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Project-Based Learning: Step by Step

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Keys to Successful Business Partnerships in Project Based-Learning

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STEM Education – What is it?

In the past four years at STEM School Chattanooga, I have had the honor of sharing what we do with thousands of visitors to our school. After they tour the school, which is a completely student led tour and provides the opportunity for visitors to interact with any student and any staff member, I typically am asked the same question… “How do you make this happen?” Often it is also connected with a disclaimer like “oh, and, well, we can’t do this, but we want STEM.”

It is in that vain that I am writing this blog post. Prior to visits, I hear often from others that they are implementing STEM with their students. When I ask more questions regarding what that means, the most common responses include the following:

  • We have added more math and science courses to our offerings.
  • We have added a STEM class to our school.
  • Our students all have their own laptops they can use at school for technology integration.
  • We do projects.
  • We have partnered with a local training facility, like a community college, to provide a new program (like Computer Electronics, Manufacturing Technology, etc.).
  • Every year we have a design challenge that students can attempt to do.

With all of these responses, I tend to cringe some. Not because any of the above are bad initiatives, but because there is a lack of vision in the STEM initiative. The answers focus on stuff.

Don’t get me wrong though. Each of the above can be argued is STEM. We can spend hours debating that premise. Instead, I would rather spend my time demystifying what STEM is rather than the merit of each STEM add on program.

What is STEM?

If you Google ‘what is STEM’, there are several interesting trends that pop up. Let’s begin with the definition of STEM.

The first item to pop up in a ‘what is STEM’ Google search is a general definition from Live Science that reads “STEM is a curriculum based on the idea of educating students in the four disciplines – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – in an interdisciplinary and applied approach.” The good part of this definition is that it includes the approach that STEM is not learning science, technology, engineering, and math in isolation. However, it lacks a vastly important piece that we will discuss later. It also implies that STEM is mutually exclusive from other content like the arts or humanities. We will address that piece later as well.

Continuing on with our search for ‘what is STEM’, the first link you can click on in this same Google search connects you to the US Department of Education. Reading here you will find that “in a world that’s becoming increasingly complex, where success is driven not only by what you know, but by what you can do with what you know, its more important than ever for our youth to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to solve tough problems, gather and evaluate evidence, and make sense of information.” In essence, the US Department of Education is very interested in our students learning “to solve tough problems, gather and evaluate evidence, and make sense of information”. Fantastic! The US Department of Education has hit on something crucial to STEM education. Unfortunately, in the same paragraph it states, “these are the types of skills that students learn by studying science, technology, engineering, and math – subjects collectively known as STEM.” Yes, these subjects are certainly important. Yet just being in more science classes is the lowest level of STEM implementation. We can definitely have a more impactful implementation.

We can continue down our links through ‘what is STEM’ and find more definitions and reasons for STEM. But, the question of ‘what is STEM’ in schools will become more ambiguous. Where it does not, you will become to think either that you just need to add some sort of STEM class to the already full academic curricula or that you need to make sure you have a Biology II class after Biology I (i.e. we need to add more math and science classes to our course options).

So, where do we go to figure out STEM? Well, before we can truly answer that question, it may serve us some purpose to investigate the engineering piece to STEM. Most people can talk about science and mathematics, as these were courses we took in school. They can also speak to technology in some format. Heck, we all have a smartphone. But very few have any idea what is engineering.

A very quick definition of engineering can be found at the site Sounds like a good place to start. According to this site, “engineering is the application of scientific knowledge to solving problems in the real world.” The key part of the definition is the action, i.e. solving problems. It then makes sense to try and figure out how engineers solve problems. It will not take you long in this endeavor to discover the engineering design process. The only issue you will have is that there seems to be one that is 5 steps, another that is 7, another that is 8 steps, and yet another with 6 steps and an additional 3 steps, and so on and so forth. Which is correct?

It is at this point that you are finally ready to really understand STEM. There is not a single correct answer for the engineering design process. What is correct is that there IS a process. Again, what is correct about the engineering design process is that there IS a process.

