Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Data Will Set You Free

Confession. I arrived at the 88th Annual ERB Conference with a bias. I would be tough, analytical and shrewd, gathering the necessary data to make the case that our independent school could leave the ERB behind, for good. After all, if the California Association of Independent Schools could remove the ERB as a requirement for membership (and they’re not the only ones), why couldn’t we?

Over the last five years of my career as an English teacher at Hillbrook School, a K-8 in Los Gatos, California, I’ve seen my students given more and more opportunity to deeply engage with their passions. Students are building things, working together, identifying problems and prototyping solutions. Last year, a group of eighth grade girls even built a mini-house that stands proud in the center of our campus today. Talent in the arts and engineering are beginning to be displayed in ways I didn’t think were possible.

Correction. -- in ways I didn’t think were possible at a school like ours. What do I mean by that? I’ll provide a little bit of personal history. As a child, I spent a significant amount of my schooling at The Peninsula School, a progressive with a capital “P” school Menlo Park, California. At that time, nearly three hours of a six-hour school day were dedicated to playtime and activities that included weaving, ceramics, woodshop, music, library time, and open studio for art. Indeed, my early years at The Peninsula School were some of the happiest of all my school experiences. I developed a passion for weaving, such a passion in fact that when my straw was not drawn to go to the weaving room one day (it was a popular choice among third graders), I locked myself in the bathroom and cried. Stored with that memory is one of baking fresh bread at my teacher’s house in the woods, on a school field trip. I often climbed trees from the top of which I could see San Francisco, sat in tree houses, joined a rock band, went on camping trips where children were allowed to explore the woods in small groups without adults, and enjoyed near daily pillow fights with my peers in any of the multitudinous classrooms that had designated pillow rooms. Standardized testing, even muttering those words under one’s breath, was something close to sacrilege.

But The Peninsula School is not the same as my current school, nor the school I had attended for my high school years. At the school where I currently teach, we grade student work and publish those grades to an online gradebook. We assign homework. Though we are invested in making and tinkering, we've not placed those experiences as a higher priority than academic classes. And we take standardized tests, namely, the ERB, every spring. And yet, if Hillbrook School were leaning that way, toward the big “P”, mustn't we also do away with the E-R-B?

Historically, the answer is no. Ironically, standardized testing emerged as a tool of the progressive education movement. Lawrence Cremin’s scholarship, specifically explored in The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876-1957, investigates the early progressive movement, looking as far back as the nineteen-teens and the Presidency of Teddy Roosevelt. Standardized tests were meant to equalize education for everyone and, at least for a time, they did.

Right now at Hillbrook, among other purposes, we use the ERB to help us identify learning differences in our students and to let our greater community know that, yes, our program measures up well among our peer schools. Beyond that, it seems we encounter an almost French Existentialist level crise d’identite, or maybe that's just me. If we invest in the test, bad things will happen. From some unknown place, Pink Floyd’s The Wall will be playing on repeat. The nature of our classrooms, the still burgeoning culture of creativity we’ve worked so diligently to build, will crumble. Our teachers will transform into robotic purveyors of worksheets and check marks for poor behavior. Worst of all, our students will be miserable. “Love of learning? Oh no, we don’t have that here.” Twisting of mustache. A harsh disciplining of a weeping child.

And don’t get me wrong. I did see those things at the ERB conference. One teacher whose session was dedicated to using data to drive individualized instruction presented a photo of a collection of colored bins affixed to a wheeling cart, full of worksheets for “early finishers.” Once the in-class task was complete, the teacher identified an area of growth for that specific student using ERB data, and sent him or her to the colored bins. No, there isn’t candy in there. There is a worksheet on run-on sentences. “And we’ll teach you to write correctly, if it kills us both,” she said. With an aggressive smack of her lips she informed the crowd that a certain teacher at her school who would remain nameless had been “let go” as a result of stagnating ERB scores. My inner child let out a small shriek of terror.

Like lots of other educators, I believe that methods of teaching formerly claimed by self-identified Progressive schools could be one strategy for unlocking students’ love of learning and their future success. The phrases “fall in love” and “fall in line,” though notably often used to describe the Democratic and Republican parties (for better or worse), are also associated in my mind with stereotypes surrounding progressive versus traditional educational models. Students who attend progressive institutions “fall in love” with learning, know themselves, have higher EQ’s and perhaps even a greater shot at happiness. They are likely to understand the value of following their dreams. They are highly equipped to become artists, musicians, and writers, to become the creatives of the world. But how are they underserved? Beneath the surface, perhaps, the stakes are quite high. Among my own community of friends, some landed in the Ivy League, and others never graduated high school.

