Redefining Student Achievement

There are all kinds of suggestions for improving student achievement – privatize public schools, increase the number of standardized tests that students take, implement national standards, and enforce no-excuses classroom discipline. None of these practices, however, have made a bit of difference. That is for two reasons. One reason is that the underlying causes of poverty and racial injustice have gone unaddressed, and the other reason is that standardized test scores can never measure achievement and, instead, reliably indicate only one thing: the income of the parents of the test taker.

So the first step in increasing student achievement is to redefine what we mean by achievement.  I recently witnessed something that crystallized for me what real achievement is.

I was at a ceremony in which community service awards were presented to three high school seniors and two adult members of the South Windsor, Connecticut community. A citation was read for each of the high school seniors and for the first of the two adult recipients, and they each gave a speech describing their impressive community service and the impact that service had on their own lives as well as the lives of others.

When it was time for the second adult recipient, Roseanne Sapula, to give her speech, she spoke about how honored she was to receive the award she regarded as prestigious and how she had tried to write a speech but gave up. It was clear that she gave up because her volunteer work with the Monday Night Social Group, a group comprised of 40 special needs individuals of high school age and older, was so close to her heart that it was hard for her to explain her interactions with those in the group in a short speech. She did tell the audience that thinking up new adventures for those young adults and new ways for them to be part of the larger community was her “calling”.

As Roseanne was talking, she looked out in the audience and spotted one of the members of the Monday Night Social Group, Jacob Fialkoff, a 20 year-old whom I later learned has cerebral palsy and a seizure disorder. She called out to him and asked him a favor. She explained to the audience that Jacob is scheduled to sing the National Anthem at the opening of the Connecticut Special Olympics and that he has a beautiful voice. She asked Jacob if he would sing it for all of us.

Jacob hesitated, probably feeling unprepared and that it was too much of a challenge at that moment. Roseanne, aware of his hesitation, asked him again, telling him that she would not be at the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics and would love to hear him sing the National Anthem. He still hesitated. Roseanne then asked him if he could do it just for her. He softly said OK.

Jacob stood up and began to sing. I have never heard a more robust and pitch-perfect singing of “The Star Spangled Banner”. Jacob has a singularly beautiful voice. As soon as he began singing, everyone in the audience stood up, faced the flag, put their hands over their hearts, and listened with rapt attention. I looked in the auditorium row behind me to see Jacob.  His face was full of confidence and pride in himself. He was standing tall and singing with all he had in him. The audience was full of people with tears in their eyes as those words, familiar to all of us, took on new meaning because of the magnificence of the singer. It was a moment I will never, ever forget.

Later, I asked Roseanne if Jacob had known that she was going to ask him to sing. She said no. She hadn’t even known he would be there. She explained that he hadn’t known about the award until a few minutes before the ceremony. He had been playing baseball in a field across from the auditorium and heard from someone at the game that Roseanne was receiving an award that night. When the game was called because of rain, he, in his rain-soaked clothes, ran across the street to see her receive her award.

The moment of Jacob singing the national anthem speaks for itself. It speaks about the love Roseanne has for Jacob and the love he has for her, about the confidence Roseanne has in Jacob and about how Jacob did what he, at first, thought he couldn’t do because of that confidence. Jacob did something new for himself. He was transformed by the experience. That is achievement.

Jacob’s singing the National Anthem, unrehearsed and on the spot out of love for the person who asked him, is what is missing in the conversation about increasing student achievement, which has been the illusive national goal since the passing of “No Child Left Behind” in 2001. We have tested and prepared kids for tests. And achievement doesn’t budge. We have declared that urban schools are “failing schools” and opened charter schools.  And achievement doesn’t budge. We have put in place Common Core standards.  And achievement doesn’t budge. We suspend and expel students at high rates, particularly in charter schools. And achievement doesn’t budge. That’s because we have been looking in the wrong places for achievement. We have been looking at standardized tests.

If, instead, we look at achievement as what Jacob did in that auditorium at the awards ceremony and ask our schools to do what Roseanne has done in her long relationship with Jacob, we would write a different story about what students can do.

Roseanne had a clear goal: to help Jacob to be all he could be and to integrate him fully into the community. She respected his gifts and had confidence in him further developing those gifts. She knew what he was capable of and asked him to do more than he asked of himself.  She asked him to show his world what he could do and, in doing that, learn more about his capabilities and more about his possibilities.

We can do the same with our students. With my work as an English teacher, as a district-level curriculum supervisor and evaluator of teachers, and as a curriculum consultant to at-risk schools, I know that it can be done across the board in our schools. Students can be asked to do something they have never done before, something that all of our work with them has prepared them to do, and, from doing it, become aware of their possibilities. Like Jacob singing unrehearsed before the people in his community, our students will be transformed by what they do. And they will delight us.