Is there a STEM process? Well, here are some STEM processes you can easily find at various levels of education:

  1. Stanford University D.School: Empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test
  2. US Dept of Education: Solve tough problems, gather and evaluate evidence, make sense of information
  3. Metro Early College High on the Ohio State University campus: effectively communicate, inquire, make responsible decisions, effectively collaborate, critically think, engage in learning
  4. Sam Houston Elementary STEM School located near the University of Tennessee: ask, imagine, plan, create, improve

So what is STEM?

STEM is a combination of process and content. STEM requires you to both teach and have students learn the key process skills your organization has chosen. Can you pick the wrong process skills? I guess you could, but more than likely they will fall somewhere along the same group as the examples above. The error in STEM initiatives is not in picking the wrong process skills; it is that you do not pick any. Instead of being intentional in teaching a set of process skills, you hope they just happen.

The second half of the STEM combination is content. The best STEM content is where you develop opportunities for students to integrate the four STEM content pillars of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The more integrated the task among the four, the better the STEM content. Learning science in isolation is the lowest form of STEM learning. That is one content area in mutual exclusivity. Quality STEM content tasks are not simple or easy (or easy to develop!). The more integrated the task, the higher form of STEM content learning will be taking place. A very high level task might be asking students to build a robot to navigate an unknown maze. This requires students learning about circuits (science), programming the robot (technology), integrating mechanical and electrical systems (engineering), and applying geometric angles and ratios for the movement (mathematics).

The obvious question becomes, which is more important – process or content? That is the wrong question. The question should be: how should we build out STEM education at our school or learning environment? That answer is as follows.

  1. Define the important STEM processes for your school or learning environment. Remember, it’s not about the “right” answer here. It’s about having clear processes in place. Stanford is different from MIT who is different from Virginia Tech. However, they are all correct STEM processes.
  2. Prioritize process over content. Make sure that process permeates as many facets of what you do as possible. Process does not replace content. However, process should be elevated so that it becomes ingrained in content delivery and learning.
  3. Develop and implement quality STEM tasks. Work to develop and finds opportunities to implement STEM tasks that integrate multiple STEM letters. The more integrated the task, the better.

Learning environments and schools that embrace the above approach will be able to create high quality learning opportunities for students, and not just in STEM coursework. One of the most flawed statements in STEM education is the idea that STEM includes only science, technology, engineering and mathematics. That is a fallacious statement. The people that expound this vision of STEM only think of STEM as content. Since STEM is process and content, STEM is actually hugely transferrable across a school and learning environment.

In order to see this in a real setting, let’s take STEM School Chattanooga as an example. At STEM School Chattanooga we have three process tenets – collaboration, critical thinking and innovation. Over the course of our first four years, we placed an emphasis on these three tenets as part of as many things we do as possible. These processes are not only a part of our math and science courses. They are embedded in the arts, social studies, language arts, and all of our courses. They are also embedded into how we formulate school structures, student and staff initiatives, parent involvement, and on and on.

The focus on process has led to our school also developing our four-year plan of study. The four-year plan is not just a list of content courses. The four-year plan also details out process development. Below is the process part of our four-year plan with students.


  1. 9th – Diversity: work with others different than me
  2. 10th – Accountability: hold teammates accountable
  3. 11th – Time Management: manage time for team projects
  4. 12th – Networking: network with experts / professionals

Critical Thinking

  1. 9th – Personal Ownership: start with self in using resources and acquiring knowledge
  2. 10th – Evaluation: quality control, reflecting on work and how to improve
  3. 11th – Prototyping: iterative process, developing and testing multiple solutions
  4. 12th – Expert Knowledge: applying expert and professional knowledge in solution development


  1. 9th – Originality: be original in your work
  2. 10th – Failure Redefined: application not working is part of the process
  3. 11th – Desirability: create desirable products and solutions
  4. 12th – Invent: define problem, develop solution and invent new product

Please note that just because we focus on an item like diversity during a students 9th grade year, that does not mean we ignore accountability, time management and networking. It just means we have a focal point for student growth in that year for the process skill. It also means that each year the focal point is a more advanced piece in the process skill. Working on the same level of collaboration in 9th and 12th grade does not make sense. The process being learned by the student should become more developed, just as their reading and writing should.

Having a process focus is vital to STEM learning. Having a process focus is also vital to creating a highly developed STEM culture. But remember, STEM is two-fold.

STEM education is process and content.

When combining a process focus to integrated STEM tasks, STEM education really happens… well!