And what about the students who “fall in line” in traditional schooling contexts and thrive in those environments. These are the top performers in their classes, the valedictorians. Are they still associated with the strong and the mighty, those who rank high in capitalistic measures of success? Everything I read these days seems to point to the near impossibility of even the highest performing students finding good jobs and sustainable, healthy futures for themselves. The recent documentary, "Most Likely To Succeed," does a nice job probing this problem. The days of standardized tests working as tools to cultivate social equality seem to have vanished, in service of even greater advantage for the children of the rich.

Enter Jobs, Gates, and Dell and the emergence of a new mythology: the genius drop-out. Are the success stories of these legends replicable, perhaps even at school? Does baking bread make a child more creative? How about using power tools? Being left alone in the woods? What is the outcome of allowing a child to pursue her passions at school? If these famous drop-outs had had the opportunity for a school experience they loved and in which they thrived, might they have stuck around?

Thankfully, in contrast to Ms. Colored Bins, I also encountered educators who had used ERB data for good, the Glinda’s of Oz. I was particularly impressed with presenters from the Taipei American School and The Trinity Episcopal School in Austin, Texas. Through their presentations, I learned how ERB’s could inform a school’s understanding of itself and create opportunities for faculty members to continue to improve their craft. Students’ ERB scores can tell teachers what their students need, and leave it up to the teacher and his department to come up with a creative way to meet that need. I also learned from these educators that the ERB is just one of many tools, meant to be used in harmony with all sorts of other data, from demographic, to programmatic. Even with small sample sizes like ours, we can make the ERB work for us, rather than asking students to work for it.

In the end, what I came away with was that the data, when used for good, may be the very thing that liberates educators, not binds them. Inference, analogical reasoning, verbal and quantitative reasoning, vocabulary.... Greater understanding of these cognitive processes doesn’t come from worksheets that espouse to improve those very skills. In fact, when one thinks about learning that way, it sounds rather absurd. Twenty-first century educators pride themselves on their openness, creativity, and ability to collaborate with one another. Many of them are the curators of their courses, the curriculum developers and class coaches. With well-understood data to inform them, inspired educators have their paintbrushes, palettes, and canvases at the ready. The supplies they need to meet the need. Welcome, students, to school today.  

In a forthcoming post, I’ll be sharing concretely the ways in which data is driving creative instruction in 6th grade English this year.


  1. I want to hear more about how the testing was meant to inform practice in progressive schools. We can use them as a model. And what does it mean to equalize education, how is that different from standardizing? Thanks for this well reasoned and heart felt blog. Keep talking!

  2. Terrific post. Gracefully written, well reasoned, substantial. Keep them coming!

  3. Enjoyed reading this piece of honest insight!

  4. Very thoughtful and provocative piece, Julie. I really like your conclusion that the data can be used for "good" (and the unstated opposite, that it can also be used for "evil"). One thing to remember is that the data is much more reliable for the group than the individual, so it may be useful for management to use it for self-evaluation - to insure that the students, as a group, are actually learning. Also, if one teacher regularly has a class score that is below the norm, it is an indication that the teacher probably needs additional support.

  5. This is awesome! Excited to have a front row seat as you experiment with these ideas at HB. Go Rubes!

  6. Great post! I can't wait to hear more about the conference, especially about the "Glinda's of Oz" examples you mentioned.

  7. Beautifully done, Julia. Loved hearing about your early childhood experiences (which are quite connected to the current 7th gr. history simulation unfolding on campus). Super interested in your data driven creative instruction in 6th. Would love to hear about it at a future collaboration session! Thank you for thinking and sharing - and for taking the time to promote discussion and reflection.

  8. My two cents: Progressive educators don't need to reinvent the what, we need to tinker with the how (and probably the "what else in addition.") Using student data to illuminate how we are (or aren't) meeting our own goals for the "what" is responsible educating. Throwing out tools for understanding what our students have learned only makes sense in the context of replacing them with better ones. Thanks for helping us think about these things Julia!

  9. Interesting. All experiences are valuable. I'm bummed when I hear about schools or classes shaped by a test. Yet tests are a valuable experience and give a bit of insight into a students understanding/abilities/interests. It'd be interesting to see a map of how this kind of testing (and preparation for it) fits into a student's overall learning experience. Hopefully that aligns with a school's vision for learning.