Sunday, January 1, 2017

Students Going Further: My Case for Confidence

| Post By Susan Perkins Weston |

I am entirely confident that  Kentucky students can move to substantially higher levels of achievement than we see today. For the start of 2017, I'm going to share my reasons and back them up (over multiple posts) with notes on the challenges we’ll have to meet to deliver on that potential.

I’ll start with the core of why I believe our students can fly much higher.

One big pile of evidence comes from seeing young learners thrive. Big examples for me include:
  • The quality of reading, thinking, and writing students do when they take on big tasks through the Literacy Design Collaborative. For example, those could be tasks that ask them to explain the human impact on marine ecosystems or argue whether presidents should have line item veto power or analyze whether Hester Prynne was a virtuous woman within the description offered in Proverbs 31. (At, anyone who creates a free account can see those three exemplary Kentucky teacher designs and many more.) I’ve listened to teachers debriefing after teaching those tasks, and they report students showing tremendous capacity for effort and discovery. I’ve read the student work, and been so absorbed by the substance that I forgot the age of the writers who were teaching me.
  • The sudden fire that lights up when students realize that what they have learned at home and in their communities is important for something they’re studying at school. The term of art is “culturally responsive teaching.” The examples that haunt me involve fiddlers in Powell County and second-graders whose teacher thought they were permanently disengaged until they heard the words "Montgomery, Alabama" and stood right up to go over 1955 as though they'd been there for the entire bus boycott and participated in all the planning before it began.
  • The soaring work of the Student Voice Team, where statute reading and data analysis and pubic presentation and professional caliber layout all get done at a pace that seems almost magical, because the participants see why it deserves this effort.
More broadly, I’ve watched dozens of young people, mostly starting at 11 or 12, take on huge bodies of knowledge on their own initiative. Once athletes or actors or authors spark a passion, they’ll read and read, and search and find, and explore and imitate and explain in overwhelming depth. Schools can offer sports and band and theatre as extracurricular programs because students come without being commanded. A simple way to state my confidence is this: I am convinced that students can master school-type content with at least half the depth they bring to understanding the music they call their own.

The other big pile of evidence comes from learning about schools and school systems where students beat the odds. That’s more systematic proof, but it isn’t ideal, because the evidence has to come from standardized tests that don’t show us much about ability to research and solve problems, gather and evaluate evidence, or communicate and collaborate in a team. So I use it, but use it second. Floyd County’s impressive pace of improvement is a compelling example, as are the high-performing schools and programs featured in EdTrust publications over many years. Helpfully, the best reporting on students flourishing in those places don’t just cite the numbers: they wrap the numbers in descriptions of the students doing active work and discussions of teacher observations of that work over time.

Over the coming posts, my goal is to tell a story of moderate complexity. It’s about kids who can do big work, but frequently don’t. It’s about educators who bring their talent and devotion every day, but often can’t pull off the big changes. And it’s about institutions that say they want the big shifts, but rarely build consistent opportunity for students and teachers to pull them off. Most of all, it’s an account of why we should press onward, aiming higher and pushing harder, and reject arguments that we can only expect a tiny snail’s pace of improvement in the years ahead.

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