How should we teach about social justice in a post-(Michael) Brown world?

**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**

A guest post by Beth Ellor

Picture a 5th Grade classroom in Chinatown on New York’s Lower East Side. Twenty-seven mostly Asian children – when I use the classic ‘clap, clap, clap-clap-clap’ signal, they fall silent immediately, eyes on me. Thorough plans from their teacher, including Social Studies – based on a Scholastic News magazine article about Selma and Civil Rights.

How do we introduce this to first generation immigrants (based on their accented English and preference for conversing in Chinese) who clearly have no context for that time? We read the article round-robin (a rarity these days), but the follow-up questions are met with blank stares. To enliven the short article, I’ve found some archival photos online to project on the Smartboard, and invite some discussion of how people might have felt then, seeing the shocking images on TV for the first time ever. Then I continue to a video from the recent 50 year anniversary celebration, specifically the speech made by John Lewis before he introduced President Obama. Immediately I regret this, for so many reasons.

The computer is set to the wrong screen resolution, stretching the images too wide. The sound quality is poor, and Rep. Lewis, with his strong Southern accent and also choked with emotion, induces snickers and imitations. My heart freezes. The mikes, positioned for the tall president, virtually obscure the much shorter Georgia Representative Lewis, so he appears to be bobbing in and out of sight. Suddenly, a Civil Rights icon and personal hero of mine is being subjected to derisive whispers and mirth. I find myself reminding them sharply that this man was willing to give his life for his beliefs throughout the Civil Rights struggle, and on that day, he almost did. The youngsters straighten their faces and attempt to pay attention, but there is no resonance for them. Someone else’s fight in some distant time, and definitely not about them. Epic Fail.

During lunch, I examine the bulletin boards around the room, which are based on their study of the Civil War era. Contemporary illustrations have been pinned up, surrounded by hand-written responses by the children. Around an engraving of enslaved people hoeing land and planting, an overseer on horseback holding a whip, and a white man lounging against a fence, watching, the children have noted: “The people want to get all the work done.” “He needs to make sure the work gets done.” (The overseer) And “He is watching to make sure the work will be finished in time.” (The white man) No-one remarks on the whip, the ethnicity of the characters, or the leisurely stance of the slave-owner.

I fall back on my own stereotypes of China under Chairman Mao, with the devotion of workers to collectivism, common goals of productivity, and self-effacing obedience. 60 plus years have passed since the Cultural Revolution, but how do Civil Rights images look to an Asian immigrant compared to a child born in the South Bronx, in Newark, NJ, or in Selma, Alabama? How does a teacher bring up the subject effectively in a 5th Grade classroom in Chinatown? And does it matter?

So it was with perfect synchronicity that I attended a meeting on May 12th called Digging Deeper: Teaching Rights and Social Justice in a Post-(Michael) Brown Era, offered by the Institute for Public Knowledge at NYU, in partnership with:

International Perspectives on Human Rights Ed, International Ed Program, Dept. of Humanities and Social Services, Steinhardt School.

NYU Partnership Schools Program

Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, NYU.

The event was spearheaded by Carol Anne Spreen, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Steinhardt, NYU, and Chrissie Monaghan, Ph.D. Coordinator, NYC-RTE.

http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/faculty/Carol_Anne_Spreen Faculty biography.

http://curry.virginia.edu/articles/right-to-education, including links to other published works.

Her immediate boss, Jonathan Zimmerman, was also there to give an outline of his own contributions to the subject.

http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/faculty/Jonathan_Zimmerman Faculty Biography

Also on hand was David E. Kirkland, who spoke from both a professional and personal perspective about the systemic factors influencing people and communities of color in recent times.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EgOoLi1iE7k – for a video with Assistant Professor of English Education David Kirkland discussing how we can understand the complex literate lives of urban youth in and outside of the classroom and the experiences that develop their identity and engagement with the larger world.

http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/faculty/David_Kirkland Faculty biography.

Following these presentations, short introductions were given by representatives of organizations which provide various forms of support and expertise to schools and public forums. I was already familiar with several of these, such as

Teaching Tolerance, http://www.tolerance.org/classroom-resources

Which is the education arm of the

Southern Poverty Law Centerhttp://www.splcenter.org/what-we-do/teaching-tolerance Also

Howard Zinn’s education site https://zinnedproject.org/ -in conjunction with:-

Teaching for Change, http://www.teachingforchange.org/ and

Rethinking Schoolshttp://www.rethinkingschools.org/index.shtml

But there are so many dedicated organizations also offering social justice education programs!


Facing History, Facing Ourselveshttps://www.facinghistory.org/for-educators/educator-resources#bottom

Equitashttps://equitas.org/en (look under educational resources)

Amnesty International: http://www.amnestyusa.org/resources/educators

Asia Society:  http://asiasociety.org/education

Human Rights Watch: http://www.hrw.org/about

Global Nomads Group:  http://gng.org/program-pathways

Speak Truth to Power:  http://rfkcenter.org/speak-truth-to-power and http://curriculum.rfkcenter.org/

Street Law Inc.  http://www.streetlaw.org/en/home

Brooklyn 826 (Valencia 826) http://826nyc.org/

Educational Video Center:  http://www.evc.org/tools

Voice of Witness:  http://voiceofwitness.org/education-about/

While each of these offer distinctive resources and focus, every educator who cares about increasing the depth of exposure and understanding of their students will find a wealth of support here. As with all resources, find the one(s) which meet your needs, match your voice and purpose, and stick with it.

