thinking skills

  1. I don’t understand how a student can pass a test, and not know anything.

    I’ve heard this issue discussed in Multicultural counseling, with regard to assessment tools and “teaching to the test”.

    When I was in school, in a “Regents'” course, around about May, we would start taking Regents’ Review, i.e., taking prior exams in class, and writing the essays for homework at night.

    It worked for us.

    You’re not saying that there is a conflict between acquiring a body of knowledge and learning to think critically, are you?

    Of course, they’re different, but are they mutually exclusive?

  2. Vicki, I think your point is very well made. I absolutely agree that thinking is more important than memorzing. However, I’d add (and I’d guess you wouldn’t disagree) that that you have to have something to think about – that is ideas deemed important snd central to our culture.

    Vicki, here’s the problem as I see it. It’s far more expensive to review portfolios and assess thinking things than it is to use the scan tron. I also strongly believe in the importance of external accountability. What would an appropriate and affordable testing system look like?

  3. I am fine with your response to my post. I think you are right. We spend (and are forced to spin) way too much time teaching to a test. Texas is notorious for it. While there are tons of great teachers here, standardized testing (and the benchmarking and excessive documentation that accompanies it all) is sucking the life and enjoyment out of getting and giving an education.

    I now have a supportive superintendent that sees the value in turning out well-rounded students more along the lines of Dan Pink’s vision (thanks to Marco Torres for helping him see this). I have high expectations for what we can do in the coming months and years as a district instead of just small patches of innovation.

    Thanks for the link to the article. I plan to download and read it this weekend. And on Monday I will be sharing it with my administrators. Like I said in my post, our kids can pass tests like crazy. What happens when they have to think in critical situations may be another thing, though.

  4. When I was in the business world, I wanted subordinates who could think on their feet. Don’t we think businesses want their employees to still do this? How will they learn if we don’t teach them? Hmmm. Bingo. It’s our job to prepare the next generation to perform the processes, NOT regurgitate the products.

  5. Frank D.
    No, if they pass the test they can know something — in fact, I talk about the standardized testing. The problem is that they are measured by the testing instrument and there are limitations in what you can measure with a discrete test.

    Honestly, I’m not taking issue with the fact that we standardized test — it is important to do so. I do take issue with the schools who spend a month and a half prepping for CRCT’s. If you’re teaching and doing a good job, they are going to pass the test but bubbling letters for a month and a half like they are doing around here (in a very low scoring area of Georgia which is pretty low scoring in teh nation) they are not learning anything and they have low test scores!

    Focus on teaching and learning not on prepping for the test.

    I say that there is a conflict between overtesting and learning and overprepping and learning.

    Testing in and of itself is not evil but anything (even water and air) in excess can cause damage.

    Does that clarify, Frank? Perhaps I should consider revising the blog post if that is what you got out of it!

  6. Andrew- Here is my solution. Take the six weeks spent in prep and eliminate it. Every day should be prep day if you are teaching what kids need to know — use that time to create a portfolio and let the teachers assess it. Then, let a spot check of the teacher assessment occur.

    I think we are wasting far too much time on test prep. There is a difference between taking issue with test preparation and the test itself. Yes, test. But most teachers will tell you that they and the students hate test prep.

    I know a 7th grader that does not go to our school who has been prepping for the last 5 weeks — she says that she’s been sleeping in class for almost 5 weeks straight in all of her classes that everyone is bored out of their minds including the teachers who continually talk about how much they hate prepping for tests. something is wrong with that picture.

    The pendulum has swung too far in the wrong direction. So remember, we need standardized tests, after all we standardize test at our school too, however, we don’t overly prep, we just teach. How much better would kids do if teachers could teach the curriculum? I wonder if we have overly emphasized content and cut out critical thinking in order to better master a test. I’m not sure how much deep learning is going on in that sort of environment.

    What do you think?