Testing… What Are We Doing?

Standardized testing has overrun public education. When I have visited schools, talked with administrators and teachers, my faith in the American Dream has come under attack. No longer has passion and engagement been the underlying themes to student growth. Instead, passion and engagement have been replaced by standardization and data mining.

Please know this. I love numbers. Absolutely adore numbers. If I could, I would help Stephen Hawking figure out how to explain life with one simple equation. Unfortunately, though, my love of numbers has also initiated my feeling of disgust when watching others misuse them and equate fantasy football methodology to that of a 3rd graders state test score.

In an effort to take a closer look at the “state” of testing, this blog’s theme will focus on my home state, Tennessee. I love Tennessee – the opportunities, the mountains, the people, the climate, and the lifestyle.  I only wish I could say the same of Tennessee’s use of testing.

Tennessee is not the best state when it comes to funding education. As I looked for the most recent numbers I could find, I did find a fairly recent state-by-state ranking of spending per student. In 2012 Tennessee was 7th from the bottom on the list of 50 states. In 2013 Tennessee actually moved further down, ranking 4th from the bottom. In general, comparably to other states, let’s just say that Tennessee is not a state that prioritizes education when it comes to funding.

***Side note… for more detailed information on state spending, you can find items up through 2013 at Governing Data (fyi… I will post all the source sites for italicized terms at the bottom of the blog).

There is an outlier when it comes to educational funding in Tennessee though. The Brown Center in Education Policy completed a 2012 study on state spending for K-12 assessment systems. Tennessee was actually 25th out of 50. Oops. Maybe that is not the best outlier. Its probably not the best thing to brag how Tennessee is a legitimate spender on testing, just not everything else like teachers, curriculum, technology, etc..

Looking at the Brown Center study from 2012, we can approximate the spending per student in Tennessee on testing materials as $26 per student. Unfortunately, I could not find an accurate number of students in Tennessee for 2012, but using the Tennessee Department of Education website, I did find in 2013-2014 the number of students in public education in Tennessee to be 993,814. I know the years are off, but for the purpose of getting a general number, we can estimate the cost of test materials to be the product of $26 times 993,814. That is $25,839,164. Of course, it is now 2015, so that dollar value is certainly a low threshold. But it gives us a starting point in terms of basic test material cost.

There is one inherent problem with this number of $25,000,000, however; it does not give us an idea of time cost. This cost only represents booklets and score reports. What about the cost of time?

There are two costs people do not consider when it comes to testing. The first is the time cost associated with administering the test, which disrupts teaching and learning time throughout a building. The second is the time cost for preparing for the tests.

In order to better understand this value, we first must understand the value of a teacher. In 2014-2015 the Teacher Portal to Teaching Salary Data by State posted the average teacher salary for each state. As you may have guessed, Tennessee was not high on the list. Tennessee did manage to stay out of the bottom ten, it was 11th from the bottom with an average yearly salary of $47,563.

Let’s begin with considering the first cost of time – actual testing time. In general, an elementary and middle school shutdown for about two weeks in order to administer the state tests. The dirty secret about testing is it does not just disrupt the students who are testing, but it disrupts an entire school. At a high school the situation is actually somewhat laughable. Having worked as a traditional high school principal for 10 years, I have a difficult time remembering a time in the month of May where we didn’t test everyday. We even used to have a saying, “there’s a test every day the month of May.”

In order to err on the side of extremely conservative, let’s say state testing takes only one week from a school year. We’ll also be conservative again and say this only impacted 70% of the teachers. 30% managed to somehow avoid any school testing issues at all and were able to do everything they normally do with students throughout this testing week.

Here is some quick math. Teachers are employed for 200 instructional days in Tennessee. Each instructional day is worth 1/200th of the average teacher’s salary ($47,563), or $238 a day. In 2013-2014 there were 64,112 teachers in Tennessee. Thus, if we take 70% of the number of teachers in Tennessee and multiply that by $238 per day for 5 days, we should arrive at the monetary value for one week of testing time. The math then is as such: 64,112 times 0.70 times 238 times 5 = $53,405,296.