To return briefly to my 5th graders – the educators I spoke to had two important messages.

  • it is best to start with personal stories and experiences before launching into the topic, so that you can create common ground between your students and the theme you plan to launch.
  • (this especially from Facing History, Facing Ourselvespresenter Daniel Braunfeld), create the plans around the age and experience of the students themselves. What works for one group may be entirely inaccessible for another of the same age/grade, so Facing History curriculum is always developed together with teachers on site, not scripted in a pre-digested format.

An article in Scholastic in 5th Grade will be too early and a mismatch for the children’s historical perspective, compared to mine after decades of living through it myself! I hope they will eventually get to discover for themselves, using one of these wonderful programs which are free and available to teachers and schools everywhere!

This post originally appeared on Beth Ellor’s examiner.com page, and was republished with permission.


Beth Ellor has explored the New York City schools as a parent, as an early childhood teacher, and as a retiree currently providing professional development to inner city schools (as an independent contractor for a celebrated i3 provider). Also a substitute teacher in a wide range of schools, she is a close observer of the reality behind the rhetoric of school success, struggle and reform.

K-12 Writing Standards: What Will it Take to Improve Them?

While global communication has grown and improved by leaps and bounds in the past two decades, the same cannot be said for K-12 writing skills. A new study released by Gary Troia at Michigan State University finds that K-12 writing standards are stagnant from a decade ago, along with student writing achievement. What’s more, Troia says that nearly 25 percent of K-12 students in the U.S. are not performing at a proficient writing level. He takes aim at the Common Core standards for writing and says that though some ideas are strong, others are still not asking enough of student writing.

Any U.S. K-12 educator, in any topic area, can certainly relate to Troia’s findings and surveys have found that employers also bemoan the writing deficiencies of their workforce. So if Common Core suggestions are not enough, what is needed to truly transform the writing landscape of K-12 classrooms and learners? Here’s what I think:

Earlier computer/keyboarding introduction

Troia touches on this point in his study when he says that most schools do not comprehensively address keyboarding until third grade. Many children are learning to type, or peck out letters, on a computer keyboard long before they are tracing letters in a Kindergarten workbook. Through keyboarding, children learn spelling and reading, as well as develop their memory skills. So why are schools waiting until the third grade to maximize on this facet of early composition and phonics? Basic handwriting and traditional ways of learning to write are important, but so is the technology that supports contemporary communication. Writing curriculum should include keyboarding and generally more screen instruction at a much earlier age to capitalize on the technology that can catapult U.S. students into a higher level of writing proficiency. The ideas are there – they just need to start earlier.

More interdisciplinary focus 

Writing is not an isolated school subject; it is a skill that permeates all topics of learning. Parents, teachers, students and administrators need to stop considering writing an area of strength or weakness (much in the way we gear students towards math/science pursuits or creative areas if the talent exists). Writing is a must-have skill in the global economy and one that will be needed in some capacity for every career. We can’t let students off the hook if writing is simply not their strong suit. Writing is a skill that anyone CAN master with enough practice and its practical applications need to be emphasized in every subject area.

Remedial intervention

College is not the place where students should receive remedial help on their writing. Stronger programs need to exist as young as pre-K to ensure that no child moves forward without a firm grasp of the writing skills required. Teachers need time and resources to intervene on an individual level. Of course parental help here is also a necessity but cannot be relied upon to ensure that all students have writing proficiency as graduates. Promoting students that lack grade-level writing skills in the hopes that they will catch up only furthers the problem down the road.

It’s time to put writing on the pedestal it deserves. It is the foundation of K-12 academic success and workplace achievement. If we put writing on the back burner, it has the potential to damage every other subject area and hold our students back from their true achievement in school and life beyond the K-12 and college years. Now is the time to make writing a priority, particularly if we expect this next generation of students to lead globally.

How do you think we can collectively improve K-12 student writing proficiency?

New Teacher Tip: Handling Challenging Behavior Problems

Every class has its share of challenging students. If you feel frustrated with the behavior issues that you have to handle, take comfort in the fact that you are not alone—handling behavior issues comes with the job description. Experienced teachers also have trouble managing talkative students, power struggles and disputes among students. Behavior Management: A Whole-School Approach, a book authored by behavior management expert Bill Rogers, delineates how to handle tough behaviors. Typical classroom behaviors and strategies for handling them are detailed below.

Talking in Class

The nonstop talking of a chatterbox can distract other students from concentrating on their work. This is something that you can tackle by giving positive instructions and avoiding negative ones. Rather than using a “no talking” approach, direct instructions to specific students, and ask them to “remain quiet.” Follow this with a “thanks” to indicate that your request has been met. If the talking takes place while you are speaking, simply stop speaking. This works as a reminder to students that they are supposed to listen and not talk among themselves.

Power Struggle

Some students refuse to concentrate on their work and complete it as a way to pull the teacher into a power struggle. Do not fall into this trap at any time. Give students choices with consequences attached. Let them know that if the work is not completed within a specified time, they will miss free time or face other consequences. This puts the responsibility of their behavior on them and teaches them to make choices at the same time. Make sure to show appreciation to students with a smile or a “thank you,” if they make the right choice.

Arguments Galore

Students who challenge everything the teacher says or does can distract the class by forcing it to focus on secondary issues. It might be difficult not to reprimand a defiant student, however getting defensive or adopting a hostile attitude is not likely to solve the issue. Remain assertive and civil and focus on the primary issue. Repeated instances like these may require and “after class” discussion with the student to explain how the behavior spoils the relationships with you and interferes with learning time of his/her peers.


