"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

To Miller and Kennedy: A Plan for Withdrawing from NCLB Insanity

For those in Congress who may be looking for an alternative to the current train wreck of NCLB, read about George Wood's field trip to Nebraska:
Imagine that in this era of reducing everything we do in schools to a score on a high-stakes, standardized test that one state just says no. Imagine that this state relies upon locally established standards, assessments developed by teachers and administered in classrooms by those teachers, and only gives one state wide test—a writing sample again scored by teachers. Imagine that the State Commissioner of Education supports and fights for this system, because he believes that assessment should not drive instruction but simply be one tool to assist good teaching.

If you cannot imagine this, then head out to Nebraska and see their School-based Teacher-led Assessment Reporting System—go see the STARS.

A group of us did just that on a study tour organized by The Alliance for Public Schools. Educators, policy researchers, and reporters spent three days in Nebraska to see STARS in action. We visited classrooms, met with teachers, students, administrators, and parents, were briefed by State Commissioner Doug Christensen and his staff, and attended a state-wide training system for peer reviewers (teachers who will review the work of other teachers).

It is hard to capture in this short space what we saw, and for a full picture I suggest you either visit the STARS web site or pick up a copy of Chris Gallagher’s fine book, Reclaiming Assessment which includes a Foreword by Forum Convener Deborah Meier. The simple outline is this:

  • Nebraska’s educational standards, slimmer than most, are either approved by local districts or districts improve upon them and send them back to the state for approval.
  • There is only one state-wide assessment which is a writing sample. This is scored by Nebraska teachers at a state-wide review for which there is a waiting list of teachers who want to participate. Samples of these are sent out for scoring to check on reliability—Nebraska’s teachers’ scores are always more demanding.
  • Other standards are assessed by teacher-developed assessments, both paper and pencil and performance, taken at the point of instruction. Often students do not even know they are taking a state assessment; it is just one part of a classroom activity.
  • Each district chooses a norm-referenced test at whatever grade they want to provide a snapshot comparison of local scores to national norms.
  • There are no high-stakes attached to the tests. If students do not do well the teachers meet to see if a) the assessment was inappropriate, b) they did not do a good job of teaching the content, or c) the students need additional work.
  • You cannot compare districts by looking at test scores since there is no statewide test.

The system was driven by State Commissioner of Education Doug Christensen, who may be the most visionary state educational leader in the country. He is, as he says, “committed to teachers being instructional leaders. You cannot have good schools without professional educators, and you have professional educators only if you treat them like professionals. That’s what this is all about.” (Read Doug’s speech on assessment here.)

It is indeed. At every school we visited, in every conversation we had, teachers talked about how STARS puts them in charge of their craft. As one of our companions from Hawaii put it, “There is a lot of aloha going on here; teachers sharing their wisdom, working together, acting like professionals.”

As I noted, there is no way to record all we saw in this space. So perhaps the best way to give you a flavor of what is going on in Nebraska is through a few snap shots taken from my notes of the trip;

  • Accompanied by an eleventh grader I go to an English classroom where a writing standard is being assessed. She walks over to the teacher who hands her the assessment and she shares it with me. I ask the teacher if he is worried that she sees the assessment before taking it the next period. “Why would I worry about that, this is just like the tasks we ask them to do all the time, they know what is coming and I know they are prepared for it."
  • In a fourth grade classroom students are busy at their desks waiting to be called to the back of the room for an assessment on electricity. They each take their turn sitting with the teacher and building simple circuits of varying types. The teacher notes the steps the student takes, what the student can tell her about it, how the student self corrects. This is recorded as part of the assessment on electricity.
  • I am talking with a group of seniors about assessment and they ask what goes on in my school and state. After I tell them about our high stakes standardized graduation exams they are amazed. “You mean kids don’t know what is on the test, and it is all a paper and pencil type exam…And their teachers don’t grade it and don’t know what to help them with?” They cannot imagine what it is like and wonder why anyone would do that to students. A math teacher who is in on the session points out to them: “(Tests like that) are why I left Texas to come teach here.”
  • A sixth grader watches a video of his oral presentation yesterday, with student and teacher scored rubrics in hand. He makes notes on how to improve his presentation next time.
  • In the state-wide training for peer review I watch Educational Service Center staff working with teachers and administrators. “Our ESC is crucial to our small district,” a superintendent tells me. “We are all on the same page, working together, and our teachers value their collaboration.” It is this way everywhere we go, with educators talking about how much time they spend together working on curriculum, assessment, and helping kids learn.

There is much more one could say about what is going on in Nebraska, including that it took a fight with the U. S. Department of Education to get this system approved even though it is clearly working. Working because by all outside measures Nebraska’s kids do well in school; because Nebraska’s teachers feel and act like professionals; and because assessment is seen as a tool to help kids learn, not a stick to use in punishing those who fail. Let’s hope that any change in NCLB takes notice of what is happening out here on the plains.

Most importantly, Nebraska’s kids are in the company of powerful adults. This was an epiphany that came to me after talking with a high school principal near the end of the trip. He and I had a gentle disagreement on how to organize the school day. In reflection I realized that the Nebraska system was not about doing things the way I would do it, it was about giving educators the power to do what worked for their students. Rather than have their classrooms and schools be chained down to a one-size fits all assessment system, educators in Nebraska have the freedom to construct systems that best meet the needs of their students. A responsibility they take seriously and in so doing model professionalism of the highest degree.

As Deborah Meier has said, “Young people learn to be powerful adults when they are in the company of powerful adults.” That is, we learn to be democratic when we watch others being so. Nebraska’s kids are in the presence of educators who do not talk about ‘what the state makes us do.’ Instead they talk about what they have created—the lesson young people learn from watching this is the most important lesson of all.


  1. Currently, I work as a teacher's assistant at a high school. As a resident of Nebraska this blog captured my attention. I must admit that at work on a daily basis I experience the commitment of the educators from this state. I witness the work they put into helping students succeed.

  2. Currently, I work as a teacher's assistant at a high school. As a resident of Nebraska this blog captured my attention. I must admit that at work on a daily basis I experience the commitment of the educators from this state. I witness the work they put into helping students succeed.