A New Model of American Education

Today the students were out of school, but the teachers were busy learning how to be better teachers (supposedly) in a full day of professional development.  This is nearly always an incredibly dull experience, though it is occasionally infuriating just to mix things up.  Our district is in the process of implementing a new model of teaching called Assessment for Learning, and to be fair it is an interesting program. 

 Essentially, Assessment for Learning is about shifting the mindset away from giving assignments, quizzes, and tests for the purpose of assigning a grade and using them instead as a way to assess students’ level of mastery in whatever area is being evaluated.  The results are then used to guide further instruction, whether that be re-teaching unmastered concepts, reinforcing the material, or moving forward to additional goals.  This may seem like a common sense practice, but I assure you it is a monumental shift in how classrooms operate.  Consider your own educational experience.  How often were you assigned tasks that just seemed to be busy work?  How often did you take quizzes over assigned reading with questions so obscure that it was clear the only purpose was to make sure you actually did the assignment?  How often did you fail a test or assignment and then just move on to new material without addressing the reasons you failed?  This was probably the norm in most of your classes.  While many would argue that this model of teaching requires students to be responsible for their own learning and to work hard in order to get the grade (worthy lessons, without a doubt), the truth is that it leaves many capable students behind.  What is the purpose of school if not to educate our children?  And if those children are not learning the material, aren’t the schools failing in their mission?  Obviously, students have an important responsibility to do their best and complete their assigned work, but the work that is assigned should be focused on teaching or reinforcing actually important concepts.  Why waste time focusing on what happened on page 210, paragraph 3, line 6 in The Grapes of Wrath if what happens in that line isn’t mood, symbolism, metaphor, or main idea?  Education should be streamlined to the essentials in each area, and these essentials should be taught until they are mastered by the majority of students.

The program differentiates between academic and non-academic skills.  The academic skills are obvious: the content of the class.  The non-academic skills are the other areas that teachers teach in their classroom: behavior, social skills, participation, time management.  Often these are assessed at the same time.  For example, you are assigned some math problems to complete for homework.  The assignment is due the following period.  If you do not turn in the assignment on time, no matter how well you demonstrated mastery of the academics, the highest grade that you can receive is a 70% because you did not demonstrate the proper non-academic skill of adhering to a deadline.  This isn’t really a motivator for students to try their best.  And if you fail to turn in the assignment after the second day, you receive no credit, or a 0.  This means that your work will not be assessed for understanding or that you will not even complete the assignment at all and may not fully learn the material.  You may then do poorly on the quiz that follows, resulting in a poor grade on your report card and a failure to master the concept.  And the school failed in its purpose to teach you.

Obviously there must be a balance between the academic and non-academic.  In the “real world” everyone has deadlines they must meet, and if you never learn the importance of completing tasks in a timely manner, then you will be fired from countless jobs in adulthood.  But you will also be a failure if you cannot demonstrate mastery of essential academic skills.  So both must be addressed.

What do you think?  Where should the balance lie?  Do you see think that public schools have a responsibility to teach these non-academic skills?  Is it primarily the job of the parents to teach these skills?  What about the students that just slack off for no good reason?  Do schools have an obligation to do whatever it takes to reach these kids as well?

Let’s get a discussion going my friends!  Comment below!


2 responses to “A New Model of American Education

  1. I believe that the school does indeed have a responsibility to teach the non-academic lessons. But I have a hard time with the concept of doing WHATEVER it takes to reach EVERY student…speaking specifically of the students who slack off. There could be a variety of reasons for the slacking: not comprehending the material, knowing it too well so that they’re bored. But I think that sometimes, some kids JUST DON’T CARE. I am not sure what to do for these kiddos. It bodes the question, “well, WHY don’t they care?” In some cases (not in all, grant you, but in SOME) these students have evaluated the curriculum based on their own observations and have deemed it moot; irrelevant to their learning experience. Perhaps maybe it is, depending on the subject. But I think that in the situation of these students, just maybe, they should be given the opportunity to create their own curriculum. Of course, they wouldn’t really be doing it all on their own. There would need to be educator-intervention and guidance to look at the concepts of the subject matter and determine how best to help these students begin to see these concepts as necessary.
    But sometimes, just sometimes, I think these students need to be told that just because THEY can’t see the benefit of the work, in all of their teenaged wisdom, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist and they should therefore suck it up and just do the work or accept a zero when they don’t. That’s not always the sign of a bad system but of teenaged presumption.

    • I agree. I am certainly not one who thinks that we should make it our mission to reach every student without exception. Ultimately, educators have a responsibility to deliver the content of our classes in a way that reaches the majority of our students. We should differentiate for those with special needs (both SpED and GT) and teach to a variety of learning styles, delivering the content in multiple formats. But beyond that…I don’t think it’s possibe to MAKE the kids learn. They have a responsibility to take advantage of the education that is offered. If they choose to ignore it, it’s not the teacher’s job to force it into their brains.

      And I don’t think that the schools have a responsibility to teach non-academic skills, as much as it is our job to reinforce the skills that they should have learned at home and will need in the future: responsibility, basic decency, punctuality, a solid work ethic, etc. If these non-academic skills are lacking, their school work will obviously be affected. But I do think that the non-academic side should be separated from the academic. If a kid sucks at turning papers in on time, but when he does turn it in he shows clear understanding of the material, that should be awarded for what it is. His smarts shouldn’t be cast aside to reinforce a behavioral point.

      Thanks for the great comment, Jill!

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