Sulking behavior is also a distraction for the teacher. This is one behavior that needs to be nipped in the bud immediately. Have a private discussion with the student as soon as you observe this behavior. You might have to demonstrate the student’s behavior and mannerisms to him in order to clearly explain his behavior. More often than not, brooding students are unable to understand that they are being rude or socially unacceptable.

Over Dependence

A student who requests assistance all the time may be doing so out of a need for attention or may genuinely not be able to accomplish the task on his/her own. Assess the reason behind the clinging habit before you address it. Try ignoring the persistent calls to look at the work for a while, and when he/she waits patiently, reward him/her by looking at the work enthusiastically. Another strategy is to have students ask their peers before they speak to you for clarification.

Given that these are the five most persistent and frustrating issues most teachers face, adopting the right strategy for handling them should ensure that you have a class that is well behaved.

New more hands on help? Here is an amazing video from the American Psychological Association for teachers looking for tips on how to deal with challenging behaviors.






Why Neuroscience Should Be Taught in Teacher Preparation Programs

Most teacher preparation programs focus exclusively on education. Future elementary school teachers learn about the latest methods for teaching students reading, writing, and math. Middle and high school teacher preparation programs focus on the content area their students will be teaching.

This sounds like a great idea. Teachers should know about education research, methods, and the content they’ll be teaching. But if teacher preparation programs want their students to become truly great educators, they need to teach more than just these things.

In fact, teacher preparation programs should be getting into the sciences—neuroscience, that is. Neuroscience is the study of how the brain and nervous system are developed and how they work. Neuroscientists examine how the brain is connected to behavior and cognition.

How could neuroscience help teachers? Neuroscience can help teachers understand how the brain learns new information. Even having a basic knowledge of neuroscience can inform the way teachers teach.

For example, neuroscience tells us that when children learn new information, that information goes through pathways in the brain. These pathways connect neurons together. The more connections that exist between neurons, the easier it is for the brain to access information.

What does this mean for teachers? When students learn something new, they need to be able to connect it to something they already know. This forms strong neural pathways and makes recall easier.

Teachers who have studied neuroscience know this and more. They know how to get all of a student’s brain active and ensure that what students learn sticks.

In addition to helping future teachers understand how students learn best, neuroscience can help them manage student behavior. Often, the reasons students behave poorly is due to stress. Neuroscientists have studied how stress affects the brain, and their findings can help teachers better understand students’ behavior.

By preparing future teachers with knowledge about how the brain works, universities can help create better teachers. Teachers who are experts on neuroscience and the brain know how to teach students in a way that will make information stick. They’re also better prepared to handle problem behaviors and understand what makes students act out.

Though including neuroscience in teacher preparation programs isn’t traditional, the benefits it offers are numerous. More and more teacher preparation programs are including classes on neuroscience in their curriculum.

What do you think teachers should know about neuroscience? How can studying the brain help future teachers? Let us know what you think!

Ineffective assessments, part VII: Better cultural and learning understanding

 Click here to read all of the articles in our Ineffective Assessments series.

Not all students are natural-born test takers. Any educator who has spent even a small amount of time in classrooms knows this – much in the way that different students have different learning styles. Most times, teachers can account for this in their classrooms based on the students they serve. Even if the teachers do not adjust the tests or assignments from one year to the next, their general demographic remains the same from one year to the next based on location. An inner city math teacher, for example, could tweak his tests with word problems that best relate to the students entering his classroom and not use obscure references that make the material seem even more disconnected from the real life of the students. A science teacher at an elite prep school could do the same, using references that strike a chord with the students who walk through the door and grounding the material.

Statewide assessments don’t have that level of customization. They are created for one set of students and then applied to the rest. A student who feels isolated from the material in front of her will not be as successful in answering the questions, plain and simple. English as a second language learners, for example, may not perform as well on assessment tests as their peers. Standardized assessments make many assumptions about those who are taking them and to the detriment of the students. For assessments to be effective, the student answering the questions should always be considered.

So what sorts of cultural differences should be considered when assessments are created?

  • Socioeconomic status. Students from homes where one or both parents have a college education tend to have more advanced linguistic capabilities and accomplishing school tasks comes more easily than students from economically disadvantaged homes. This is not to say that test questions should be easier or in any way “dumbed down” based on the income of a family in question, but assessments should be carefully written with these factors in mind. Perhaps there is a reason beyond basic comprehension that white students from middle and high-class homes tend to perform better on standardized tests. Perhaps it is not the actual material that they have more effectively mastered, but the actual tests that have put them at an advantage. If every student had the chance to take a test that played on his socioeconomic strengths and avoided pitfalls that made that student feel isolated from the material, perhaps we would see a drastic change in test scores. Considering the socioeconomic status of students is a very important part of the assessment process that needs to be addressed for all students to succeed.
  • What is spoken at home should play into the type of assessment students receive. Students who speak English as a second language, even fluently, should have the option to take their assessments in whatever language makes them the most comfortable. There should never be a debate about whether a student knows “enough” of the English language to perform well on an assessment. If there is even a question, the student should be given the test in his native language or at least asked for the preference. If we are truly trying to gauge what these students know, we should not force them to battle the language barrier to present that knowledge. Students should be allowed to request tests in whatever language makes them the most comfortable – no questions asked, and no hoops to jump through.
  • Learning style. This one is a little more complicated to implement and possibly a pipe dream at this point in the assessment reform process. BUT a perfect assessment system would allow students to answers questions in such a way that complemented their personalities and learning styles. Teachers could help determine this through their observations of the students. The trick would be to ensure that all the material was equally difficult and that the students were placed with the right test based on their true learning style. A student who did well in traditional test taking, for example, may perform worse in a testing environment that was tailored to visual or hands-on learners. This type of assessing would need some trial and error to get right but could end up yielding big results in student test success. It’s something that would need a lot more research and testing before implementation, but I believe it is worth the effort to reach a point of truly fair and accurate assessments.