The second cost of time to consider is preparation time. Before I provide my crude stats here, I would like to make a disclaimer that I wish someone would do an actual study of the preparation time. I am going to be VERY conservative on my estimates here. These numbers are very low, but at least they will provide some schema for non-teachers. Here are my LOW ESTIMATES based on what I have seen at district, school, and classroom levels.
–Percent of teachers who have a single state test or multiple state tests – 75%
–Number of days a teacher spends in district trainings to prepare for state tests – 1 day
–Number of days a teacher spends working at the school level in school based testing preparation training, planning, data analysis, team meetings, etc. – 3 days
–Number of consecutive days spent on state test prep review with students immediately prior to the testing window – 5 days
–Percent of time on average a teacher spends throughout the year where the teacher is having students practice state test questions – 20% (equates to 1 day a week, or 30 days across a 30 week time period)

Cost of preparation time is then calculated as such: 75% of the number of teachers in Tennessee multiplied by $238 per day times the number of days spent in test preparation. The math then is as such: 64,112 times 0.75 times 238 times (1+3+5+30) = $446,315,688.

To quickly summarize, the cost of testing in Tennessee for one year is roughly:
–Tests: $25,839,164
–Test administration time: $53,405,296
–Test preparation time: $446,315,688

Keep in mind that none of this includes how testing impacts the time of a school administrator (principal, assistant principal), school counselor (the 21st century testing coordinator), special education staff or any other support personnel.

In one year in Tennessee, we roughly spend over half a billion dollars worth of time on testing. Let’s now talk testing data.

In Tennessee we have a “non-partisan” education advocacy group called SCORE. SCORE is an acronym for State Collaborative on Reforming Education. SCORE does a great job in putting together data for Tennessee and recently published the 2014-2015 State of Education in Tennessee.   All the data below, besides a study through Brookings on NAEP scores, can be found in this SCORE publication.

The best place to begin in the SCORE publication is with state assessments for grades 3-8. Below are the reported gains from 2010-2011 through 2013-2014 on the state tests. (In parentheses are the listed percentages for proficient and advanced students for 10-11 and 13-14)
–Reading: Up 2% (47.5 to 49.5)
–Math: Up 10.3% (41.0 to 51.3)
–Science: Up 8.7% (54.9 to 63.6)

Along with this state data, there is of course Tennessee’s pride of 2013, the NAEP scores. In the SCORE report you will find the following rankings:

Tennessee NAEP 2011 State Rankings (out of 50):
–Math: 4th grade – 46th, 8th grade – 45th
–Reading: 4th grade – 41st, 8th grade – 41st

Tennessee NAEP 2013 State Rankings (out of 50):
–Math: 4th grade – 37th, 8th grade – 43rd
–Reading: 4th grade – 31st, 8th grade – 34th

At first look, all of this data looks amazing. Tennessee has fabulous growth in state testing results. Tennessee also improved their ranking in every NAEP tested area and nationally has been outspoken about how we showed the most growth of any state in the country. Tennessee rocks!

All looks great, right? Well, lets hold off a minute on the state data and look more closely at the NAEP data. The problem with the NAEP is we don’t really know what gains were made. We only know that Tennessee’s overall score moved up a few spots when compared to other poor performing states. What happens if we compare the actual test score gains with gains made by other states? Well, lucky for us, Brookings, a nonprofit public policy organization, did just that and performed a statistical study on actual test gains. Tennessee is still clearly the best, right? The results of comparing gains on the each test are below.

  • 4th Grade Math: TN had gains greater than 42 states. Not significantly greater than 8 states.
  • 8th Grade Math: Greater than 15 states. Not significantly greater than 35 states.
  • 4th Grade Reading: Greater than 22 states. Not significantly greater than 28 states.
  • 8th Grade Reading: Greater than 34 states. Not significantly greater than 16 states.

So on two of the tests TN students improved more than the average state. And on the other two tests, well, we did beat some other states. It’s probably why the article that shared these results was named “Be Wary of Ranking NAEP Gains.”

Now, I know I poked small holes in the testing data above, but let’s just assume for one minute that this data is just amazing and there are no holes. Let’s just accept that we should be happy with ourselves in Tennessee and based on this data, we are doing great.

Unfortunately, someone might come along and ask us about our ACT data. What do you mean? You want to know about the ACT data in Tennessee? I guess if we are going to talk about state testing and brag on our successes for tests that no one ever uses to determine post high school placement, I guess we can look at the one test that actually does matter in post k-12 opportunities… the ACT.

