Day 3 – The AERO Education Conference in Portland

Another jam-packed day at the conference, and probably no more than an hour and 15 minutes of usable brain power to write before I can do no more than stare out the window or at the TV.

The first workshop I attended was on assessment. I was hoping the presenter Ido Roll would talk about the state of the art or best practices in holistic school assessment (rather than relying on student standardized test scores), but the focus was on individual student assessments, which seemed to be what the majority of the workshop attendees were most interested in.

Still it was interesting! I learned that in technical academic terms there are two types of assessments, “formative” and “summative”. A formative assessment is intended to give the student and their teacher input on how they are doing, so that they can focus on areas where they may be weak or otherwise still need to do more work. A summative assessment, on the other hand, is generally high-stakes and is how a student is graded or ranked at the conclusion of some formal learning process. Presumably the two assessment types could be applied to schools as well.

From Ido’s point of view, assessments are weak that simply test what a student has been taught. A more accurate and holistic assessment tests what a student has synthesized from what they have been taught. Though he did not address this, I immediately jumped to thinking about the typical standardized multiple-choice tests that students take. How can they really test what the student has synthesized? They can only test what the student was taught.

At the end of the workshop I was able to talk to Ido and his partner Ofira. I told them of my interest in finding out more about any emerging best practice in more holistic assessments of schools. Ido pointed me at work being done by Johns Bransford at the University of Washington, and also the book, Knowing What Students Know. He also said that the whole issue of school assessment was impacted by politics. Apparently the National Science Foundation is now recommending more holistic school assessments that involve subjective qualitative data from people, but the Department of Education continues to insist that all school assessments need to be completely quantitative with no subjectivity.

The next workshop focused on the history and impact of the whole standardization and high-stakes testing movement. The presenter, Angela Engel, gave a quick history of the milestones in standards and testing, starting with Nation at Risk during the Reagan administration, followed by Goals 2000 during the Clinton administration, which lead to every state adopting curriculum standards that students would be tested on on a regular basis. Finally No Child Left Behind during the Bush administration, which added punishments for schools that did not meet those state goals.

Angela indicated that her take was that the Nation at Risk analysis was flawed, and it led to much too simplistic assessments to give an accurate picture of the state of U.S. education. What it has also led to is billions of dollars being spent on testing programs and reworking state curricula, billions of dollars were not otherwise available to pay teachers and improve the resources available to students in schools. Corporations in the education-industrial complex have been enriched, while the quality of our education system, as reflected by the quality of our teachers and school facilities, has been attenuated.

In an afternoon workshop presented by three young instructors at Washington State University’s education school – Paul Menke, Mary Crowell and Francene Watson – they gave what to me seemed a pretty gloomy assessment of their program to train new K-12 teachers. The classes they taught were focused on alternative teaching methodologies including Critical Pedagogy. A key part of their classes was highlighting issues of privilege involved with race, gender, class and sexual orientation. But they bemoaned the fact that at their university it was mainly white staff teaching this to other mainly white students. The three teacher trainers seemed to be pretty stressed out with having to level with their students about how grueling the teaching profession has become.

Topping off the gloom and doom was an attendee, Richard Elmore, a key education professor at Harvard, who said that due to the trend in alternative teacher credentialing, he saw most of the traditional education school being put out of business in the next few years. He said that training teachers has been a “cash cow” up to now for universities, but with more and more states adopting other means of credentialing teachers, these university programs were likely to disappear.

I have to admit to not enough knowledge of the whole area of teacher training. But from my somewhat unknowing vantage, it did seem like the whole education establishment was going through some sort of cataclysm and tipping point. It is certainly an area I will have to explore more at some point soon.

Finally, after dinner I attended a more impromptu workshop titled “What is a Free School”, where staff from various learner-directed schools around the country discussed the common features of their schools’ programs and also their shared problems. All the schools let students set their own curriculum and were “non-coercive”, which means that though some of them offered classes to students, attendance in those classes was never mandatory. Also, all the schools had the students playing a key role in running the school, along with the adult staff, through decisions made by various forms of the democratic process, from voting and majority rule, to informal or even formal consensus process. In some of the schools, that student role even included hiring and firing the adult staff.

That’s just a brief intro to democratic-free schools, and I intend to write more about this educational model soon. And with the late hour it is time to conclude today’s report.

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2 replies on “Day 3 – The AERO Education Conference in Portland”

  1. Sam says:

    I have been reading, and have to do more outside reading to fully comprehend everything you’re tlaking abotu 🙂 but just quickly – I’ve always been in schooling that has both formative and summative assessment, which took a lot of pressure off when you could use assignments as ‘spring boards’ to better marks by working out with your teacher your weaker areas (such as grammer, spelling, areas of maths, time management, etc). I hadn’t realised that the mainstream schooling in the states didn’t heavily incorperate this – also it is mostly assessed on multiple choice? I’m confused and intrigued!

  2. Cooper Zale says:

    Sam… to clarify, I’m referring to the multiple-choice tests used for testing students to evaluate whether a school is passing muster in teaching math and language arts skills. I think those tests are testing the instruction, not the goals.

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