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Designing Real Student Growth in a School

November 26, 2014

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.


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