Assessment Opinion

Leaders Take Notice: Care Counts

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — February 10, 2015 5 min read
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A recent TIME Magazine article entitled “Leaving Tests Behind” reported on the call to re-examine the use of standardized tests to account for the meeting of a national standard. The trend to use standardized tests to account for common benchmarks of student achievement and, of course, a way to hold all schools accountable has given rise to questions about the impact on children. Legislating these standardized tests came from the belief that it would be beneficial if all children in the country were held to the same standards and, in turn, their schools would all be moving toward the same goals. The intentions are not the problem but the tests have become the only important things. The impact of the testing environment on some children has raised questions. Now arise the response backlash discussions about leaving tests and grading behind.

Our Challenge Might Be Innate
On the NPR podcast Invisibilia, a program called “The Power of Categories” began by discussing studies of 4 month olds and their capacity to discriminate between categories. Two studies, one at UC Davis and one at UC Berkley, revealed infants’ natural ability to categorize objects. From the show:

To categorize objects around us is extremely important. When you recognize an object as a member of a particular category, all your knowledge about that category guides your response to that thing. So you don’t have to figure out everything every time you encounter something new.

So it appears the behaviors we observe and demonstrate by dividing and labeling comes very early into our lives. Clearly our brains are equipped to help us organize input and create order in our lives. Yet, we know that labeling and categorizing isn’t always a good thing. This capacity to identify similarities and differences may hurt sometimes. We worry about how we break through to welcome otherness and see new relationships and potential...but that’s another blog.

This writing is about how educators divide ourselves into categories: those who are supportive of standardized testing and national standards and those who are opposed to them or those who simply see them as too limited to effectively measure our success. If we rally around the categories, we will continue to be focused on our differences rather than a common concern.

Questions About the Learning Environment. Answers About Caring.
A recent #Satchat Twitter conversation was focused on these six questions:

  • Is there a place in today’s education for the traditional classroom?
  • Define better learning environment?
  • What 1 thing (non-tech) can an educator do to build a better learning environment?
  • How can students help build a better learning environment
  • What PD to teachers and #edadmin need to help build a better learning environment?
  • Who is a role model for you in building a better learning environment?

Participating in #Satchat always brings new thoughts and sharing. These questions on this particular Saturday (2/7) revealed what is on the minds of current and emerging leaders, yet it may not receive the attention it needs. In a scan of the Twitter conversations that took place in response to these questions, these words and phrases were repeated: recognize bias, identify barriers, create safe learning environments, encourage teachers, develop trusting relationships, listen, inspire, reflect, respect, honor voices, ask good questions frank communication, engage, personalize, and build strong communities along with relationships, culture, meaning, and community outreach.

As schools continue to change the way teaching and learning take place and expect teachers and school leaders to learn new methods of teaching and assessing, a culture of care cannot be left behind. It was both refreshing and confounding that these teachers and leaders in the #Satchat discussion always came back to those aspects of human behavior that have little to do ...on the surface...with content or tests and accountability...But, just maybe, we are learning that they cannot be ignored because children, and adults also, perform best in places where these “under the radar” currents are happening.

Academics AND a Culture of Care
In December, we attended a session at the Learning Forward Conference in Nashville, where Professor Joe Murphy of Vanderbilt University was discussing pastoral care for children. We couldn’t imagine a topic with that focus had made it into a national education conference, nor, frankly, that he was the one presenting it. But there he was and we were delighted. He was raising to the attention of the national audience the necessity for addressing achievement gaps by merging the academic press with a culture of care. At the end of the session, we were saying a resounding “yes.”

“Murph”, as he is known by his Vanderbilt students, was arguing that care, support, safety and membership are essential for student engagement, and, therefore, thriving learning environments. He shared stories about simple ways leaders could detect the level of knowledge school personnel had of each child in the building and the extent of each child’s participation in the life of the school. He created a visual image for us of achievement data on one hallway wall and engagement data on the other. Together, those walls support student success.

We naturally use our brains to categorize information. It is time for us to bring back together a focus on school culture and a focus on high expectations and achievement for students. While teachers and leaders focus on the changing educational landscape and are, themselves, actively engaged learners, attending the humanity within increasingly dynamic school environments is important. Placing pastoral care into the new mindsets of school leaders is courageous.

Return the Conversation to the Kernel of Commonness
Outside as well as inside of schools, there is the struggle between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the like and the unlike, the positive and negative on any issue. Standardized tests are only one example. But we might want to discover the seed at the core of our purpose and return the conversation to the kernel of commonness. Rather than tugging for or against the standardized testing, for example, energy can be spent on the real concern...closing the achievement gaps and preparing all students for colleges and careers. As is with most everything else, it takes a leader who can hold both needles and knit disparate strands together.

Edwards, H..S.. (2015, February). Leaving tests behind. Time, 28-31.

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