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What Are We Teaching?


Over the past few months, as articles and reports have emerged on the topic of how our schools stack up against those in other nations, and how well we are preparing our students to compete with those in other countries, I have been asking myself, “what are we teaching?”  When I was in the P12 classroom – I believe that I am now simply in a larger classroom, without walls – I would have answered that question by stating that I teach information literacy skills.  Other colleagues would proudly state that they teach children, or students, as opposed to content.  Still others would have said that they teach life skills.

Increasingly, I believe that what we actually teach is preparedness for students to become contributing members of a global society.  We teach workforce skills, critical and creative problem solving, collaboration, evidence collection and analysis, and the ability to discern between valid and invalid information.  We teach good citizenry, moral decision-making, and contributing to a system for the greater good.  We teach innovation with respect for traditional methods.  We teach how to play fair and still individually grow and succeed.  We teach how to see the individual details of a problem but not lose sight of the big picture.  And yes, somewhere in there, we also teach math, reading, science, art, music, whatever our content expertise happens to be.  And yes again, ultimately, we teach children (students).

In his NY Times editorial Need a Job?  Invent It, Tom Friedman talks about Tony Wagner’s book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World.  Wagner describes what he views as a battle between education and the business community and that what we should be teaching is not how to make students job ready, but innovation ready, noting again that many of the jobs that our students will ultimately hold do not yet even exist.  He notes that his business community contacts tell him, ‘We can teach new hires the content, and we will have to because it continues to change, but we can’t teach them how to think — to ask the right questions — and to take initiative.’ ”

With all of the conversation that we have been having about testing, the focus has still been on the learning of content.  We see international comparisons that tell us how our students perform in Math, Science, English compared to international peers.  We compare results on NAEP to results on state tests in content areas.  The new report by Stanford, Developing Assessments of Deeper Learning, tells us that the creation and implementation of tests that measure the application of content knowledge will be much more costly for states, but that not investing in such assessments is penny wise/pound foolish.

Today, we see released by America Achieves a new tool by which individual US schools who participate in the OECD assessments can examine their students’ achievement in English, Math, and Science and how they apply knowledge of content in these fields to real-world problems.  In looking preliminarily at results, we see that some US schools are out-performing students in other nations significantly, while other US schools are far behind.

Tom Friedman makes the point in his editorial, My Little Global School, that the results also tell us that we have been harboring a misconception – the belief that we lag behind other nations because we test all students, and that our students in poverty under-perform and this pulls down our overall test results.  Using this new tool however, we see that many schools with mostly higher-middle class populations are outperformed by 24 nations in Math and 15 in Science; and that schools with mostly lower-middle class populations were outperformed by 31 countries or regions in Math and 25 in Science.  And some of these schools are receiving  A’s in these content areas based on their own state tests.

And yet, some US schools are doing an outstanding job, as measured by these tests.  Why?  What are they teaching that their underperforming counterparts are not? To me, this is the critical question.

Way back in the dark ages, in 2002, I formed a collaboration between NJ DOE, the NJ Governor’s office, the NJ Education Association, Educational Testing Service, Prudential, and NJ STOYs to formulate and host the NJ Teacher Academy.  With funding from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Academy trained teachers as teacher leaders and trained their principals to provide roles and a culture of acceptance for teacher leaders.

Mary O’Malley from Prudential would come in on the first full evening of the Academy and talk with educators about what business most needs from teachers in terms of skills taught to students.  O’Malley told our educators that Prudential can teach new hires the content that they need to do the job; they can’t teach them how to collaborate, how to group problem solve, how to seek new solutions to old problems, and how to innovate solutions.  That was in 2002.  The message from the business community seems not to have changed; but the conversation is still ongoing.  Why have we not yet gotten this right?

After spending twelve years in the testing industry, I have developed a strong respect for the power of assessment.  In developing the first assessment on which I worked, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Library Media assessment, I was thunderstruck by the potential of that test – grounded in innovative and far-reaching standards – to change practice.  In order to do well on that test, librarians would have to teach to those standards and, if they were not already doing so, practice would change.

If we teach what we test, perhaps part of the reason that we have been so slow to heed the pleas of the business community has been because our focus has been on testing strictly content, as required by the standards that we had at hand, rather than on teaching the application of content that they are asking for – creative and critical thinking, innovative problem solving, and so on.  Perhaps, as we shift gears and move into testing based on college and career ready standards that require this kind of thought process, based around content, we will get closer to teaching what the business community is asking us for – innovators who will change the world.

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