Teaching Profession

End the School Year With Capstone Projects, Teachers’ Union President Says

By Madeline Will — March 23, 2020 2 min read
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Instead of ending the school year with assessments, let teachers develop capstone projects for their students, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten has proposed.

More than 50 million students across the country are home for the next few weeks—and possibly for the rest of the school year—as schools have closed their doors due to the coronavirus pandemic. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has announced that the Department of Education will allow states to cancel end-of-year testing. (About 30 states have already moved to do so.)

To help students show their academic progress and give them a sense of closure, Weingarten is suggesting that teachers consider assigning capstone projects instead. Those performance-based assessments typically allow students to pursue a topic of interest, conduct original research, create a final product that demonstrates what they’ve learned, and then present their findings to their classmates and teachers.

“Students love to show what they know to people who matter to them,” Weingarten said in a statement. “So we need to trust teachers, in consultation with their principals and colleagues, to design meaningful, educationally appropriate ways to show what students have learned.”

Here a few of Weingarten’s suggestions:

  • Elementary students could choose their favorite book they read this year and write an essay on it. Weingarten suggested those compositions could be sent back to teachers on the school bus that is delivering grab-and-go meals.
  • Middle school students could hold a debate with their classmates online, or interview a relative.
  • High school students could research a topic they hadn’t yet gotten to in class and present their findings via video.

Last year, Education Week reporter Stephen Sawchuk visited the Oakland, Calif., school district, where high school students complete a graduate capstone project. Seniors there have to conduct field research about a topic of their choice (such as homelessness or immigration policy), craft a presentation about their findings, and respond to questions posed by a panel of teachers. Sawchuk wrote that the pieces of the assessment are “knit together comprehensively, with an eye toward making sure students’ mastery of research, writing, and oral skills matches the needs of what comes next for them.”

While video-conferencing tools like Zoom could be a way for students virtually present their projects, Weingarten noted that teachers should try to incorporate pen and paper, too, since many students don’t have access to devices or the internet.

Many school districts have pivoted to online learning while schools are closed, and teachers have been left scrambling to make it work. (Other school districts, however, aren’t yet sure how to provide equal opportunities to their students with disabilities, so they’ve held off on remote instruction.)

“This school year is not a wash—we’ve had seven months of instruction, and students have learned and experienced so much already,” Weingarten said. “We’re holding out hope we can bring a sense of completion and finality to kids and families and end this unprecedented year on a positive note.”

Teachers, if you’re thinking about assigning a capstone project to students—or have another idea for how to close out the disrupted school year—let us know your suggestions, tips, and thoughts in the comments.

Photo: American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten —Cliff Owen/AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.