When Jacob sings “The Star Spangled Banner” at the opening of the Special Olympics, he will be a different young man than he was before Roseanne asked him to sing at the awards ceremony.  He will know for sure that he has a world full of exciting possibilities before him.

Let’s look to Roseanne and Jacob to help us, as a nation, redefine achievement. By doing that, we will give a future full of possibilities to all of our children.

(Note: Photo is of Roseanne Sapula in the middle, Jacob Fialkoff on the right, and Brenden Prattson, another member of the Monday Night Social Club, on the left.)





Post NCLB: CT Must Reject The Common Core

With the end of No Child Left Behind, states will have the flexibility to continue with the controversial Common Core State Standards or not. This is Connecticut’s opportunity to put a good education in place for our students by rejecting the Common Core. However, Alan Taylor, the Chair of the Connecticut State Board of Education, recently said, “I don’t foresee that happening. I happen to think that the Common Core is far better than anything we had done before.” 

The Common Core Standards “far better than anything we had done before”? Hardly.

In fact, the claim has been the opposite. When the Common Core was adopted by Connecticut in 2010, the Connecticut State Department of Education claimed that the existing Connecticut State Standards were 80% the same as the Common Core Standards in English Language Arts and 92% the same in Mathematics.

Connecticut students have done really well in the years when their education was based on our Connecticut State Standards rather than on the Common Core. On the international PISA test, Connecticut’s 15 year olds scored higher in reading than students in 63 nations. Also, from 1992 until 2014, Connecticut, along with Massachusetts and New Jersey, had the highest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading scores in the country. Somebodies had been doing something right under our own Connecticut State Standards.

It’s time to build on that “something right” and rid ourselves of the Common Core. The figure of a 20% percent difference between the Connecticut State Standards in English Language Arts and the Common Core English Language Arts doesn’t tell the whole story. There is the 20% difference in topics covered, but, even more importantly, the whole approach of the Common Core contradicts the philosophically and academically-sound Connecticut State Standards approach and dictates outdated pedagogy for teachers and poor learning experiences for students. It is time to get rid of the Common Core and return to what we already had in Connecticut.

By getting rid of the Common Core, we will get rid of the Common Core early childhood approach to learning that 500 of the country’s most prominent early childhood professionals say harms young children due to the Common Core emphasis on didactic instruction and reduction in active learning through play and inquiry. Those experts say that we must return to developmentally appropriate active learning, which encourages the initiative, curiosity, and imagination of our youngest students and helps them to be successful learners.

By getting rid of the Common Core, we will get rid of the limitations that the Common Core puts on the amount of literature that students read. We must return to students reading full books in place of the Common Core recommended practice of reading selected chapters of books. We must once again give students opportunities to fall in love with reading.

By getting rid of the Common Core, we will get rid of the Common Core practice of treating literary texts as informational texts in which the reader’s task is to figure out what the author intended to say, based on word choice and sentence structure, rather than to explore a range of interpretive possibilities. We must return to the Connecticut State Standards, which divided texts into informational texts and literary texts and taught students how to read and respond to each kind of text and to think in the markedly different ways that reading each kind of text offers.

By getting rid of the Common Core, we will get rid of the Common Core approach to the teaching of writing, which was best summed up in the words of the “architect of the Common Core”, David Coleman, when he said that with the Common Core, writing is taught so that “students know that no one gives a **** what they think and feel.” We must return to the approach of teaching writing in which students are taught to write by gaining ownership of their ideas and their expression of those ideas.

By getting rid of the Common Core, we will get rid of the Common Core’s prohibition of students using the personal voice when arguing a position in essays. We must return to the classroom practice of students exploring a wide range of ideas and questions in class so that each student forms his or her individual thinking and then teach students to  express that thinking in both personal and impersonal voices.

By getting rid of the Common Core, we will get rid of the Common Core way of teaching writing in which students revise their writing only “as needed”. We must return to teaching students the process of writing in which revision is always assigned because it is through revising their writing that students develop the quality of their thinking and learn the art and craft of written expression.

By getting rid of the Common Core, we will get rid of teaching students the answers for the standardized tests aligned with the Common Core and, instead, teach students to form their own questions and explore those questions wherever those explorations take them because questioning is the essential skill for the information-laden 21st century.

Connecticut is in great shape to begin the Post No Child Left Behind Era. Many other states have the choice of staying with the inadequate Common Core Standards or spending large sums of money to create their own standards because the standards they had prior to Common Core were inferior. Not so in Connecticut.

We are ready to go.

Post NCLB: Here we come.

The steps to beginning the Post NCLB Era in Connecticut are:

  1. Form a committee of educators to review the Connecticut State Standards, revising and adding on if necessary, and republish the Connecticut State Standards.
  2. Form a committee of educators to make the decisions about the forms of yearly  assessments required by the federal government, reviewing existing Connecticut standardized tests, the CMT and CAPT, and designing new performance assessments.

Onward, Connecticut!