Sunday, May 01, 2016

Goals Gone Wild

Back in February my school district changed platforms for our websites. As a result, we had to make all the usual design decisions, figure out workflow, and move content over. As part of that process, I realized that we did not have a link to our Unified Improvement Plan (UIP), an annual improvement plan required by the Colorado Department of Education. I then asked for a copy and posted it on our website (pdf). And then I read it.

Our UIP has two goals (Priority Performance Challenges), and I thought it might be worthwhile to look at each one individually.

Goal 1: To improve writing skills building-wide
At first blush, this is a goal I can strongly support. I think writing is critically important for our students. It allows them to express and communicate ideas, interact with others and their ideas, and refine their own thinking through the writing process. I also appreciate how it says "building-wide", which implies that the adults in the building will be working on this as well.

Now, while I strongly support this, that doesn't mean I don't have suggestions on how to improve it. As much as I support "writing", I think that's way too limiting of a concept. As Dr. Richard Miller, the English Department Chair at Rutgers University says,
To compose, and compose successfully in the 21st century, you have to not only excel at verbal expression, at written expression, you have to also excel in the use and manipulation of images. That's what it means to compose.
So I think a significant improvement in this goal would be to replace the word "writing" with "composition." It's not enough for our students to improve their "writing", but they have to be able to "consume and produce in the media forms of the day" (Jason Ohler - 1, 2, 3). Writing (in the traditional "text" sense), is still a hugely important component of that, and the writing process is also critical. But it's not enough. For students to communicate ideas, express opinions, interact with others and their ideas, and even refine their own thinking in 2016 (and beyond), they need not only text, but images, and sound, and video, and hyperlinks, and infographics, and storify's, and . . .well, you get the idea.

So while I like the idea of improving our students' (and staff's) abilities in this area, I think we are missing the boat when we limit it to simply "writing." But as I read further in the UIP, I was dismayed to see the "Action Steps" we were going to take to try to achieve this goal.

While these are all well-intentioned, I have serious concerns about our conception of what "good writing" (or I would prefer "good composition") looks like. In the first section, I think it's great that we're making sure all students have technology (of course I would), that we will utilize PLC time to discuss writing strategies, and that we will "imbed" (sic) writing more frequently (although I'm not sure that's actually happening in many of our classes). But the emphasis on "Data Days" and working on "skills missed in common assessments" is a bit worrisome. That seems to place more emphasis on how we're doing as a school and on specific, school-defined "skills" as measured by common assessments, and less emphasis on developing each student as a writer. (Those don't have to be mutually exclusive, but I worry about the focus there.)

I also really like some of the ideas in the second section focused on Mindset, but the implementation of that third item, "alter grading practices," seems to be lacking. While some individual teachers have certainly done this, our grading practices across the faculty are very much not aligned with a growth mindset (1, 2)

It's the third section that really, really concerns me. While "SLO" has the word "Student" in there, I think that again the emphasis here is on "results" as viewed from the school perspective. The use of "common assessments" and "MAP data" almost necessitates a narrow focus on "academic" writing skills and less of an emphasis on the actual purpose of writing for our students. Again, these are not mutually exclusive, but where is the student, their ideas, and their reason for writing in any of this? If our students were writing for a purpose, about things they care about, with audiences that matter, then those "academic" aspects could help achieve their goals. But when we focus on the "academic" aspects and ignore the reason and purpose for writing, I don't think it works at all. It actually turns off and discourages our students from writing for themselves. It focuses on the "performance" of writing for an assignment, instead of the "purpose" of writing for oneself (and others).

Plus, by focusing on "common assessments" and "MAP data", we ignore something else Miller had to say,
That's writing in the 21st century. It's multiply authored, it's multiply produced, and that's where English is going.
Multiply authored. Multiply produced. We, of course, would call that cheating on a common assessment or on MAP testing.

Finally, I would point out that none of these implementation strategies seem to involve developing the adults in the building as better writers (composers).  There appears to be no effort to ask staff to compose on a regular basis, or participate in any "writing in the 21st century" as Miller puts it, or to improve their skills and abilities in this area. If we don't model for our students, then we are not only missing an opportunity, but are pretty darn hypocritical.

Goal 2: To decrease the number of students that opt out of testing
Okay, read that again.

Yep, that's what it says. 50% of our goals as a school for how to help our students learn and grow focuses on getting more of them to take state-mandated tests. This totally flabbergasts me. In fact, I hesitated to write this post because this goal reflects so poorly on my school (and, selfishly, on me). This is not only not a worthy goal, it's flat-out embarrassing.

And then there's the way we are going to achieve this goal:
More "Data Days." More class time practicing standardized test items. More time spent trying to convince our students and their parents that these tests (and "test-taking practice) are helpful to them. Less time spent actually helping our students to learn and grow. (As a side note, because of a new state law, district's were required to formalize the opt-out procedure. Our district did so (pdf), but note the attempt to coerce the parents by making them feel guilty. Even worse, when parents did opt-out, we sent them a follow-up letter trying to make them feel guilty again and encouraging them to change their minds.)

I think our UIP is a pretty good demonstration of "Goals Gone Wild":
  • The harmful side effects of goal setting are far more serious and systematic than prior work has acknowledged.
  • Goal setting harms organizations in systematic and predictable ways.
  • The use of goal setting can degrade employee performance, shift focus away from important but non-specified goals, harm interpersonal relationships, corrode organizational culture, and motivate risky and unethical behaviors.
  • In many situations, the damaging effects of goal setting outweigh its benefits.
  • Managers should ask specific questions to ascertain whether the harmful effects of goal setting outweigh the potential benefits.
It also is a pretty good example of Campbell's Law:
The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.
Even when Campbell's Law doesn't rise to the extremes that we saw in the cheating scandals in DC, Atlanta (and who got punished 1, 2) and elsewhere, it has a truly corrosive effect on the culture of learning (1, 2) in our schools.

I'm not questioning whether the folks who wrote our UIP were well-intentioned - they were. Or even whether they thought these goals would be good for kids - they did. But if we're going to be required to take the time to complete this plan, I think we should spend a lot more time thinking about this from our students' perspectives, about what it means to be a good writer (composer), about whether participation rates in state-mandated tests are a metric that is useful for our individual students, and about what it really means to be educated and literate in 2016 and beyond (1, 2, 3).

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