Category Archives: testing

A Pragmatist In a Progressive World

This year, I have the opportunity to be part of an online professional learning community.  While I will be taking on the role of facilitator, I believe this will be as much a learning experience for me as well as for the other participants.  And, the opportunity has already gotten me thinking about where I fit into the sometimes confusing but always intriguing world of “educational technology.”

Here’s what I know:

Educational technology is about much more than just technology.  In a way, technology is the easy part.  It’s easy for me to show you how to use a flip camera to capture video or a digital microscope to find Abraham Lincoln on a penny.  It’s easy for me to post a link to a wonderful interactive website.  And while all these things may be cool, most teachers want more than just cool.  They want to know that the time and energy it is going to take them to set up microscopes or plug in projectors or to have them or their students create videos will have some positive influence on their students and their learning.  That’s the hard part: helping teachers figure out how to use these technologies in powerful ways in their classrooms.  So, while I may like to explore new technologies myself, my focus with others is on the educational part.  How/why/when to use those computers and gadgets and websites to improve teaching and learning.  This might seem like an elementary idea, but I still go to lots of “educational technology” presentations at conferences where the heavy emphasis is on the technology rather than the education.

Here’s what else I know:

I have a deeply held bias. I believe that technology offers ways to improve teaching and learning.  Even if it’s only because it engages the kids in ways that textbooks and lectures and worksheets do not.  And, most of the educators I talk to seem to share this two-part belief with me.  Part one: technology engages kids.  Part two: engaged kids are better learners.  But they also share a concern about doing it the right way.  They don’t want to just use technology for technology’s sake.  And, I find myself working with them in very practical ways.  Have you thought about using a smartboard to let your kids interact with a sentence?  Do you know that you can put a video in a powerpoint presentation to show to your kids?  Have you accessed the data from the student response system to better differentiate instruction? Have you considered having your students create a digital video or multimedia presentation as an alternative assessment?

I also use this practical approach when I work with technology coaches and school administrators in helping them to encourage technology use.  I’ve created a presentation called Strategies for the Non-Choir.  It draws from Rogers’ work in diffusions of innovations as well as Mishra and Koehler’s Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPACK) model to provide coaches with ideas for how to approach the early and late majority adopters who, according to Rogers, make up some 68% of the population.  I talk to the coaches about the need to consider the relative advantage of a technology as well as how compatible it is with what the strategies already used by a teacher.  In addition, as part of the workshop, we play the TPACK game where we match technologies, pedagogies, and content areas to come up with ideas for using technology in the classroom.

So, I am very much a pragmatist, trying to work with teachers where I find them, helping them use technologies in ways that support what they are doing in their classrooms.  This is a viewpoint that is often in direct opposition to the visionaries in the educational technology blogosphere.  They tend to be progressives who are looking past the current times to a different world where powerful technologies support student-centered, constructivist learning.  One of my favorites, Tim over at Assorted Stuff, summarizes the viewpoint quite nicely, I think:

The powerful tools we now have available make it possible to go way beyond simple reinforcing what we’re already doing. They provide communications links that enable teachers and students to connect with and learn from the world.

If all we do with the computers and networks put in our schools over the past decade is multiply the status quo, then we’ve wasted a lot of money, time and effort.

I know much of the crap I write is very idealistic, maybe even unrealistic. But while we are making small incremental changes, it would be nice to keep a vision of what education could and should be in the viewfinders.

I don’t disagree with Tim.  And I admire his idealism. I am also always inspired by Sheryl Nussbaum Beach. One of Sheryl’s most recent posts over at 21st Century Learning gives some great examples of how are kids are learning to learn on their own, and she calls to us to roll up our sleeves and get to work on creating a learning environment for them.  I try to keep her vision in my mind and for awhile I move into that progressive world.

But then I go to a school or talk to a teacher and hear about the sorts of barriers–time, access, not to mention high-stakes testing–that they face and how excited they get when someone gives them an interactive whiteboard or even just a projector and the pragmatist returns.   To borrow a phrase from Tyack and Cuban, we are “tinkering toward utopia.”  I think I’m more the tinkerer, standing with a wrench in my hand, rather than the utopian, envisioning the future.

Isn’t It Ironic, Part II

Last week, I blogged about the report out of Chicago that shows that intensive test prep may have actually led to lower scores for students on the ACT test.  This morning, I opened US News & World Report and found their description of a a new study from Stanford University that what appears to work is a reward system, including pizza parties.  There was a 4 percentile increase in reading scores but none in math.

Margaret Raymond, the author of the report, says the gains are more significant when teachers and administrators work together to support the use of rewards. Successful schools included those that rewarded good grades and good behavior with such gifts as concert tickets and MP3 players.