The data for the ACT in Tennessee, which can be found almost in the very back of the SCORE report, is as follows. ACT comparisons from 2009-2010 to 2013-2014 (five year period):

  • 2009-10: 19.6 composite score average
  • 2013-14: 19.8 composite score average (up a whopping 0.2)
  • Side note… it’s a good thing we didn’t use 2012-13: 19.5 composite score average (it actually went down 0.1)
  • Another side note… the national average is 21.0.

Now, for the naysayers out there, you may be thinking, you cannot compare 4th and 8th grade test scores with the ACT. Those kids may or may not have yet taken the ACT. Valid point. So how about we look at another set of state tests highlighted for their successes in the SCORE report. In fact, we will look at all five high school state tests highlighted in the report and see what trend there is. Below is the reported growth over a four-year period for each of the following state assessments.

  • Algebra I: Up 15.4% (47.0 proficient/advanced students to 62.4 proficient/advanced students)
  • Algebra II: Up 17.1% (30.8 to 47.9)
  • English I: Up 5.1% (66.3 to 71.4)
  • English II: Up 5.3% (58.1 to 63.4)
  • Biology: Up 11.5% (52.0 to 63.5)

Do these gains equate to student success on the ACT? No. In fact, these gains are actually meaningless when compared to student scores on the most used college entrance exam in the world.

Let’s get back to the money piece.

Let’s suppose TN moves the ACT score up 0.2 every five years just like we have the past five years. We’ll ignore the fact that the score actually went down if we use the year prior and that 0.2 is a real gain. Using the costs we described earlier, lets look out 35 years from now to see our future.

In 35 years, Tennessee will have an ACT average of 21.2, finally topping the nation’s average by a whopping 0.2 (assuming no other state makes any improvement).

The cost of the state tests (assuming they are provided at the 2012 price for the next 35 years and the number of teachers is exactly the same) will be $25,839,164 times 35 years, or $904,370,740. Remember, this cost does not include paying for the ACT suite of tests (EXPLORE, PLAN, and ACT) that are also administered each year, nor does it include the TNReady assessments that are newly created and have increased both testing costs as well as testing dates.

So, we have the 35-year cost of just the tests: just under a billion dollars. We now add to that the cost of the time for actual testing. We calculated one of the current years to be $53,405,296 and times that by 35, we get $1,869,185,360. And, lets add in test prep time. 35 times $446,315,688, which equals $15,621,049,080 (15 billion dollars!!!).

Is the testing accountability model actually working? Who would invest this kind of time and money into this return on investment?

Testing accountability systems are not the answer to helping students become productive and meaningful citizens. I have many ideas on how we need to spend our money and our time. But this article is not intended for me to tell you my ideas for what to do. This article is intended for you to ask:

What are we doing and what should we be doing?

Governing Data

Brown Center in Education Policy – 2012 study on state spending for K-12 Assessment Systems

TN Dept of Ed website

Teacher Portal to Teaching Salary Data by State


2014-2015 State of Education in Tennessee
Tennessee: SCORE – State Collaborative on Reforming Education

Digital Citizenship… How Does That Happen?

The first day we started STEM School Chattanooga, we sat in our large commons area with all of our students and one-by-one handed each an iPad. Some students waited patiently for more instruction on what to do next while others immediately began downloading everything they already had access to on their phones. Of course, as a trained educator in compliance, my first thoughts were obvious… no!!!!!! stop!!!!!! give me your phones and iPads!!!!! lets collect all the iPads back up!!!!!

What kind of madman was I that I would give kids (no longer students in my mind) access to the world?   And thus, out of initial fear, born was the concept and conversations of digital citizenship for our school.

Below is what we learned.

The first item we learned was that somewhere along the way, for almost all of our students, it turned out that we didn’t open Pandora’s Box to the world, it was already opened.  The stories for each child were different and yet eerily similar. Here is one of the most common and popular.

  • A parent gave the child a cell phone. The parent told the child the cell phone was for emergency purposes and communicating with the parent only. When the child left the house, the child showed the phone to his/her friend. The friend immediately introduced texting, facebook, instagram, and all sorts of other social networking options to the child’s new world. Well, you can figure out the rest of the story.

