My Reaction to Michigan's Switch to the SAT? Carry On.

I do not deny that we have a lot to learn about Michigan's switch to a new "college-readiness" assessment and the impact this switch will have on students' admission to colleges and universities. Any time we spend learning about the SAT is time we could spend learning about something else, like teaching practices that positively impact student achievement. At the same time, I can't help but feel indifferent about the news of the change.

High schools exist to teach students to be successful in the world they graduate into. College readiness exams measure a narrow band of that world. Assuming we are focused on teaching students the knowledge and skills they need (rather than just those that are assessed), the brand of exam should have little impact on how we work with students.

My message for teachers about this week's news:

Carry on.

College Board president key figure in development of Common Core

Nick Anderson, writing for the Washington Post Back in March 2014:

Coleman’s vision for the SAT, with emphasis on analysis of texts from a range of disciplines as well as key math and language concepts, appears to echo the philosophy underlying the Common Core and could help the test track more closely with what students are learning in the nation’s classrooms.

Differing Points-of-View

The Detroit News:

Michigan’s high school juniors will be required to take the SAT college assessment exam instead of the ACT next spring ...

Quoted in the article, here's Wendy Zdeb-Roper, Executive Director of the MASSP:

Colleges and universities have not even seen the test yet and will need to re-norm their acceptance standards, since it will include a new scoring scale ...

Later in the article:

Jim Cotter, Michigan State University’s director of admissions, said he expects the impact on the admission review process will be minimal.

By my measure, the gap between "re-norm their acceptance standards" and "the impact ... will be minimal." is pretty huge.

Making Dumb Groups Smarter

Cass R. Sunstein and Reid Hastie writing for the Harvard Business Review:

A smaller but nonetheless substantial body of research—some of it our own—has focused on the decision-making strengths and weaknesses of groups and teams. But little of this work has trickled into the public consciousness, and it has yet to have a noticeable effect on actual practice. It’s time for that to change. We aim to bring behavioral research into direct contact with the question of group performance—to describe the main ways in which groups go astray and to offer some simple suggestions for improvement.

Here are a few takeaways for anyone who frequently facilitates group decision-making:

  1. Keep your opinion to yourself, especially at the start, if you are interested in soliciting diverse opinions from the group.
  2. Be clear of a problem-solving or critical-thinking outcome (rather than one of group cohesion or collegiality) by emphasizing a need for information disclosure.
  3. Emphasize the importance and implications of the group's decision and de-emphasize any apparent gain from individual contributions.
  4. Disclose roles by telling the group who is at the table and why.
  5. For groups that may otherwise be too similar in their opinions, assign a devil's advocate. Be wary of this excercise, however as it can become little more than a game.
  6. For high-stakes decision-making, construct a "Red Team:" a group of individuals who were not part of the original team brought together For the purpose of finding mistakes and exploit vulnerabilities in the plan.

Five Questions

There are five questions I want to answer through my work during the second half of this year:

  1. Who are my teacher leaders and how have I empowered and supported them to excercise greater control over our school?
  2. How is the time I structure for my staff moving us forward in our our learning as an organization?
  3. Where is our school going next and how am I helping it get there?
  4. How are my teachers doing individually, what will it take to truly know, and how do I respond once I figure it out?
  5. How are my students doing, how do I know, and what am I doing about it?

Everything else should be noise.

Owning It

I’ve long been obsessed with the idea of personal ownership. For me, the degree to which I achieve my goals is closely tied to the degree to which I own every step of the path toward achieving them. The more ownership I take, the more likely I am to see my desired outcomes.

I find this to be true for collaborative work I am involved in as well. The success of my team is dependent upon each individual’s capacity to own both the steps they have been delegated, and the steps that have been delegated to others. Without such collective ownership, the goals of the group are less likely to be acheived.

Owning the work of others is to support them in the completion of their tasks. Sometimes this looks like staying out of their way. Other times, this looks like providing a helping hand.

Owning it requires doing whatever it takes until the goal is achieved.

How I Started (circa 2007)

I stumbled upon an archive of documents I created in 2007, my third year of teaching. Nested six folders deep inside a directory labeled “School,” I found a document called AP Lesson Plan - Introduction - Day 1. In 2007, I taught two sections of AP Psychology to 11th and 12th graders. This was the document I used to draft my ideas for starting that class. Looking at it, two things stand out to me.

First, I was much more intentional than I remember. In this lesson plan, I listed goals, materials, action steps, and student deliverables. The plan reads like something I intended to hand to someone else down the road, yet that was never my goal. I remember spending a lot of time writing plans like this thinking it would save so much time later in my career. It did.

Second, I didn’t review my syllabus on the first day of class. Instead, I performed a magic trick to get them thinking about the need for control in psychological experimentation. Along with the trick, I shared a long, obviously ficticious, story about hitting my head over the summer and awakening a clairvoyant; I could see the future. The trick backed up my far-fetched claim with some fairly convincing (or at least entertaining) data.

Their task was to identify aspects of my demonstration (variables) that would disprove my claim. I would collect their ideas on the board. When all ideas appeared to be exhausted, I would have them prioritize the ideas down to the one (independent) variable they think would be most likely to disprove my clairvoyance.

I remember being hung up on the difference between psychology, the science, and the kind of psychology my students see and hear about on television. I wanted to make an early impression that, by controlling variables, we can make educated predictions that test psychological phenomenon, and that this was the type of psychology we would be studying in my class: the kind that is testable and scientific.

I never assessed their understanding of experimental design; it wasn’t yet my goal. I simply wanted to demonstrate that clear, nerdy thinking about something as silly as a magic trick, could lead to deeper understanding. And, I wanted to have fun. This was, after all, my students’ first introduction to me, their teacher, and psychology, the subject they would be studying with me over the next year. I didn’t want this day to be about rules, processes, or my pet peeves. I wanted it to be about fun and science!

My first homework assignment for them was to do three things:

  1. Read and understand the entire syllabus.
  2. Give their parents my introduction letter.
  3. Return their signed parent statement by the end of the week.

The very next class started with a quiz over the syllabus. In hindsight, it was pretty nitpicky, but remember this was an AP class and I was trying to instill a high expectation. For most students, it worked. They came in with a firm understanding of my syllabus. For all, it sent the message that I would hold them accountable to the work I asked them to complete.

After quizzing them on the syllabus and answering questions on the second day of class, we’d get to know each other, employing a series of cognitive strategies until everyone knew each others’ names.

We’d start content on the third day, which because of block scheduling didn’t come until the second week of school.

That’s how I started my year as a teacher in 2007.