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JOURNALING CHAOS 5: “School Runnings”

chaosjpeg

The “I Ching” teaches that “Before there can be great brilliance… there must be chaos.”

This is PART 5 in a series of blog posts that document our research, strategic thinking, observations and debates as we take on one of the last vestiges of the industrial revolution: the practice in schools of organizing kids into grade levels according to their chronological age.

At the end of the day on Friday I received a phone call from Max in the Superintendent’s office.  Max was contacting all the principals in the district to get our individual prediction on what we anticipate our API will be this year.  We all have a guess.  We live the API. 

woodThe API is California’s Academic Performance Index.  It is a long and tortured statistical calculation that synthesizes each school’s test results into a 3-digit number. Every student at every grade and every subject area is calculated and “processed” like an elegant wood chipper that grinds otherwise healthy leaves and limbs into useful chips. It weighs the number of students that score proficient and reflects overall organizational growth from year to year. Every school in California is obligated to somehow reach the API promised land of 800 or face the fate of the mastodons.

“To tell you the truth Max… I have no clue.  You want me to just pull a number out of the air?  

“Yep… the Superintendent wants every principal’s prediction.”

“Well…last year we ended up at 797 but our school-wide goal was 801.  We just missed it.  A little better result from this grade or that grade and we would have made it.  Just make up a number?”

“Whatever you think.”

skiWe just held the Olympic Festival yesterday, Max.  The best one in 9 years.  We had a 1000 students participating with well over 100 adult volunteers and parents and guests.  There were 25 different events for kids.  We had two former olympians.  We had India’s first ever winter olympian, for God’s sake.!  She is an Alpine ski racer, Max! But the Olympic Festival and our community spirit and Alpine skiers and our year-end celebration have nothing to do with our API.  It doesn’t compute.”

“I just need a number Dr. Riley.”

“Our 6th graders bombed the local measures.  I think they might have done it on purpose.  Only 7 out of 120 students were proficient on the math section.  How do I factor that in, Max?”

“Uh…can’t help you on that one.”

“But then again, on the MAPS assessments our 6th graders were right on pace.  And that is a much more difficult assessment, don’t you think?”

“No clue sir.  I’m not familiar with SNAPS.”

wall“And we know that if 50% of our students– especially 50% of our English language learners– don’t score proficient on the California Standards Test we will miss the AYP benchmark for the first time and we will go into Program Improvement. We know that.  We are climbing a mountain.  So we added a full hour to the instructional day and tried to target students who were borderline.  And every teacher provided English Language Development to every student for :35 minutes every single day. Damn…  that has to count for something!”

“So you want me to put you down for 801 again?”

“Yea, I guess so. NO! I can’t say 801… that was last year’s goal.  This year our goal is 840!”

“So you want me to put you down for 840?”

“C’mon Max…there is no way we hit 840.  Too many distractions over the longer day.  I think our teachers got burned out mid-year.  We pushed too hard.  By March we had to make adjustments just to keep their morale up. If we caught it soon enough and made the best of the additional hour and kept our focus in every classroom…  we could get a pretty good bump in our API.  But if not… if we really did lose a significant number of our teachers somewhere on the journey… we are hosed.”

“Sounds like you want to stay closer to the 801.  You have to say at least 800.”

“We could go backwards Max!  We could go back down to 790!  When the district told everybody in January that they had to resign to stay at El Milagro or return to a district school… it affected morale too.  18 of our teachers are district employees and 15 are employees of Mueller Charter School.  What a freakin’ mess!  It never should have worked out that way.  Five of our veteran teachers decided that they would leave El Milagro and go back to the district.  So we have been dealing with that and interviewing new teachers and writing letters of recommendations.  These are our colleagues we are losing!”

“Ok…  listen I am going to just say 795 for Mueller Charter School…”

“You know what the problem is here Max? The problem is we give the CST to students according to their grade level… instead of their level of mastery…”

Silence on the other end.

“Max… do you read my blog?”

“No I don’t have time to read blogs because I make phone calls like this all day and just try to stay ahead of the information that the superintendent is trying to gather.”

