Thursday, May 06, 2010

Deborah Meier's education advice to Obama

The Answer Sheet | Washington Post
May 4, 2010

My guest is renowned educator Deborah Meier, founding principal of Mission Hill School in Boston. She is also a leader of the Forum for Education & Democracy, part of the Rethink Learning Now campaign, a national grass-roots initiative designed to restore the focus of education reform on learning, and the core conditions that best support it. Each month, the campaign is featuring a new issue in K-12 education and providing things people can read, watch, listen to and do to raise awareness. For May, the topic is performance assessment.

By Deborah Meier
As the Obama administration explores new ways to support a national culture of learning – as opposed to our current national culture of testing – it faces a central dilemma: How to satisfy all of our country’s education stakeholders at once.

There are our students, who need timely and instructive feedback that reflects what they really know and are able to do; our parents, who need accurate evidence about their children’s progress; our teachers, who need information that helps them improve the quality of their professional practice and better meet the learning needs of their students; and the general public, which needs to know if schools and teachers are helping children learn how to use their minds well.

Before the conversation progresses any further, I have some unsolicited advice: Don’t expect to satisfy all four needs with the same policy.

For our nation’s students, the evaluative process should be treated less like the part of the driver’s test where we complete a pen-and-paper exam, and more like the part where we actually get in a car and show what we can do on a real road with real traffic and real-time scenarios unfolding all around us.

There’s a term for this sort of approach – performance assessment – and it requires schools to invest in seven interrelated components: active learning; formative and summative documentation; strategies for corrective action; multiple ways for students to express and exhibit learning; graduation-level performance tasks that are aligned with the school’s learning standards; external evaluators of student work; and a focus on professional development. (To learn more about performance assessment, visit

For our nation’s parents, we need to afford to all what only the most privileged among us once had – schools and teachers they can trust, and clear and compelling evidence of student progress that is regularly reviewed and shared between teachers and parents, and teachers and students, in one-on-one meetings.

Currently, the central obstacle to this sort of parental engagement and public accountability is that we don’t provide the time for such meetings, which have been squeezed out by the relentless push to raise basic-skills test scores in reading and math.

But as my late friend Seymour Sarason said, this is by far the most effective method to ensure that students, teachers and parents are on the same page. Indeed, in these sorts of learning environments the last step at such meetings would be a written summary and agreement about next steps— perhaps with all three parties signing it!

For our nation’s teachers, we need to allocate time in the school day for educators to meet with their students and colleagues to revise plans, provide feedback, and make mid-flight corrections based on evidence.

Teachers need to be observed by their colleagues on a planned basis as part of a peer review system. And schools need external reviewers to look over student work and classrooms in a non-punitive environment that lets educators focus less on hiding their weaknesses, and more on listening for helpful advice.

And finally, for our nation’s general public, we need to provide publicly available, easily accessible information regarding all of these interdependent processes: Who is involved, how often do student, teacher and whole-school assessments occur, and how have educators responded to the information they’ve acquired in order to improve the learning conditions for children?

At Mission Hill, the school I helped found in Boston, we had a simple graph that charted each child’s reading progress from the time s/he entered the school until s/he graduated — and it was based upon an oral interview.

The interviewer scored samples of a student reading aloud and discussing the text with the interviewer twice a year, providing the student’s teachers with a valuable piece of hard evidence.

Similar assessments in areas where “development” tends to be linear can be developed. Tasks can be created that track a student’s increased understanding, information and sophistication in science or math or history or art. But this can’t happen until we insist on school schedules and educator supports that create the time and conditions it takes to do this well.

Does this seem overwhelming? It shouldn’t. Most of it is, itself, educational—a form of both professional and student learning. And all it requires is what the Japanese and Finns already provide: School time for serious professional work, not just classroom instruction, and deep investments in cultivating teacher capacity.

We wouldn’t settle for a driving test that didn’t rest on actual driving and rely on an expert to judge our competence. Why should it be any different in education?

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