One of the largest arguments against standardized assessments is that they are just that – standardized. To give a full picture of what students are learning, assessments need to be customized to fit those students’ life circumstances and personalities. It is contradictory to say that American public schools embrace students from all backgrounds, and at all learning levels, and with every personality type but then to test one model student that is not an accurate representation of any of them. This doesn’t further our educational pursuits, and it certainly does not further the academic success of the students who take the tests. Blanket assessments are not even an accurate representation of a teacher’s strengths. By trying to accommodate the masses, assessments have left behind the individuals and the result is a system of testing that does nothing to help anyone in the process and contributes little to what we truly know about actual student progress.

As they exist today, standardized assessments are ineffective, misleading and not helpful to public school culture. By adjusting these tests to meet the individual needs of the students taking them, the assessments would at least stand a chance of mattering in the lives of the students who take them.

It may be impossible to tailor each test to the needs of the student who will take it, but as technology improves, I believe the tools will exist to make this at least partially a reality. Consider an assessment future where teachers can type in a few short answers about a student and then receive a customized test based on the responses. We have the technology through our smartphones that tell us right down to the grocery store aisle what is for sale – surely there is a developer out there who can do the same targeting for test making. We should be able to create the tests that will most benefit our students and give educators the most accurate picture of what is being learned and comprehended.

As assessment makers become more technologically sophisticated, so too should the tests. States should demand these types of options of their test makers in the best interest of their students. There is no reason not to pursue more advanced forms of test delivery that take the backgrounds and learning styles of students into account. At this point, that type of test reform is necessary to understand what is being taught and learned in our K-12 classrooms.

Assessments of the future

It’s time to tear apart the traditional way our K-12 students have been tested and look for a more targeted approach that implements technology, focuses on information gathering and accounts for the differences between the students who take the assessments. It will take a lot of work, and it will cost some money, but the result will be effective assessments that tell us something about the progress of individual students. If we want to make our public schools places that deliver the brightest minds of their generations, then we owe it to these students to make testing fair and beneficial to them. It should not simply be a process of measuring sticks and statistics; assessments should give us a wider, detailed perspective on what our students have learned so far, how they’ve learned it and what their learning outlook is for the future.   

Ineffective assessments, part VI: More digital access needed

 Click here to read all of the articles in our Ineffective Assessments series.

All facets of education are being impacted by the rapid evolution of technology and assessments are not immune. Not only should educators be able to tap into digital resources for assessment preparation, but students should be able to take assessments using the technology that makes them most comfortable. In other words, we need to ditch the Scantron forms and No. 2 pencils and give our kids access to the right technology to make them the most comfortable with the tests they are taking and to streamline the process for scorers. I do think that there is value to the handwritten word, but I also know that this generation of K-12 students will not be handing in business reports or notes scribbled with pencil on college-ruled paper. Our kids should be typing early and using the wide array of technology at their fingertips for the learning process. Assessments should reflect that shift, too.

To those outside the educational community, the idea that students should be able to take tests through computers and other pieces of technology that make them comfortable is a no-brainer. Within the educational community, there is always some fret when it comes to anything related to technology, or change. For decades, classroom assessments have always been done in quiet classrooms with individual test packets and students filling in bubbles on scan sheets with sharpened pencils. In recent years, there have been added sections for free thought that exists outside of multiple choice responses, but the tests are virtually the same boring layout that they were when many of us took our standardized tests as K-12 students.

Changing the format of how these tests are delivered is a scary proposition for many lawmakers and administrators and certainly, one that does not come without a hefty price tag. When you add in the consortium (albeit a small one) of educators who are leery when it comes to any technology takeovers in classrooms, it isn’t difficult to see why there is so much hand-wringing when it comes to updating the way that assessments are delivered. I would challenge our educational community, from classroom teachers to those sitting on national education committees, to move beyond these fears though and find a financial way to make the technology of assessments possible.

There are a few schools of thought when it comes to what kids should be learning in our K-12 schools, particularly our public ones. Some believe all activities should be focused on getting students ready for the real world and should point to career-readiness programs. Why waste time in the classroom on lofty ideas or flighty benchmarks that have no adaptation to real life, and the ultimate goal of all Americans: a better economy and way of life. Other believe that there should be at least some inclusion of intellectual pursuits just for knowledge’s sake. Not everything learning in a K-12 classroom needs a direct relationship with something in the real world that will benefit our students monetarily down the road. Some learning is simply important to developing better humans who pass along that cultural knowledge to the next generations.

I’m not an anti-intellectualist by any means, but I do believe that where technology is concerned, educators should fully support the first school of thought. It is our job to ensure students have adequate access to and mastery of the technology that will be part of their everyday lives as adults. Wherever possible, technology should be incorporated into our lesson plans and used in our classrooms because it will make a difference in how well-versed this generation of students will be across subject dividing lines.

