I’m Terrible…by the Numbers

I woke from a nightmare. I was taking standardized tests. I bombed. I’m glad it was a dream.

It’s standardized test season, a time that strikes more fear in the hearts of schools than a life-sized poster of the Bieber mug shot. Everyone’s defined by these numbers. The media has a frenzy like Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.

We say we want schools to succeed but it’s completely untrue. Let’s be honest. We want to see blood. It’s a proven fact that Americans produce, consume, and enjoy more bad news than ever. My friend designed a blog dedicated to good news in education. She doesn’t have as many readers as a news story about drama, destruction, and gore. It’s what America wants. 

So, just to prove pundits wrong, teachers spend our valuable time compiling numbers to show our students are learning. I’ve spent an entire year this year logging numbers in spreadsheets. My husband laughs at me and calls me a bean counter. I’m a historian. I’d rather tell you the history of beans than count them–I’m not very good at that.

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 6.08.26 AMAnyway, numbers can prove anything, depending on what we want them to show. 

I recently read this TechCrunch article where Facebook and Princeton duke it out using big words and math nobody can understand. Princeton intellects prove Facebook’s about to die and Facebook retaliates by showing on graphs and charts that in five years, Princeton will have no students. And it’s all “good” math.

What it shows is this–I should stop worrying about all these numbers that affect my life and start graphing. Do it in color to boot. In my first job, I prepared diagrams for arbitrations. This was before cool computer programs, so I’d sit down with rulers and colored pencils. Nobody else used colored pencils. I rarely, if ever, lost an arbitration. The key to life is colored pencils. When people see pretty things on paper, they are always predisposed to nod and say, “Yeah…” and agree. I have to make my numbers look pretty. And use colors in my graphs. 

Incidentally, this is why I spend so much time teaching my students to detect bias. 

I wish our educational system wasn’t based on testing and numbers. It’s hard to look at a student and say “Well… you look like an 85….Yes, you, indeed are a 92.” I’ve had smart students miss midterms and had to give them zeroes, as if that one grade made all the difference in their success. It does to the grade book, however. 

So, back to my nightmare. I have taken every standardized test alive. I sort of enjoy them because I didn’t grow up with video games. SATs were the nerd way of beating our friends. I enjoyed the idea that someone out there was trying to defeat me and I had to stop them. Nerd “video” games.

But I fell asleep on section three every time. The silence. The lack of communication. It was like meditation with multiple choice questions. Trivia questions. I fought sleep…then…out cold, drooling. But I always scored well. I wondered what I’d have scored if I stayed awake. 

The point is, test numbers aren’t a solid measure any more than Facebook or Princeton’s predictions. I don’t like basing graduation or teacher careers on them.

If the numbers don’t prove much to me, what does, you ask.

Vision. Creativity. The ability to work and stick with a problem until it’s solved–the recognition that learning has changed and that students have the power to blow things out of the water and follow their passions. All I do is connect it to success. I’m the guide, not Alex Trebec.  If students have those three things they are well on the road to amazing. 

In my dream, I failed the standardized test. In real life, if every adult out there took these standardized tests, I think the media would have fun. It’d show I’ve forgotten all the trivia that once made me great. Made me able to defeat tests even while half asleep. I bet we all have, but we’re still successful. I am. I do a lot, and I like the person I’ve become. 

But if you give me that test, the numbers will show you I suck. 

So today, I pause for a moment to tell students how awesome they are. “You are not defined by the numbers. You are defined by you. Do the work. Stop at nothing to keep learning things you are passionate about–for your whole entire life. Be great…No, don’t be great. Be amazing. Regardless of what the numbers told you you’d become.” 



[image: valdosta.edu]


You Can’t Handle The Truth: Asking Students What THEY Want

Sometimes I’m searching for something obscure. I go to Google. I put in the first letter– something nobody thinks about, like aardvarks.

Google knows as soon as I type “a.”

I check to see if the webcam turned on–if someone’s spying on me and UStreaming me all over the world. Nope. It’s just Google. It knows.