I would be negligent if I did not report that the sample was made up of charter schools and this happened in what they call a “majority” of cases.  Could it be that rewards are only one part of the reforms taking place at these charter schools?  I have not read the report (pdf) yet so I can’t really comment on the study design.   You can read more about Margaret and the Center for Research on Education Outcomes and find additional links to reports about the report here.

Ironic, Isn’t It?

From the Consortium on Chicago School Research from the University of Chicago, a report that extensive test prep actually lowered student scores on the ACT. The report–From High School to the Future: ACT Preparation–Too Much, Too Latefound:

  • Low ACT scores reflect poor alignment of standards from K-8 to high school and from high school to college.
  • Test strategies and item practice are not effective mechanisms for improving students’ ACT scores.
  • ACT performance is directly related to students’ work in their courses.
  • Incorporating the ACT into high school accountability is not an effective strategy for high school reform by itself, without accompanying strategies to work on instructional practice.

They concluded that students are trying to cram in study for the ACT when the best preparation takes years of college-prep study and work.

I know that the researchers would probably not want to generalize to other types of tests, but I can’t help but wonder how this might apply to high-stakes testing in general.  I have a feeling sometimes that school has become just one big test prep program, with students and teachers spending each year cramming for the test, then beginning anew each September.

A Finnish Edutopia

I was planning to post about Finland after reading this article in eSchool News that described a recent visit to Scandanavia by US educators.  Finland was of particular interest since they are often first in international tests of math and science.   I never got around to the post yesterday because I spent the time I had learning more about Finland at Wikipedia and the CIA Factbook.  Then, this morning, Tim over at Assorted Stuff pointed me to a post about a series of articles related to Finland’s education system.  Combine all this with Sheryl’s 9 principles for implementing what she calls the Big Shift, and we begin to see how education can become more than just something students get through.

Tim writes,

While I’m sure there’s much more than meets the eye, their success seems to boil down to a high degree of trust for the students combined with high expectations for their learning.

I agree.  I also agree wholeheartedly with Ewen who points to the trust that they put in teachers.  Being a teacher in Finland is the equivalent of being a doctor or lawyer here in the states.  Only one in eight applicants gets into schools of education and teachers are widely respected.  They are given high levels of autonomy in their classrooms where the pedagogy is very much student-centered.  Hmm…is this the edutopia we’re always talking about?

I also agree with Tim’s comment that there is more than meets the eye, particularly in terms of making these international comparisons.  Finland is not the United States.  My research into Finland led me to see it as one big exclusive private school.  The incredibly homogeneous population equals that of Rhode Island and Connecticut.  Everyone speaks the same language, and, it appears, shares the same culture, values and history.  And, one of those shared values is education.

I don’t want to discourage us from looking to places like Finland for inspiration.  But, I also want us to recognize that America’s great experiment of educating everyone leads us to grapple with an incredibly heterogeneous population that often does not speak the same language or share the same values.

And, while at the national level, we may not seem to trust either students or teachers, at the local level, I’m seeing some of the “big shift” happening. I have been in several high schools this past year where teachers are part of the leadership and are implementing amazing changes in their classrooms, partly from a wider access to technology tools such as blog and wikis, and partly because they are changing the relationship they have with their students.  I would suggest that, rather than sending delegations to Scandanavia, we might be better served by sending delegations to those schools to highlight what we’re doing right in this sometime suffocating standards-based world in which we live.

Just Makes Me Sad

In the August 15, 2007, edition of Education Week, Amy H. Greene and Glennon Doyle Melton describe their efforts to meet Adequate Yearly Progress at Annadale Terrace Elementary School, a Title I school in Fairfax County.  Their ideas about incorporating the genre of test language are laudable and, evidently, successful.  But their reasons for doing so make me a little sad.  When they asked themselves why their kids needed to pass the state tests, they concluded, “After much soul-searching, we had to admit that state and federal pressures were not the only reasons students needed to learn to pass tests.  test-taking is a life skill.” (Since I’m prepping for comps right now and had to take the GRE to get into grad school, I agree with that.)  But then they write: “While we believed that the test was biased against our students, many of whom came from low-income families and spoke English as a second language, we also knew that much of their academic and professional futures would be determined by their performance on similarly flawed tests.”  That comment came off the page at me like a punch in the nose.  While I applaud their efforts to help their students achieve, I hope that they are busy fighting against the trend in using one flawed test to judge that achievement.  And, I hope that the other tests they mention–such as those for certified public accountants and teacher licensure–are not all flawed.  Have we just gotten to the point where, even though we know tests are not the best indicator of success, they are just part of the nature scheme of things?