Consider the rapidly advancing technology of just the past few years. A Pew Research report found that 56 percent of Americans in 2013 owned smartphones – up from just 35 percent the year before. The rapid integration of smartphone culture into the Western world took only a few years, and with the dawn of smartwatches and augmented reality devices, it seems that two years from now, our technology norms will be completely changed once again.  Think ahead to the year 2027, when this year’s Kindergartners are crossing the stage to receive their high school diplomas. What will the technology look like then? Will we, as educators, have done everything within our power to get them career ready to use it?

Integrating higher levels of technology in assessments, whether the state-mandated versions or even just in-classroom ones, will have two positive results. The first is that they will reinforce students’ use of technology by asking them to implement it to take the actual tests. The second is that assessments will make more sense in the grand scheme of classroom learning, that is already much more interactive than the traditional test-taking process that is still used in standardized assessments. Students who take tests on computers or tablets will be more comfortable with the material at hand, and it will feel like more of an integrated process. To remain a world leader when it comes to the fast-pace of technology, we as educators need to insist that technology is part of not only the teaching process but also of assessment policy too.


Ineffective assessments, part V: More critical thinking needed

 Click here to read all of the articles in our Ineffective Assessments series.

Everyone can agree that applied knowledge is crucial to the learning process,, so standardized tests need to do better when measuring it. Every child needs to be able to articulate what he or she knows, not just repeat it. While it may not be as efficient to grade answers that go beyond filling in a bubble, these are the questions students need to answer to apply their knowledge in real-world applications. Instead of simply finding the answer, students need to explain their answers.

So what exactly is critical thinking and how does it play into our K-12 classrooms? Do educators understand the concept? According to Richard Paul in a piece for CriticalThinking.org, most educators do not understand what critical thinking entails and are therefore unable to teach it to their students. He says that the best definition lies in his book Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life and includes these points:

  • analyzing and assessing reasoning
  • identifying strengths and weaknesses in thinking
  • identifying obstacles to rational thought
  • dealing with egocentrism and sociocentrism
  • developing strategies that enable one to apply critical thinking to everyday life (I’d argue this is the most vital of all)
  • understanding the stages of one’s development as a thinker
  • understanding the foundations of ethical reasoning
  • detecting bias and propaganda in the national and international news
  • conceptualizing the human mind as an instrument of intellectual work
  • active and cooperative learning
  • the art of asking essential questions
  • scientific thinking
  • close reading and substantive writing
  • and grasping the logic of a discipline.

“Critical thinking is the art of thinking about thinking with a view to improving it. Critical thinkers seek to improve thinking, in three interrelated phases. They analyze thinking. They assess thinking. And they upgrade thinking (as a result),” he writes.

Paul speaks specifically to the lack of critical thinking in college classrooms and how faculty there are often unable to teach it adequately (and sometimes to even identify that there is a problem) – but as we all know, the students who show up in college classrooms are products of our K-12 ones. Young adulthood is too late to teach the basic tenets of critical thinking. For one thing, students by then have already figured out all of their academic shortcuts. Many have figured out the academic system and how to rig it in their favor. It makes sense, really, particularly in an assessment culture that relies on final answers as truths without much concern for how the student arrived at the answer. By college age, students have mastered the K-12 structure that earned them a high school diploma and are eager to apply those habits in higher education. So asking college faculty to not just use critical thinking activities, but to teach many of their students to use critical thinking principles for the first time, is a stretch. Asking those college graduates to apply those critical thinking points in their careers is even more laughable. The skills need to be taught and properly assessed long before that first college course and well before college graduates are in the workforce.

An bonus of more inclusion of critical thinking options is that it improves writing and communication skills in the process. Remember those companies I mentioned earlier in the chapter that say they can’t seem to find employees with proficient writing skills? By ensuring that more critical thinking and explanation standards are written into assessments, teachers are guaranteeing that students can explain what they know both in the classroom and out in real life too.

One of the most difficult tasks toward really changing our K-12 classrooms into critical thinking hubs is the traditional teacher-student model. Historically, classroom learning has been a one-way conversation where students were talked “at” and not “with.” Students have always been expected to sit politely, behave and do the work asked of them – without much in the way of questions in return. A student who questions the presented material can be viewed as disruptive or even mean-spirited. While there are certainly students who act out in class simply to garner attention or avoid their schoolwork, this traditional set-up has caused students to be less active participants in their educations. It has taken learning empowerment away from students who are conditioned to simply believe what they are told, complete the work and keep their heads down.

There are certainly pushes in education to break free of this mold and the classrooms of today are much more interactive than they were even a decade ago. Still, the “teacher knows best” mentality lingers and gets in the way of students taking an active role in what they are learning and how they are learning it. When you factor in high-stakes testing and its implications for the careers of teachers, funneling vast amounts of information in that one-way conversation style often seems like the only viable approach for teachers – and I get it. I was a public school teacher for many years in a state that suffers from low test scores year after year. For many teachers, the way that they want to teach and the way that they are forced to teach vary greatly, and much of that is due to unreasonable accountability standards that include student performance on standardized tests.

