Friday, September 20, 2013

Teach to the Student, Not to the Test 

Individualized schools are the only way to save education. There is a misconception by many that individualized schools must have students staring at a computer screen all day.  Although these schools may exist they would certainly miss areas essential to a complete education.  Because they are limited to technology, they are not individualized in the way children learn. Technology is, of course a piece of the puzzle, but not the whole puzzle.

Certainly all students learn at different rates, but as significant is that they learn in different ways.  Children learn more and learn faster when they are empowered to explore and discover their own answers rather than simply regurgitating someone else’s information, quickly memorized and soon forgotten.  As the Paul Simon song says, “I look back at all the crap I learn in high school.  It’s a wonder I can think at all.”

Some states have their Board of Education frantically spending hours trying to determine which historical hero’s would be allowed to grace the pages of their text books for their children to idolize.  A simple solution would be to empower students to discover and justify their own hero’s.  In years gone by, this would take weeks in a library.  Today the information is at their fingertips.  No longer must students drudge through multiple choice tests spewing out memorized data that they can get with a search engine in five minutes.

Teaching to the student’s background knowledge is the first step to real learning, and it is personal, not standardized.  The more a teacher can touch the personal genius inside a student’s mind, the more successful that student will have following their personal pathway to success.

To develop a truly individualized school, we must take a long hard look at some of the systemic flaws that force the standardization of children.  Of course the testing fiasco drives the problem.  You simply can’t standardize kids and individualize them at the same time. Since outcomes that are used to judge schools, drive all that is done in schools, all the talk about authentic education in schools is negated by these standardized outcomes.

Another driving force standardizing children is the artificial letter grades.  I congratulate Milwaukee Wisconsin Public schools for eliminating all letter grades in elementary and middle schools.  These grades simply rank and sort children in the classroom and are often based on small tests, similar to the state tests and lead to a similar result.  The letter grades say nothing about what a child has learned.  They simply artificially infer that your child is “smart” or “stupid” and are usually a lie.  If they are “stupid” too many times they end up in the streets or jail where they become invisible.

The “smart or stupid” mentality steers students off their pathway to success, on to a standardized race to nowhere, and nowhere is often the end result.  There is much talk about an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) for everyone.  In our book we call it the MAP (My Action Plan”) that leads students to their hopes and dreams.  There is no common core when students are so diverse.  Although standards would still exist under this plan, they would be guidelines for success rather than the current deadlines for failure.  And success would be demonstrated to make it real for individual students rather than tested to make it artificial in the way “book learned” students do best.  Demonstrations of learning show what a student can do, what they can discover and how they think, not just what they can remember.

To guide students on their pathway to success there must be ongoing, real life, assessment of proficiencies that allows students to move up the ladder of success with strong support as well as accountability.  Built into these assessments, integral to an individualized school, is a dramatic change in the concept of failure.  Just as all the failures we have in life have allowed us to learn and grow as a positive experience, failure in school must do the same. Failure must be a positive experience where students step back, analyze and learn.  Then they can revisit the proficiency assessment when they are ready, be it one day or one month later.  Never, however, would they be re assessed one year later as in the current system.  In the current system they can fail a chapter test and then move on to the next chapter, never again to learn the material presented, failed into oblivion at the end of the year.


As student’s progress at different rates and in different ways, one might, for example, be good at math but slow in reading.  This is currently the case as students are all over the board when observed as individuals.  As grade levels are already moot, grade levels would not be an indicator of academic success in an individualized school.

Implementation in the classroom will take a great deal of planning and creativity on the part of the teacher.  But this is what good teachers are made of.  Not the ability to teach to the test.  And class sizes, although in some instances could be large, in most must be small.  Students can’t really learn well in a mob. Differentiated classrooms would be everyday business as would project based learning, learning in the community, and performance based learning as well as every other innovative way of teaching to the student. The only rule guiding community experiences, projects and performances would that they fit into the students MAP.

A new and stronger role for parents is essential to the students MAP.  They know their child better than anyone.  No longer relegated to committees organizing fund raisers or serving as rubber stamps to administrators, parent committees would be charged with gathering information from all parents for their input on important issues.  Parents and students would also be integrally involved in the development of the students MAP, their pathway to success.  How else could a school truly teach to the needs of the student?

Once the dominoes start to fall in an individualized school, there will be many adjustments to be made.  Planning time for teachers to work in teams must increase.  No longer would they be teaching to the test or simply following a text book.  This would be high intensive planning to make learning real and guaranty success for all.  In addition class sizes must be reduced.  Although there are many creative ways to create smaller class sizes, every effort must be made to assure students don’t have to try to learn in a mob.  Isn’t quality education worth it?

Students with special needs would also have their MAP / IEP that guides needed services.  As all children are different, they would simply enter school as children and their teacher’s would simply be teachers in the eyes of the students in the school.  There would be no special education classrooms, and certainly no special education wing in a school.  There would be no label branded on their foreheads for all to see.  And inclusion would no longer include the dumping of students into general education classes to sink or swim in a setting that doesn’t even succeed with the students without labels. 

And finally how old is old when it comes to education.  Partnerships with universities as well as satellite agencies and school extensions would help service students at their levels.  Those moving through the system at faster levels would enter universities for the appropriate classes.  No longer would they be relegated to classes boring them simply to maintain their artificial straight “A’s”.  Anyone who is receiving straight “A’s” in the current system has not been challenged.

Those moving through the system on a slower track would go to satellite centers, not for the artificial GED, but to continue advancement on the MAP that would follow them everywhere.  As with the university concept students could continue their education anytime and anyplace.  All they need is their MAP. The issues currently used to force students away from graduation, would change dramatically.  The issue no longer is when they will graduate, it becomes THAT they graduate as, for the first time in the history of this country we never give up on our children even when they become adults. And the goal of every school would be to keep students on their pathway to success.

To accomplish this, the powers to be must allow it to happen with the appropriate accountability out comes.  This doesn’t mean eliminate accountability.  It means strong accountability to assure our children receive the best services.  However, the accountability must not standardize children.  Allow them to be individuals with accountability based on individual gains guided by successful progress on their MAP. 

All we ask is this be allowed to happen, no more, no less.




  1. Meeting students right where they are would be ideal in the world that we live in. Our school uses the data from MAP and STEP assessments to create plans for each student. Although it was extremely time consuming and tedious, we saw the best results at the end of last year. Filling in the gaps and moving students toward their goals was done once we were able to thoroughly dig deeper into the results for each student. Ultimately this is what education is about- pushing each student to his or her potential.

  2. Thank you Ann (for anonymous) or Andy :-) Small assessments that are acually used have great value when compared and connected with the teacher. while the billion dollar tests sit idly by in the file cabinet. Make sure you scroll down to the next past blog on assessment to use this data to assess your school. It's a great comeback whe they use artificial means to say you failed. You can say 80% succeeded and 75% of those nebver did in the past.


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