  7. Frank D- I think the NY Regents tests and grade 3-8 ELA/Math are somewhat more sophisticated than many other states; at least, Jamie MacKenzie said so when I heard him speak here a month ago. In some other states, the standardized tests really are just regurgitation of memorized facts. The NY tests are slightly more geared towards some critical thinking and writing. Also, NY has been doing the Regents for far longer than most other states have had required exit exams for HS.

    Vicki- I am a former private school teacher (14 yrs) and I agree with many of your statements about the differences between private and public schools but I would add one more that is perhaps at least partly responsible for your school’s high scores: selective admissions. Private schools can choose who attends and can ask students to leave for disciplinary or academic reasons. So you are testing a somewhat skewed population.

  8. Mike –
    Yes, that would be the case at many private schools, however, in the four years I have been here, I have yet to see a student turned away, they may be admitted on academic contract, but they are admitted.

    We are a very small rural farming community and not your typical private school with our per student tuition less than $4K a year. We work very hard to keep our school open.

    And, as I stated, I’ve seen the IQ tests and really, it ranges the full gamut of IQ’s. We also are different from most private schools in that we have a privately funded world-renowned learning lab that allows us to make sure that every student is reading by the end of K5. (We use search and teach.) So, in many ways we are not a typical school.

    Yes, however, it is not a public school. But that is why I included JOhn Merrow’s podcast, so you could see a school that I feel is very similar to ours that is a public school and does have extremely high test scores. Listen to that principal talk.

    And of course, I’m going to reflect south Georgia — I have tons of friends who are teachers, most in public schools — in fact, one transferred from our school to the public school — the testing has taken a lot of the enjoyment and fun out of teaching, she says, and she also says she covers less material because of it. Something is wrong when teachers say that.

    No, I don’t see this from a mass – overview perspective but from a grassroots – here is what the teachers are saying perspective, because I am, after all, a teacher.

  9. Vicki,

    Do you think that you have the success you do with your rural private school because you work on a small scale? If that is the case do you think charter schools if set up correctly could immitate this advantage? Do you find that your small rural private school gains any of its advantage by communicating within a network of schools or do you think independence is the most valuable quality. Right now New Orleans is trying to strike the balence between charter schools and the traditional school board. I was wondering where you thought the advantages lie for students.

  10. Chris – Let me preface my remarks by saying I’m not a researcher, although I have read a bit, I do have an opinion.

    I think that size does matter greatly. We also have mandatory drug testing – which gives kids an excuse to say no. (Not that they don’t do drugs in the summer, but it keeps such problems out of the day to day.)

    I think this is extremely important at the lower levels and yes, the charter school I referred to earlier in Atlanta that my friend works with is such an amazing example of how a charter school with effective principles can turn any type of student body into a high performing school — his school works with inner city Atlanta youth and has extremely high math and science scores (they partner with Georgia Tech.)

    I would emulate those who do it right. Now, the charter school here has somewhat higher test scores but, as I said (read between the lines) their purpose of creation may not be pristine — if one is creating a charter school to be exclusive — I don’t think that is right. All races and genders and people should be welcome at all schools — yes, our school is selective in the fact you have to pay for it, however, anyone may come here who can pay for it. In fact, our public school which is one of the worst in the state costs over $5K per student to educate their students and we are far less.

    This is a debate that I can neither answer all the questions to nor do I intend to — the purpose of the podcast I shared and the point I made is about relationships. It is important for administrators and teachers to have relationships with their students — professional one’s. Know them, know their parents. Know that when their behavior changes that there is a reason and figure out why and get to the bottom of it.

    A while back a child transferred in who was literally getting “lost” in his larger school — since then he has moved from an unsure quiet child to a very open, smiling, comfortable, high achieving child. When he got here, he could not tell me the name of one of his teachers in the past year. Not one. It is about relationships — and there are plenty of great teachers at very large schools out there (I know a lot of them) that do have relationships with their students — they are the ones that the books are written about!

    The point is relationships– caring, working with your students, and being a part of your life.

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