Which is why the assessments need to change to include more room for critical thinking. As the testing changes, so too will the classrooms. We should reach a point where teachers are no longer afraid to stop and take questions on a certain topic or to entertain a counter view on a topic from a student for the sake of classroom discussion because there won’t be a fear of losing time on the test-related material. A student who not only masters material but has evaluated it for himself and come to his conclusions on it and how it will impact his life is one that should pass any assessment with flying colors. We just need to decide as an educational community that critical thinking components are vital to the learning process and taking the time to include them in our testing process does the world more of good to our students than simply filling in a multiple choice bubble. Teaching our students that it is okay to question, and doubt, and take the time to agree with the answers will go a long way towards future generations of critical thinkers and it’s something that needs a higher priority ranking in our assessments.

So what should critical thinking options look like in assessments? The Common Core Standards adopted by more than 40 states already emphasize more of a hands-on approach to classroom learning and those values are then reflected in accompanying tests. A good example of a critical thinking exercise for a third grader, for example, would be to not just simply rehash the plot of a story but to draft an email that one character would likely to write to another.  In this example, the student is taking the knowledge presented and then extending it to include his thoughts on the story. In the reading portion of assessments, activities like this should be asked of the test-takers. Comprehension is still important, of course, but alongside the basics of what is read should be proof that the student truly did understand the material and can not only regurgitate it but can interpret it beyond what is on the page.

In areas like math, critical thinking is also important. Numbers on a page tend to feel somewhat removed from the human experience. Critical thinking exercises should breathe new life into those numbers and find a way to incorporate them into daily life. A student will not just show her work but should be able to explain why a certain solution was reached and what math concept it demonstrates. There also needs to be more cohesion between different areas of math to show that it is not as cut and dry as it seems and that all of the concepts are interrelated. Our math assessments need to reflect more of the process of reaching math goals and have less emphasis on the final answer.

Language arts and math are just two areas of assessment, of course, and the critical thinking element needs to spill over into all other subjects too. Traditionally the assessment process has been heavy on answers and light on the processes to get there. That is starting to change toward a fuller grasp of critical thinking processes, and that change is necessary to the improvement of K-12 classrooms and the next generation of adults.



Ineffective assessments, part IV: Greater focus on HOW to obtain knowledge

By Matthew Lynch

 Click here to read all of the articles in our Ineffective Assessments series.

In this vast digital age, there is more information available than can ever possibly be processed, and the way that students vet this data is incredibly important. While the internet has opened up the world in amazing and beautiful ways, it has also skewed the way information is obtained. Instant knowledge, or perceived knowledge, is available as soon as kids are old enough to type in a computer password or swipe the lock screen of a tablet or smartphone. The internet has eliminated the information exploration process in many ways, with search engine providers racing to spoon feed people the exact answers they need with the fastest speed.

For those of us who grew up in the pre-internet days, the idea of simply Googling the answer for our homework is mind-boggling. If computers were used in classrooms pre-1995 or so, they had specific educational programs preloaded. There was no wandering from one website to the next, and even academic databases were clunky in nature and still took significant time to navigate. Half of the learning battle was to find the right information after digging through a lot of the wrong material first. The payoff, of course, was finding that perfect reference or piece of information that fit the assignment. The skills developed finding that nugget of knowledge were retained for the next search. Those of us who went on to college, and grad school and even pursued even more advanced degrees continued to implement those search-and-find tactics to reach our goals. We had built the foundation early in our K-12 learning careers and knew how to find and implement reliable knowledge.

Now fast forward to a baby born today. This child will likely be the star of an entire Facebook photo album before she is even one day old. Her milestone moments of early childhood will be plastered on the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds of her doting parents and by the time she is a toddler, there will be at least a few smartphone or tablet apps that belong to her on her parents’ devices. Her life will be an open book in many respects, chronicled for her own parents’ posterity but also shared with a world of close friends and not-so-close acquaintances. By the time she starts Kindergarten, she will have spent thousands of hours staring at screens – whether they be the computer, tablet, television or otherwise. Technology won’t be exciting or new but will be a pretty mundane part of life.

There is no way to take away the technology experiences that kids have before they even enter our public K-12 classrooms, and we shouldn’t want to do that anyway. It does change the way this generation of K-12 students will approach the pursuit of knowledge though, and it is vastly different from previous ones. Perhaps just as important as the facts our students learn is making sure they are confident and correctly obtaining that knowledge. Assessments are one way to check up on this goal.

Assessments of the future will need to ask more questions about the how of knowledge and not just focus on the what. There is no longer one set of books that answer a particular set of questions, and even materials as traditional as U.S. history books are coming under scrutiny for being too one-dimensional.

These truths are perhaps most evident in Texas, where a battle wages on regarding the inclusion of alternative versions of American history textbooks in high schools. More than 50 organizations and a coalition of Hispanic-American educators in the state petitioned the Texas State Board of Education to allow alternative history as an elective for high school students. The petitioners were not asking to change the traditional textbooks, but merely to add more perspectives to the learning process for those who elected it. The petition was denied officially for cost concerns, but certain board members admitted that they feared the leftist ideals that could be infused into the textbooks that could disrupt the order of things when it came to learning about history in Texas classrooms.

Politics aside, the debate in Texas brings up some other interesting points as they relate to how exactly this generation of K-12 students obtains knowledge. Simply disallowing the alternative histories in classrooms does not cut off student access from them, it just directs them to unauthorized versions that can be created, and posted online, by anyone. This is true for any topic. Students have all of the information they will ever need at the tips of their fingers, and they will grow up never knowing what life was like pre-Internet. They don’t need to go to the library, or check a few sources before determining the true answer – they just need a smartphone. This presents a slippery slope for educators, who have been told to embrace the very technology that often misinforms their students. Not all free information, particularly online, is created equal. More than ever, educators need to show students how to find the answers on their own.