It is clear. Students look at a mobile device from a very narrow viewpoint. In their experience, the device is meant for communication (in particular, social communication) and gaming.

So then, digital citizenship… what does that mean in kids terms? It means we had to start by figuring out what the device is intended to do. And we had to be transparent and honest, because students see right through anything else.

Here are the three basic ways we chose to describe device usage:

  1. The device is a WORK device. By work, we mean it can be used to research information needed for school; access programs and apps that enable you to do schoolwork better, more efficiently, more effectively; not only consume educational material but also create products; and access, use, and apply information.
  2. The device is an APPROPRIATE PLAY device. By appropriate play, we mean that it can be used to communicate with others for social items, play games, listen to music, etc.. All the fun stuff that is not school related.
  3. The device is also an INAPPROPRIATE PLAY device. By inappropriate play, we mean using the device for play when you should be working (for example, playing Angry Birds in class) or using the device to access vulgar content, send vulgar content, use the device to bully or harass another student, or have communication that your grandmother wouldn’t approve.

Our digital citizenship focus became about openly talking about these three different ways you can use the device. It also became about figuring out structures that were needed to support the first two and minimize the third.

Some of these digital citizenship structures are below:

  • We created an elected team of students, who act as our Student Support Senate. Their role is to define the school expectations, rules, consequences, and interventions for technology use. They also include bullying and harassment tech expectations in their policy. This policy is provided to staff and implemented by both staff and students.
  • We use the policy developed to have grade level conversations in the first quarter to talk about what kind of school the students want to attend.
  • We institute a practice that all digital communication (24/7) is accountable to the policy implemented by the Student Support Senate. So if you degrade someone else on Saturday night online (regardless of whether this was through your personal phone or the school issued iPad), you are still accountable to the Student Support Senate rules and consequences on Monday morning.
  • We create and implement short discussions and/or lessons as needed for specific topics that arise. For example, we know that we need to discuss the concept of work, appropriate play, and inappropriate play with our 9th grade students. So we will implement lessons to do so with all the 9th graders in the first months of school. As another example, there could be a new app (like a Snapchat) that comes along and quickly becomes popular among students. We then create a lesson to discuss items applicable to that app or genre.
  • We wait for the first sharable inappropriate play issue to occur with our 9th graders, and then show the entire grade level the posts involved. We look at the choices that were made and what could have been done instead, and also discuss setting school cultural expectations.
  • We bring new issues to the Student Support Senate that develop and have the Senate debate and develop a plan to address the issues.
  • But, most importantly, we expect students to use their devices in every class every day. We believe that the content we are to teach them is already at their fingertips and our role as educators is to help the students in learning how to access the content, use and figure out the content, and then apply the content. In other words, the device isn’t just a tool, it has content necessary for learning and creation opportunities necessary for applying our knowledge.

Digital citizenship is an evolving concept for us. But I no longer fear handing a device to a child. I welcome the opportunity. I love helping the child become a student who can recognize the device as a work device, play device, and inappropriate play device, know the difference between each, and make good choices.

Designing Real Student Growth in a School

As I continue to work with many people on implementing and designing STEM School Chattanooga, it has become blatantly clear that many people are confused with the idea of student growth.  Most want to discuss student growth as a fixed measure that is assessed only on state testing day.  In its simplest form, most people think of student learning growth like an annual checkup where a kid gets his height measured.  The doctor says stand on this spot, then reads off the height of the child.  The problem is that people misuse the information.  I don’t think I have ever heard a doctor say,

“Wow, last year you were 45 inches tall.  You measured 50 inches tall this year.  I only expected you to be 47 inches.  You must be eating right, listening to your parents, and just an all around great kid.  And don’t forget, those extra three inches also mean something else really important… I am an awesome doctor.”

Yes, I get it.  The above is overdramatic and absurd.  The point is that we don’t really understand student learning growth because our curricular plan is a series of mutually exclusive pieces that are supposed to inexplicably create a great human being that will benefit society as a whole.  But… ummm… thats not at all what we do.