“Ok… just put us down for 805.”

“805…got it.  Thank you Dr. Riley, it’s been nice talking to you and….”

“And make a note Max that we are really looking hard at this whole system of grouping kids in grade levels according to their age.  It doesn’t make sense anymore. ”

“Ok I wrote that down.”

But of course I know he really didn’t.  And I realized immediately that this is exactly how the status quo stays in tact from year to year; how it absorbs change.  I had no business giving Max some arbitrary number meant to quantify the depth of teaching and learning that took place at Mueller Charter School over the course of an entire year.  The ups and downs.  The celebrations.  The growth and the turmoil and the daily struggle for fresh air. 805? 840?

840

It is the reason that we seek to challenge the very structure of how we group our students for learning and testing.  So I started to pull up my blog to re-read the questions I had generated last week and maybe add to the list.  Just then the phone rang again.  It was Max.

“Dr. Riley…  did you say an Alpine skiier from India?  Didn’t they make a movie about her?”

“No Max…  that was the Jamaican bobsled team.”

“Oh…yea…that’s right…Cool Runnings.”

runnings

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Filed under charter schools, El Milagro, standardized testing, Un-graded schools

JOURNALING CHAOS 2: “Heel Kick”

chaosjpeg

The “I Ching” teaches that “Before there can be great brilliance… there must be chaos.”

This is PART 2 in a series of blog posts that document our research, strategic thinking, observations and debates as we take on one of the last vestiges of the industrial revolution: the practice in schools of organizing kids into grade levels according to their chronological age.  

This past week we completed the 2009 version of the California Standards Test.  It is a standards-based test designed to assess the degree to which children mastered the standards at their grade level.  If they get higher than a scaled score of 350, they will be considered “proficient” and everyone will be happy. 

Of course, anything less than that means they are “not at grade level” and it will be a reason for great concern.  And if 45% of our overall students or 45% of our Latino students or 45% of our English language learners are not at grade level, the state of California will declare us to be a “Program Improvement” school.

So here is what I don’t get.

If we have a standards-based curriculum, and students’ mastery of those standards is determined by a standards-based assessment (in our state: the California Standards Test), then why aren’t kids grouped in classrooms according to their mastery of those standards ? In other words… a true, standards-based school. 

Where do we see standards-based schools?  In that Taekwondo studio down the street– the one in your neighborhood strip mall.

200px-WTF_Taekwondo_1In Taekwondo and other martial arts, students are assigned a white belt until they demonstrate mastery of ALL of the techniques, blocks, kicks, forms, and philosophies that are taught at that beginning of the learning continuum.  They advance through the curriculum- color belt by color belt– until they reach the level of black belt.  There is a high price to pay for not mastering all of those blocking and striking techniques if you spar with another black belt so Taekwondo instructors tend to promote students only when they are ready to be promoted.

Not so in your school or mine.

The significant difference is that in Taekwondo we group students by their demonstrated competence.  In public schools we group kids according to 1) their chronological age and 2) the grade level they were sitting in when the clock ran out at the end of the game last June.  Our 11 years-olds are fifth graders no matter what level of mastery they have attained in school.  And next month, they will become 6th graders and they will struggle to catch up all year until it is time to take the California Standards Test again.  When that time comes, they will be handed the Sixth Grade Test– not because they are ready for it… but merely because we placed them in a student grouping called “Sixth Grade”!

So what if we organized our students for instruction like they do in so many of the schools for the martial arts– in a mastery-based model that is thousands of years old instead of the archaic system that we all perpetuate today where students are promoted merely because it is June outside.  

I have a pretty good idea what would happen and I’ll bet you do too.  Some of it would be good… especially for students and teachers.  But some of it would create such profound dissonance within the “testing and accountability system” that my school will face absolutely blistering criticism.  And maybe worse.

So we are going to have to think this through. And we are going to need your help.

Cross-posted, in part, on Leadertalk

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Filed under charter schools, El Milagro, public education, standardized testing, Un-graded schools