It is impossible to sort out the good, accurate websites from the bad ones, so students need to be able to think for themselves when it comes to misinformation and information overload. In other words, we need to be educating our learners about how to obtain the BEST knowledge from the pool of available options. This process of finding information should vary from school to school to adjust to the populations using it but should contain these features:

  • An online vetting process. How can students know if what they are reading is reliable? This starts by considering the source through a short list of trustworthy websites and publications. Government publications, large trusted nonprofit names, and some newspapers should make this list. Since some editorial content is now going the way of paid content, otherwise known as native advertising, sites with interest in making money (including some “news” publications) should be examined with a close eye, too. As advertising online continues to evolve, so too should the way we examine the content we consume – and students should be a part of that process. Students should know how to spot unbiased, reliable information and separate from misleading content. That skill starts with vetting the source and looking for clues in the content that point to reliability, instead of simply taking what is presented at face value.
  • Instruction in the basics. I’m not going to take this moment to bemoan the decline of brick-and-mortar library necessity. It is what it is. While needing the actual books on the shelves may be on its way out, the information housed in our school, university, and public libraries is still an incredibly important cornerstone of learning, particularly when students are searching for information. Our students should know what the difference is between a Wikipedia page online and a peer-reviewed article on the same topic. They should understand reference books and where to find the information contained within them, whether that is still a physical library shelf or a specific website. In other words, when our students are at the beginning stages of researching something they should not start with a Google search; they should go a little deeper to find the best sources on any topic and teachers should instruct them on how to do it.
  • Investigating multiple sources. The instant gratification of the internet has provided a shortcut for today’s students when it comes to research and obtaining knowledge. Answers are quite literally right at the tips of their fingers and easy to insert in any assignment. Students should question what they read, however, even if the sources seem reliable. A benefit of the internet is that there is more than one side to every story, which means that today’s students should be handing in well-rounded work that contains more than one piece of info. Even the “facts” surrounding our Founding Fathers and other pieces of American history are scrutinized more closely, in part because of the vast reach of the internet, and students should be encouraged to seek out more than one avenue when it comes to the learning process and should use that information to formulate a well-rounded response to any assignment.
  • An understanding of internet-related ethics. Today’s students do not need to write answers on the insides of their hands or pay another student to write their research papers to cheat academically. In many cases, all they need is a cell phone, a search engine and sometimes a credit card. With so much information available at the touch of a button, student understanding of what is cheating, what is shady and what is perfectly acceptable when it comes to finding answers is a little bit murky. A Common Sense Media survey discovered that at least 35 percent of the student had cheated on assignments via cell phone – though many of those respondents were unaware that what they had done was ethically questionable. Some ways that students cheat to find their answers include texting answers to other students, storing notes on their cell phones, rewriting information found online that requires no further research, using virtual assistant programs to find answers and flat-out paying online companies to write papers or complete assignments for them. In a lot of cases, it may not even occur to the students that they are doing anything unethical. To them, they are just finding the answers to the questions presented in the most efficient way. This reliance on the quickest, most accessible information is dangerous to the academic futures of K-12 students though, and educators should fight against it through policy, discussion and yes, assessments. This requires, in essence, students unlearning the information gathering tactics that they have built in from birth.

But then how do we assess this information gathering process? It is one thing for teachers to align their lesson plans with these methods, but it is another thing to be able to tell which students have mastered them. I would suggest a separate assessment that focuses solely on the process of information seeking – whether it is in included in assessments that are already written, or given as a test at certain benchmarks in the K-12 career.  As it stands now, 4th and 8th grade seem to be popular time frames for other assessments, but I’d suggest mid-way through the elementary career (say 3rd grade) and then again at the end (6th). Then again after 9th grade and in the second semester of 12th. The very best way to test these skill sets is by having individually written tests per school, per district, or at the very least per state. These tests should not be sent off to a large-scale scoring publisher but should be graded individually by each teacher. Adding another requirement to a teacher’s agenda may come with its set of groans, but I’d argue that these information skills are so integral to creating lifelong learners who can think for themselves that this needs to be part of the assessment process.

Instead of an actual “test,” these skills could also be assessed in the way of a class project. Research papers and other long-term projects are certainly not new to a teacher’s agenda, but the “assessment” side of this information gathering would have specific requirements for the intended outcomes, listed above. Guiding the way our students obtain knowledge will impact every other fact or piece of knowledge and needs to be a required piece of K-12 learning – and then tested.


Ineffective assessments, part III: Why Common Core fails

Click here to read all of the articles in our Ineffective Assessments series.

Setting uniform standards for students from South Dakota to New York City sounds like a smart plan in theory. In order to compete in the future world economy, American students need to master certain subject areas and be on the same page with them. The standardization of learning also helps feed the college system more readily, ensuring that students are learning at a heightened level and not being taught remedial skills that should have been mastered before high school graduation. As you may have guessed, the way that these blanket, Common Core standards are measured for effectiveness is through assessments. Once again, each state has its own brand of assessments but those that have adopted Common Core standards must adhere to a heightened level of questioning.

The problems with Common Core standards and their accompanying assessments lie below the surface, however, and reflect the larger problem with K-12 testing in America. No two students are the same, and will not learn effectively in the same way as the person sitting right next to them. When you factor in things like environmental and socioeconomic differences, as well as regional environments, there really is no way that any one curriculum standard or set of tests can cover an entire nation of K-12 learners (or even a majority of them, based on the states that have adopted the standards).

