I have discovered over the course of my 10 years as an educator and three and a half years as a school administrator that my best way of making sense of the issues that perplex us is through the use of analogies. Though I will provide the caveat that many of these extended metaphors or analogies fall short when extended too terribly far, they do help me to better explain what I am thinking and typically help me to connect with others in discussion about educational topics without obfuscating the general ideas too much. Having shared a few of these with colleagues and having been thanked for elucidating some issues, I would like to share a few in this venue, not to necessarily answer questions, but to engage us in richer, more vivid conversation about the issues that trouble or challenge us in education.
1. The wooden spoon of evaluation: Our current evaluation frameworks are much like a wooden spoon. A wooden spoon is designed to be used as a tool to mix many small and independent ingredients into a more delicious symphony of flavors which prove the beauty of synthesis. We want to use our wooden spoon in this way, to blend the components of excellent teaching pedagogy and practices that support the whole learner for the optimal educational experience; however, two difficulties arise with this wooden spoon. First, each of us applies a different approach to the use of the spoon, thereby generating a slightly different mixture from the next. Surprisingly, two people using the same mixing spoon and ingredients could produce very different textures and qualities of products. Second, some have a different experience of the wooden spoon, one associated with a corporal punishment context. Therefore, when teachers encounter the wooden evaluation spoon as a punitive device, their initial impression negatively limits their receptivity to see the tool as a constructive piece of equipment. We must be very careful to apply the use of our evaluation tool with the intention of generating the best mixture of elements to produce the finest educational experience for our students and work diligently to eradicate the notion that the evaluation tool’s primary purpose is to exact punitive measures in response to less than optimal observational evidence.
2. The bullseye of assessment:
We are charged with the complex task of developing learners who are capable of meeting the demands of standardized assessments in our schools much like an archer is charged with the task of placing an arrow within a bullseye to reach the intended target. We seek the items to put in our resource quiver and are occasionally provided with some that are designed especially for the target. Sadly, as we reach for our arrows, we have found recurringly that the target has either moved or has become unclear. In fact, one might go so far as to contend that the target which we initially intended to pursue has changed to look like that designed for a different weapon. We are aware that the target is a necessary end for our challenge, but through the confusion of target and appropriate choice of weapon to send in its direction, we are taking multiple risks in aiming anything in the direction of the target. We recognize that there may be danger posed to those in the nearby vicinity, yet we are urged to take aim and release whatever we might have available in the direction of a general target without much clarification about how the location of the landed projectile will even be measured or when a judge will be able to do so. The frustration continues until we can more clearly see a static target and be equipped with or equip ourselves with tools that are designed to reach it effectively. Perhaps the target will no longer remain static in many contexts, but we would be far better prepared if we knew this at the outset. We will also be reassured when we discover that someone will be revealing to us our ability to hit the target in a timely fashion.
3. The two escalators of growth and achievement:
Escalators have the purpose of raising their subjects to a higher point. In order to meet both growth and achievement improvement, we must imagine that students on one escalator have essentially moved their way up one escalator while being transported upward by a strong core curriculum. On the other escalator, we want to see students moving upward more quickly as we are pushing them up the moving escalator in order to draw closer to the height where the other students are found, to close the gap. We want both escalators to raise students, representing growth, but we want to close the achievement gap by providing the requisite RTI push up the escalator for those students who previously showed lower achievement. Ideally, we would be pushing the students up both escalators to the point at which there is little room left before reaching the top. How can we do this? We must be very intentional in our approaches to the differentiated needs of individual learners, and we must be willing to meet those needs and provide escalation forces beyond the typical school day, helping to address both academic and socio-emotional needs that require more support than the scheduled school day will allow.
These word pictures, though admittedly imperfect, should give us some hope that we can make some sense of the daunting issues with which we are confronted in education, and perhaps, through such a depiction, we can begin to arrive at solutions by better imagining the picture that we want to paint for our students and teachers. It is important that we make the nebulous more approachable if we are ever to effectively tackle the difficult issues of education reform.