A few weeks ago I wrote a post about my 8 year old daughter and watching school play out for her in my role as a parent. School has a different impact on my son. Hayden is 11 years old and will start 6th grade tomorrow – his first day of middle school. Like my daughter, he is very bright and has recently been identified as Gifted and Talented.
Hayden “does school” (a phrase I picked up several years ago during a workshop presented by Robert Marzano and Deborah Pickering). Unlike my daughter he does not dislike school. He finds it tolerable. Mostly he looks at class time as something he has to endure to get to recess, lunch, and P.E. where he can hang out with friends and play sports.
Hayden knows we expect him to do well in school, so he does. He is well-behaved in class, he completes his classwork, and he turns in his homework. He does not want to get in trouble, he does not want to struggle, and he does not want to fail. He is always a recipient of the report card comment “Hayden is a pleasure to have in class.”
Hayden always does what his teacher expects of him – he does no less … and he also does no more.
Despite the fact that Hayden has always scored advanced on his standardized tests, he mostly submits “proficient” work and receives “proficient” marks on his report card. That is the standard that we as educators often set– strive to be proficient. I have watched this play out in my household in a number of ways, but here a few examples:
I have witnessed Hayden study for several spelling and vocabulary tests; once he knows 16 of the 20 words (enough to score proficient), he no longer cares if he learns the rest.
I have marveled over watching him write his spelling words five times each (my thoughts about the assignment aside)… He works vertically – writing the first letter five times down the page, then the second letter five times , the third etc. until he’s finished. I am certain that the way he completes this assignment has done nothing to improve his spelling – but the assignment is complete and turned into his teacher.
He has been asked to read books of his choice for homework and then write summaries of what he has read. During one school year, I watched him frequently “make-up” three sentence summaries about something he had not actually read. When I first challenged him on it, his response to me was “My teacher doesn’t even read them, so it doesn’t matter.” Despite my best efforts, the teacher’s lower expectations won out over my higher ones of him, and he wrote very poor summaries of things he had read (and things he hadn’t) all year long. It just was not worth the weekly battle in my home to get him to write better summaries when his teacher accepted the lesser ones and always marked them with a little red star.
If Hayden is asked to write an essay and the teacher says it needs to be 250 words, he will write 250 words – not 251… seriously – I have watched him count, and even if he has another great idea, he is finished because he has met the expectation.
When Hayden’s teachers have high expectations and raise the bar for him – he perseveres through the challenge and produces amazing work – advanced work. He has had many teachers do this for him. Unfortunately, he has also experienced instances of low expectations, and much to my horror as a parent and an educator, he has always met those too.
As an educational leader in a district that entered Program Improvement a few years ago, I have spent a lot of time working with my colleagues figuring out new and better ways to help more of our students attain proficiency in language arts and mathematics. We have had several great, and necessary conversations about helping more students reach proficiency in reading, writing and mathematics – and they have resulted in far more students attaining that proficiency.
Now, however, I find myself spending a lot of time thinking about how we push beyond “striving for proficiency”. As I watch my son “do school”, I know there is so much more I want for him. I want him to excel as a reader, as a writer, and as a mathematician, but I also want him to engage in challenging work that requires critical thinking, and creative and collaborative problem-solving. I want someone to push him to take an educational risk and let him know that it is ok to do so and that it is ok to fail.
I want the same for the students in the schools in my District. It will require us to take some risks that may push ourselves out of our comfort zones. It will require continuous learning and collaboration. It will require us to have different types of conversations and to think about evaluating learning in new and different ways. I am excited about the possibilities.