When I meet with prospective families, one of the most frequent concerns they share is about testing. Many parents have described their children’s current school as “a test machine” where, as one parent put it, students “are not studying to learn but studying to pass a test.” Some parents fear this “test culture” is chipping away at their children’s curiosity, so much so that they no longer look forward to going to school. As they sit in my office and describe their children’s current experiences in the classroom, they wonder aloud if it is possible for a school to balance learning with measuring one’s learning. I assure them that at The Pike School, it is not only a possibility, but a reality.
In her book, The Flat World and Education: How American’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine our Future, Linda Darling-Hammond, who is the Stanford Professor of Education and Faculty Director at the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, paints a vivid, detailed picture of the American education system that further clarifies the concerns prospective parents share with me each year. Throughout Darling-Hammond’s work, she explains how our country has created a culture of test-based accountability that has forced many educators to focus on testing material instead of learning goals. These testing materials mainly require students to recall information instead of inspiring them to think critically and creatively, two skills essential to thrive in the 21st century. Unlike schools in higher-achieving nations, such as Finland and Japan, which have “leaner standards” and “focus more on inquiry, reasoning skills, and applications of knowledge rather than mere coverage,” Darling-Hammond argues that in most U.S. schools, teachers are required to “cover dozens or even hundreds of objectives in each subject area at each grade level,” which renders it nearly impossible for them to accommodate the learning needs of all of their students or teach any subject in depth.
Fortunately, the best practices that Darling-Hammond outlines in her book are every day practices at The Pike School, where both content and skills are considered together. Darling-Hammond advises that standards and curriculum objectives should reflect both what students are expected to understand and accomplish, and assessment tools should be used to assist teachers in determining how their students are progressing developmentally. At Pike, a team of teachers meets in professional learning communities to create essential outcomes that articulate what students should know and be able to do. To some prospective parents’ surprise, these outcomes are not only designed to outline the skills and habits students should acquire at the end of each school year, but these essential outcomes prescribe the planning and design of each unit and lesson.
Additionally, at Pike, the needs of diverse learners are a priority. Darling-Hammond wisely warns that curriculum “should offer enough space to meet specific needs” of today’s diverse learners. Pike has been successfully practicing this advice for many years: both our curriculum and teachers are given the space that is needed to challenge students where they are. Assessments are used to determine where children stand in relation to meeting essential outcomes, and teachers regularly assess students throughout a given unit to know what students are learning in real time. At Pike, teachers do not wait until the end of a unit to assess their students’ understanding; for at that point, it is time to move onto the next lesson. As most lessons build upon previous ones, if a child is unclear how to tackle a specific topic, how is he likely to respond when a more challenging topic is introduced? Instead, Pike teachers design thoughtful, varied assessments to truly gauge students’ understanding and progress throughout the unit. Data from student assessments inform a team’s instructional plan every day, telling them where a student needs additional help, when she has met expectations, or if she needs further challenge. Teachers meet regularly in teams to review assessments; this weekly meeting time allows teachers the opportunity to acknowledge patterns in students’ performance, brainstorm new approaches, and create new methods to more successfully reach and challenge their students.
Pike’s approach to creating and adhering to these essential outcomes requires curriculum expertise, collaboration, and significant amounts of time. However, the alternative— what Darling-Hammond refers to as the “’mentioning’ curriculum”— does not ensure joyful learning and genuine understanding. And isn’t that what school is all about? At Pike, it certainly is.