Just want to connect a couple of dots between a very thoughtful, challenging essay by Dan Willingham and Andrew Rotherham that was re-released by Educational Leadership just recently, and another snip from Steve Hargadon’s interview with Linda Darling Hammond from last week. I think they frame the really huge problem we’re facing with the current assessment regime that should have us all rolling up our sleeves and setting to work despite the fact that none of our elected leaders seem to have a clue as to what’s best for our kids when it comes to this stuff.

The Ed Leadership essay suggests that while these “21st Century Skills” are really any century skills, the path to “success” (depending on how you define that) is more dependent on having those skills today than ever before. And the greater problem right now is that getting really deep exposure to those skills is at best a hit or miss (mostly miss) proposition for kids in our country today. As the authors say, it’s “akin to a game of bingo.” But there are big hairy problems here regarding curriculum, professional development and assessment. And here’s one part that really resonated:

Another curricular challenge is that we don’t yet know how to teach self-direction, collaboration, creativity, and innovation the way we know how to teach long division. The plan of 21st century skills proponents seems to be to give students more experiences that will presumably develop these skills—for example, having them work in groups. But experience is not the same thing as practice. Experience means only that you use a skill; practice means that you try to improve by noticing what you are doing wrong and formulating strategies to do better. Practice also requires feedback, usually from someone more skilled than you are.

It’s that last part that really hits home, and again speaks to the pressing need for rethinking the professional development we provide to our current teachers, and the preservice preparation we give new teachers. I know this is a recurring theme here, but if we really value these skills (and I think we should), how can we teach self-direction, collaboration, creativity et al if we’re not practicing those things ourselves? It would be like being asked to teach Physics with only a textbook understanding of it. It’s what Sheryl and I and our many community leaders are constantly trying to nudge teachers toward, being learners in all of those contexts. And for most, it’s hard work to get out of the traditional roles and expectations which don’t include much beyond management of the classroom, the curriculum and the outcomes.

But at the end of the day, it’s the assessments that drive this. And this is the most depressing piece, I think. Here are Rotherham and Willingham again, longish, I know, but important:

There is little point in investing heavily in curriculum and human capital without also investing in assessments to evaluate what is or is not being accomplished in the classroom. Fortunately, as Elena Silva (2008) noted in a recent report for Education Sector, the potential exists today to produce assessments that measure thinking skills and are also reliable and comparable between students and schools—elements integral to efforts to ensure accountability and equity. But efforts to assess these skills are still in their infancy; education faces enormous challenges in developing the ability to deliver these assessments at scale.
The first challenge is the cost. Although higher-level skills like critical thinking and analysis can be assessed with well-designed multiple-choice tests, a truly rich assessment system would go beyond multiple-choice testing and include measures that encourage greater creativity, show how students arrived at answers, and even allow for collaboration. Such measures, however, cost more money than policymakers have traditionally been willing to commit to assessment. And, at a time when complaining about testing is a national pastime and cynicism about assessment, albeit often uninformed, is on the rise, getting policymakers to commit substantially more resources to it is a difficult political challenge.

Producing enough high-quality assessments to meet the needs of a system as large and diverse as U.S. public schools would stretch the capacity of the assessment industry, and incentives do not exist today for many new entrants to become major players in that field. We would need a coordinated public, private, and philanthropic strategy—including an intensive research and development effort—to foster genuine change.
Substantial delivery challenges also remain. Delivering these assessments in a few settings, as is the case today, is hardly the same as delivering them at scale across a state—especially the larger states. Because most of these assessments will be technology-based, most schools’ information technology systems will require a substantial upgrade. [Emphasis mine.]

They paint a daunting picture. But what really irks me is that once again, we’re trailing the field when it comes not just implementing more effective assessments but even conceptualizing them. Listen to this short snip from the Linda Darling Hammond interview (full recording here), most of which I’ve excerpted below:

In other countries they’ve got assessments that are fewer, that are higher quality, that include predominantly open ended essays and items research projects and scientific investigations, and so when they think about what it means to going to school, and what you should be learning, they take seriously the question of what is the intellectual activity that we want to have going on here. They don’t just attach a bunch of rewards and sanctions to low quality test measures as we’ve done here and say let’s let that be the tail that wags the dog without thinking about what we want kids to be learning, doing and able to do with their knowledge when we get out. [Emphasis mine.]

What a concept.

Maybe it’s just that the people in charge don’t have the creativity, innovation and problem solving skills to figure this out. (They are products of the system, after all.) But here’s the deal: so what? School’s starting, and it’s 2010 which means we’re in “doing both” mode. We’re making sure the kids pass the test, but we also have to make sure that our own assessments are doing more to evaluate our students ability to do all those other things we want them to be able to do that aren’t currently being assessed.

So, I’m wondering, how are you doing that?