Assessments turn living, breathing students into machines, of sorts, who must be programmed to spit out the right answers at the right time in order to further the value of an American education.

Common Core standards single-handedly thrust the issue of what should be learned, and how that material should be tested, into the national spotlight again. While educators had never abandoned this discussion, and likely never will, the general public seemed to awaken abruptly and passionately regarding what K-12 students should be learning. This has set the stage for a thorough reimagining of assessments in U.S. classrooms and has presented an opportunity for public support of change.

So where do we start?


Ineffective assessments, part II: Where assessments stand today

 Click here to read all of the articles in our Ineffective Assessments series.

Assessments of K-12 students are state-developed and mandated at this point, but there is still plenty of federal oversight. While the federal government cannot tell a state what exactly to cover in an assessment, it can make certain subjects and benchmarks more attractive. Federal funding through programs like the Obama administration’s Race to the Top are tied to assessment scores in specific areas, like math or science learning. So the states that choose to include these federally-friendly standards do so with financial incentives in mind, at least partially. States are rewarded based on the students who achieve standards in areas that the federal government sees as priorities.

Having national standards is not exactly the problem. Incentivizing those standards is the problem. We all learn from a young age that every person is unique and that no two people are alike. Educators learn that students have different learning styles, and different strengths when it comes to those learning styles. A place like America, established on the principles of individual liberties and life goals, should be especially open-armed when it comes to nuances between the students in its public schools.

Yet assessments seem to take these basic ideals and throw them right out the window, blanketing all students with a set of standards to which they must adhere. Not only must students all be on the same page when it comes to this learning, but their teachers must treat them as one when it comes to the education process. Based on the ideology alone, standardized assessments are flawed. When they are then put into practice, their true weaknesses are revealed. How can all students be measured with the same yardstick – and how can punishments and rewards be handed out using such a scale?

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has long been criticized for its automation of student outcomes. NCLB has been simultaneously accused of setting impossible standards and “dumbing down” classrooms for the sake of the herd.  After over a decade of a life in the educational policy spotlight, though, NCLB may actually be losing its position center stage. Enter Common Core Standards. Perhaps no education policy and reform on a national scale has more effectively taken the attention away from NCLB as the recent implementation of Common Core Standards in over 40 states of the union. Though Common Core benchmarks were developed through a consortium of states, their perceived association with national politics is heightened.

The basics of Common Core standards are this: more critical thinking requirements, a higher emphasis on math and science proficiency and better career-readiness initiatives in all pursuits.

Officially, Common Core standards are:

  • Research and evidence based
  • Clear, understandable, and consistent
  • Aligned with college and career expectations
  • Based on rigorous content and the application of knowledge through higher-order thinking skills
  • Built upon the strengths and lessons of current state standards
  • Informed by other top-performing countries to prepare all students for success in our global economy and society

The way that these standards are assessed is, as predicted, through standardized testing. In the case of Common Core, it is through the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, testing. These results are used to determine progress and outline areas for improvement in K-12 schools. Basically every educational initiative should be examined and weighed based on its contribution to the future college and career goals of the student at hand. The lingering question then becomes: are learning experiences not directly related to college placement and career advancement irrelevant?

Teachers find themselves stuck in a no-win situation with Common Core and NCLB standards where they must reach certain benchmarks to receive recognition and funding, but they have to forsake learning in wider scopes to make it happen.

The standards-based Common Core approach to education reform has already been attacked for its disconnection with what kids should really know and what they are simply required to regurgitate for the sake of a test – sort of a déjà vu from the early days of NCLB. Parents who see their children struggling with the heightened intensity of the standards have taken to social media and blogs to complain, and conservative groups that believe states are overstepping their educational power have petitioned their governors to withdraw their states from the standards.

To be sure, there are a lot of misnomers floating around about Common Core standards, their origination and states’ roles in administering them. To understand what these standards and any future standards with a national push mean, we first have to know exactly what they are.

Contrary to what many may think, Common Core standards were not developed by the federal government, or any particular Presidential administration. Common Core standards are the creation of the Governor’s Association and were developed with input from many states before they were finalized. From there, states could decide whether to implement the standards or not – there was never a mandate to accept them. Nearly every state (40+) was on board to implement Common Core when they were first released, and for good reason. Some states has since lost that fervor, with Indiana being the first one to go back on its original decision and opt out of Common Core after just one year of its implementation. South Carolina quickly followed suit, and so did Oklahoma. The reasons behind these flip-flops were cloudy, at best. Officially the governors of these states said they decided to go with state-based standards instead that better addressed the needs of their specific student bodies. Unofficially, critics of the governors’ moves said they were simply political actions intended to gain favor with constituents who were anti-Common Core, and particularly those who felt that the standards were associated with President Obama (which they never were).

Regardless of why states decided against Common Core, either at the outset or after implementation, they remain in the majority of classrooms across the country. So what exactly ARE the Common Core benchmarks, and why are they viewed as being so groundbreaking and controversial?

In a nutshell, the Common Core standards put a stronger focus on areas where American students typically fall behind – think math, science and engineering pursuits. They set a higher bar for learning in these areas, along with language arts and critical thinking. And while the federal government played no implementation role, it did back the standards to the point of offering financial incentives for states that adopted them (Race to the Top is an example of this). By agreeing to the standards set forth by Common Core, states were in essence agreeing to the nationalization of learning benchmarks for the betterment of the K-12 student population as a whole.