Here is how we design schools.  Some people get together at some level of hierarchy and say, “what courses do kids need to study?”  Someone who loves history says, “kids have got to understand history and know about things like the Civil War, the Declaration of Independence, etc..”  Someone else who looks at data says, “kids who take higher math score better on college entrance exams, so kids need math and a lot of it.”  Someone else says, “how can you be considered educated and not have read Shakespeare? Gotta happen.”  And this goes on and on and on.

So, what happens at the district and/or school level?  These groups then sit around and talk about when kids should study these items.  At the high school level, there is heated debate as to whether Hamlet should be read by 10th graders or 12th graders.  People argue that Physics should be taught as the first science, while others contend Physics should be the last science course kids take because the math is hard.  We argue, debate, and ultimately settle on where everything should be taught.

The result… we think that our kids will now be well educated, well adjusted, amazing people if they just learn all this stuff.  And then we test the kids once a year to see if they know the stuff, don’t know the stuff, know more stuff than we thought they might know compared to kids who live on the other side of the state, and which kids we need to identify as full of stuff or lacking stuff.  The best part is we then use whatever data we get back from making this check to say, “well, those kids are gone and didn’t know this stuff, so let’s try and fill the heads of this next group better with the same stuff.”

If you are still reading, I am finally to the part of what can we do to improve this process.  Here it is:

If we want students to be capable, awesome people that will positively impact society, we need to focus on debating, creating, and implementing plans that focus on the skills in capable, awesome people that positively impact society.  Here is an example of a plan.  I emphasize EXAMPLE.  I am not implying this is the only way.  It is just one of many to help begin in making the change.

At STEM School Chattanooga, we implement cross-curricular PBL (project/problem based learning) units.  We don’t do it just because kids like it better.  We do it for this purpose:

  • 9th grade – PBLs are designed by teachers in house and are content driven.  What that means is that each PBL has a specific math piece, language arts piece, science piece, history piece, and art piece.  The reason we do that is so that kids experience work that is not mutually exclusive.  In most places, math is at 9am and language arts is 10am and science is at 11am and so forth, AND these content areas NEVER touch each other.  Kids actually think they are mutually exclusive. They think math is done for math stuff only.  At no time do math and history ever co-exist.  When was the last time at your job that your boss said, “what are you writing? this is math time. You can write later during writing time.”  Long story short, the goal in 9th grade – break down the walls of content so that students can see the value of all content in tackling problems and creating projects.
  • 10th grade – PBLs are designed through business partnerships so that the projects/problems have actual real value (outside the walls of a school).  The PBLs are still content driven, such that there is a piece for each content area.  However, the final products are now deliverable to an external (business) partner raising the accountability for the students.
  • 11th grade – PBLs are designed through business partnerships for real value, but there is a major shift in terms of focus.  In 9th and 10th grade, the PBL work is very content focused.  We want kids to practice applying specific content to problems/projects.  In 11th grade, that shifts to a process focus.  In 11th grade, we assess student PBL work for process skills – critical thinking, innovation, and collaboration.  Students in 11th grade must decide the content to be used with the PBL and are no longer directed on what content to use, and at the same time, constraints for certain content over potentially better suited content are removed.  The students have learned how the content in each course they take can add value to a project.  They now become the person in charge of making those best content choices.
  • 12th grade – PBLs are no longer defined by someone else.  Instead of a teacher or business person stating “this is the problem…”, the students must define the problem and/or project scope.  Assessment of students again is process focused (critical thinking, innovation, and collaboration).

There are many other attributes associated to these PBLs as well.  For example, in terms of collaboration:

  • 9th – Students like to be together, but not work together.  So the focus is on how to work with people different from you.
  • 10th – Students feel more comfortable working with others, but don’t want to hold each other accountable.  Focus is on having really good accountability measures for the team.
  • 11th – Students can work together and want to hold each other accountable, but still struggle with time management of projects.  Focus is on making better managed timeframes for the work and adapting those timeframes as necessary.
  • 12th – Students are better at teaming in general, but all human resources (business partners, higher ed, etc.) have been established for them previously.  Focus is on students making the connections necessary to create valuable partnerships and networks meaningful to their work.

Where am I going with all of this? REAL STUDENT GROWTH is not a fixed number on a test that happens once a year.  REAL STUDENT GROWTH happens when people create opportunities and plans for students to learn those skills necessary for success in processes.  Don’t assume that when your kid gets their schedule and it has the right math course, the most challenging language arts course, and the foreign language class that she wanted, that your kid is going to be an awesome person who positively impacts society.  Your kid is probably going to be able to do pretty good at picking out what is most likely the best answer when given a question with four answer choices.

