Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Double-Edged Sword of Success

The Double-Edged Sword of Success
By Jill Jenkins
                When assessment is used effectively, it can dramatically improve students’ learning; however, when it is used incorrectly, it obstructs students’ learning.  Backward design offers educators the best alternative to improving student performance.  First, teachers should ask what learning goal is to be taught.  Since the Common Core has 37 Learning goals in Language Arts alone with additional subordinate learning goals under many of them, a teacher has many to select from.  Second, determine how the student will demonstrate mastery of the goal. That means design an assessment that will demonstrate that the child has learned the goal.  Third, design a variety of methods to teach the goal. Keep in mind that students learn in different ways, so each learning goal must be approached using multiple learning styles.  Finally, what will the teacher do when for the students who do not demonstrate mastery of the learning goal? Remember, summer school is not an option because school districts don’t have the capital. Surprise we aren’t finished yet.  After the students complete the assessment, the data from the test needs to be evaluated.  All of the teachers in the school should have given the same assessment, but they may not have taught the learning goal in the same way.  To be effective, the scores of all of the teachers should be compared.  The techniques of the teachers who were the most successful should be shared with those who are less successful.  If there is a teacher who is continually less successful, the administrator needs to evaluate the teacher’s effectiveness and offer either support or terminate the teacher.  

                This all sounds very logical and effective to math and science teachers; however, if you teach English Language Arts, teaching one learning goal and never returning to it, does not make sense.  Writing and reading skills need to be revisited again and again with more difficult reading and writing assignments for the learner to master it.  The learning pattern is more of a spiral than a straight line.  However, if teachers look at the fundamental data on writing assignments and see trends where students are weaker, it can be used to bolster weaker areas of instruction.  For example, if teachers ask all of the students to compose the same essay and after the writing samples are graded, they should compare students’ use of the six traits: idea development, organization, appropriate voice, word choice, sentence fluency and conventions.  Perhaps students are not using appropriate detail in their writing, so the teachers determine that will be their goal on the next writing assignment and develop a variety of activities both reading and writing to help students become more aware what good writing should look like and how they can apply that to their writing. Perhaps students are not using correct M.L.A. documentation, so that should be the focus of upcoming assignments.  Conventions, however, need to be taught daily to ensure that students master them and apply them in their writing.  Often time, failure to proof-read is the reason for deficiency in that area. Determining why students are struggling will improve instruction. Teaching reading and writing needs to be more product-oriented than many other subjects, especially because that is how the Common Core will be evaluated them. 

                Many of the less effective teachers take a different approach to planning learning experiences for their students.  Activities that seem fun but are really not based on a particular learning objective seem to be the major focus of their teaching.  Even school districts often take their focus off the objective and promote this because they get more P.R. for the district.  Public support is important for a district so giving an award to the best six word poem, may seem productive, but is it really?  I am not saying that activities that are entertaining to students are not productive.  Many of them are highly effectively.  I am saying that it is important to carefully select the activities to will give students the biggest bang for the buck.  What are they learning?  What makes this activity effective?  Teachers have to continually analyze and ask questions.  Districts should be doing the same thing?  Make sure the activities that your class, your school and your school district will actually improve the education of your students.  If it is not a productive activity, eliminate it.  Time is more important than money.  These students have a mammoth job to effectively master every learning goal in The Common Core. 

                It is difficult for teachers to clinically, and coldly analyze the results of their teaching, but it is imperative if they are going to be highly effective in the 21st Century.  Older teacher with decades of experience and new teachers fresh out of college, all have to sit down together and share teaching ideas and approaches based on student performance on assessments.  The problems that are created by a strong willed teacher who refuses to be part of the group can destroy any change of a successful team emerging.  Administrators who insist that teacher present material precisely the same like robots can also destroy a team’s effectiveness.  Teachers need to be able to experiment with the presentation of material while being held accountable to the assessment.  Open discussions about how to approach students who are struggling will be more effective in groups if the team can brainstorm a variety of different methods. Furthermore, open discussions bring insight into particular problems an individual student is facing or his family is facing.  Divorce, financial difficulties, a death in the family and a myriad of other problems can negatively impact a child’s ability to concentrate in school.  If the teacher can learn from other educators about the child’s situation, it can become a tool to help connect with the child and improve that child’s ability to learn. Successful techniques used by other teachers to connect with a particular student can become an invaluable asset to another teacher.  Sharing information and teaching ideas can improve teaching and learning.
                Most teachers have limited time to find all of the resources available on the internet or application. As a result, it would be extremely useful for districts to provide workshops and specialists who can share with various teaching teams this new technology.  Demonstrating to teachers how to implement these resources could greatly enhance their presentation of materials.  Students retain more if the environment is rich with variety.  Videos, projects, games, reading assignments and writing assignments should all be used to improve their retention.  This means that teachers must work together to determine what learning goal they are teaching. Design an assessment that all of the teachers in that group are using.  Identify a variety of instructional techniques.  Evaluate the results of the assessment and prepare a plan for improving instruction for the individual students who did not pass and for the teachers who also seem to be struggling: the double edged sword of success.  If this method is used well, students’ learning will increase and ineffective teachers will be more easily identified and eliminated.