I want Google to sponsor my classroom. Every time a student thinks a thought, I want it on the smartboard helping me with student engagement. Students are a little strung out and bored with life lately. It’s “the Junes.”

Screen Shot 2013-05-24 at 6.19.22 AMOne day, I was talking to my seniors. A great group with keen insight. You can’t really bullshit these guys. One can write a several-page analysis on any topic–but never does, because he says, “This is stupid.” If pressed, he’ll tell you why. And if you can’t validate his concerns and make it real for him, he’ll be right. Another can do a Rubic’s cube in 15 seconds but is entirely disengaged with school; it’s “boring.”  The others are just as deep, in their own quiet way.

One day, we were talking. Paper Writing Kid rejected my assignment. We were discussing the effect of advertising on psychology and the economy.

“It’s stupid. It’s all consumer-based mind control. Have you seen this video?” He provided a V-sauce video on the flow of money throughout the economy. Fascinating.

“School is stupid,” he vented. “That’s why I never do anything. All we do is testing and packets. And my class always seems to be the experiment for all the new stuff–testing counting for graduation, projects, teacher goals–it’s always my class.”

“I never give you packets.” I was getting a bit defensive. I want my students to love each of my classes.

“No. But look at THIS…” He whipped out packets. And packets. A grove of trees somewhere in the universe is no more.

“What would you do if you were me, given that I am required to teach this?” I explained the standardized curriculum for one course I am teaching. I used to be able to teach what I wanted, provided it was on topic, but curriculum’s getting more standardized because “every student should have the same experience.” I don’t think each student should, because they all have different gifts and interests, but nevertheless…

“So, I’m required to teach this, but I want to accomplish this as well.” I pointed to the sign on my board, “WHAT’S YOUR BIG IDEA?” I talk about “money skills.” Entrepreneurial skills. Advanced skills–the things that really helped me in life–interpretation, communication, writing, presentation, pitching, debating, researching and speaking skills. When students leave, I want them to think “I have these skills. I can be great. I can write my book, start my business, be determined, think outside the box, have an impact.” I want my students to be better than me.


“Well,” he said, “First, get rid of all these ridiculous tests. Everyone’s always testing.” True. I’d just finished up a megavolley of tests collecting data on goals I had to write for the new teacher evaluation system. It took me six days total just at the end of the year with two groups. That’s not counting pretests, correcting, and check tests–all told, I’ve spent well over a week per student on tests. In that time, I could have taught a unit. Or more. All this to prove I’m competent. Teachers must do this in every class.

“These tests are pointless, and they make me not want to come to school.” I’m not going argue. I agree. I find myself apologizing to students.  “Sorry, I have to give this test.”  I can assess students fairly easily through other–fun–means, yet testing has become this mammoth process of data collection I really don’t understand all too well myself–I accidentally designed goals that are mathematically impossible for me to meet. Maybe that’s appropriate karma for overtesting. I fail, too. High five!

“So,” I asked, “What would you do?”

“Well,” he said, “I think the problem with education today is that teachers design things, students design things, but nobody sits at the table and designs it together. You write a lot of curriculum, but do you ever write it with students? Students should be at that table.”

Ding, ding, ding… we have a winner. I am such a moron. That IS the answer.

“What would you write?” I asked.  He told me. Good stuff.

Students should be at that table. Indeed.

I’ve spent the greater part of this year working with people connecting educators and entrepreneurs to provide classroom solutions. I’ve learned from some of the best and brightest people in the nation. Solutions only occur when the parties sit down at the table together. This must happen everywhere. Student engagement requires student input.

Why aren’t students at the table for policy, design, reform, and curriculum? They’re my customers. They’re the people I serve. I ask for their thoughts and opinions every day in class–why aren’t they part of the instructional design process? It’s simple. We ask: What do you want to learn? How can you show what you’ve learned, and that you can do great things?

Doing it together–that is the answer–I may not need Google at all.

[image: http://www.lahsconqueror.com]