Kids deserve schools and adults who focus on helping them grow as a person, not as a number.  12th graders who graduate from high school and can do the following will certainly be more likely to positively impact society:

  • Work with others successfully
  • Use the best, most recent and most reliable information in their work
  • Not only solve problems, but identify problems and design plans to address the problems
  • Not being reliant on the person standing in the front of their classroom or supervising them at their job as the determining factor of their success or failure

Designing real student growth in a school should be focused on what the school is doing from year to year in order to help students grow as a person.  Not what new piece of curricula in math we need because factoring trinomials is an area of weakness.  If we teach students the process, for example, of how to seek out resources, find resources that make sense to them, and then use that information to help them learn, any content is within their grasp.

Designing real student growth in a school is the most important item we can do.  There are many ways to do this.  My example above is just one.  Start somewhere.

Fastest Growing State in Education

The fastest growing state in the nation in education.  What does that statement mean to you?  My hope is that it sparks images of students who want to come to school, students who own their learning and are not dependent on a singular person standing in the front of the room for their success, and of students researching, applying, and innovating information where every student has access to 1-to-1 technology (one device for every child).

The fastest growing state in the nation in education.  Students are critical thinkers.  They seek out information without having to wait on a teacher to dispense it.  Students work to ascertain what information is important, legitimate, and useful.  Students then take this content they have decoded and apply the information, plus use the information to innovate new ideas and solutions to defined and undefined problems.

The fastest growing state in the nation in education.  Students have learned how to work together, not just be together.  Students know how to lead and how to be led.  Students are capable of working with varied individuals to develop a successful product.

I live in Tennessee.  Here is the current definition…

The fastest growing state in the nation in education means that Tennessee moves from the bottom group of states on standardized testing to the middle or top group of states.

I live in Tennessee.

Test scores, not quality student developed products, are the judge of teacher effectiveness.  Teachers must make sure that students can work in silent isolation to pick the correct answer choice from four choices.  Teachers must make sure students have seen all potential content on the tests (regardless of depth of understanding) and have good test taking skills.  Teachers do not want creativity in students.  Creativity does not improve testing scores, standardization does.  The high stakes assessments are called standardized tests for a reason.

I live in Tennessee.

Success is defined as having a student answer more questions correct on this year’s high stakes test than the student did last year.  If a teacher can do that for a year, you have a GREAT teacher.

I live in Tennessee.

We use tests that were created to assess whether a student has basic proficiency to now assess if they are advanced.  Students who get a lot of questions correct on basic proficiency are considered advanced.

I am a principal in Tennessee.

Students who get more basic proficiency (mediocre) questions correct on tests are not advanced.  They are really really really mediocre.

Students that work on a project or task and wait for a teacher to tell them what to do are not college and career ready.  When was the last time an engineer heard from his boss, “Here are four choices of how you can do this project… one is correct, one is sort of correct, and two are wrong.”

Teachers that dispense information well are part of the problem, not the solution.  The idea that Robin Williams will be standing in front of every classroom is a fallacy and unreasonable expectation.

I am an educational transformer.

The teachers role is to spend time helping students build search and research skills to access content and learn the content in varying formats.  The mark of the best teachers are those that can facilitate student investigation and student ownership of the learning.  The ultimate goal of the teacher is to create a setting where the student is not dependent on the teacher for success.

Students critically think in every class.  Critically thinking defined as students accessing, using, and applying knowledge.  Students are not relegated to waiting on a teacher to dispense information.  Students control the information.

Students design and build products.  Students collaboratively innovate and develop their ideas across content.  Students no longer think of school as a series of mutually exclusive classes that will never overlap, but integrating skills together across traditional content areas.

The fastest growing state in the nation in education really means that students are able to:

  • learn new content because the content in the marketplace is in constant change,
  • critically think where students can access, use, and apply information,
  • innovate to develop new ideas, and
  • collaborate in order to create quality products.

I encourage you to stop falling prey to educational reform created through legislation and bureaucracy.  Join the movement to become a transformer.

I am a dad.

Transform education for my daughters.