Emotional Intelligence

I am writing this from the Fall Forum of the Coalition for Essential Schools. I just attended a workshop by Kathleen Cushman on “Learning by Heart: The Power of Social Emotional Learning.”

She stated in one of the bullet points of her slides of how building social emotional learning supports academic learning. I think there are very few people who would disagree with this, though it is true that many teachers feel unequipped for, resentful toward, or object to being expected to deal with this aspect of teaching. However, what I notice here, is that often as educators we feel the need to defend anything we do in schools not as valuable for itself, but for how it will help raise test scores, or at least help academically. I have seen this in defense of the arts, in defense of physical education, in defense of good nutrition, etc.

dumb question

As the author of Emotional Intelligence demonstrated fairly convincingly, to get ahead in most occupations takes emotional intelligence at least as much as it took academic smarts (according to the web site EQ accounts for 58% of your job performance, though I have no idea how one would quantify that). I would argue that this is at least as true in civic life. Political and social change happens when people work together for such change. Not to mention the importance of getting along with our neighbors, our families, etc.

Now, since my assumption is that the purpose of public schools is to serve the larger public—that is not just to help the individual become smarter and more marketable, but to be the place where society educates the next generation into the knowledge and values that are required to sustain and maintain itself. In the case of our country, I see that as helping create a democratic citizenry of a pluralistic society.

This leads me to challenge what we just take for granted—what is the purpose of schools. Most of use rarely think deeply about this question, and assume it is self evident—and that it is primarily “academic.”

But how about this thought experiment; What if we turned this on its head? What if we thought the primary responsibility of schools was to get a citizenry that has a strong social/emotional education? That our schools’ responsibility was to have graduates that had a strong sense of self-knowledge, that are good at managing their own emotions? Graduates that know how to be empathetic, that know how to effectively work with others, and be sensitive to others. Academics, P.E., the Arts, Nutrition, etc., might be seen as instrumental to living an emotionally and socially satisfying life and to contributing to the social and emotional health of the larger society. Just a thought.

If I Were in Charge Part 2

People sometimes ask me what I think needs to be done with the schools. This is really a two part question for me. One part is the policy side—what should or should or should not be required. The other part of the question is what are my ideas of what a good school and good teaching look like, which does not imply I believe in mandating those ideas even if I could. In my previous blog, I addressed the first part of the question. Now I will briefly tackle the second part.

A good test of schooling is whether one would send one’s own children there. Those who have read my other blogs entries know I favor progressive/constructivist pedagogy. That means that students have to be engaged in activities that matter to them in order to learn. The more those activities are connected authentically to the kinds of activities one engages in outside of school, the more likely what they learn can and will be used beyond school. There is both the need for students to be able follow their own personal interests and abilities, and expanding those interests.

One also needs to think bout how the experience of school shapes both what a student learns about, and what kind of climate and culture they learn it in. As psychologists such as Vygotsky, Bandura, Wenger and many others have shown, we learn more indirectly from how we experience the world, and watching how the adults in our world act and interact, than we do from any explicit instruction. Therefore, as much as possible the school should recreate the kind of culture, society we want our students to learn to be part of.

There is a built in tension in a democracy, between individual rights and pursuits, while recognizing that we are also part of a larger society. Fascist and totalitarian states focus on the state over the individual, and so schools in such a culture would teach students to obey and focus on obedience to higher authority. In an anarchist or libertarian state it would focus on the rights and liberties of the individual (would such a system even have public schooling, much less compulsory schooling?).

In my school students work not just individually, but also with others, others who are both alike and different than themselves. That in itself is one of the most important skills that I see any citizen needs. Most of what we do in life is in collaboration with others, in both the work and civic spheres. Humans are, by nature, social animals. The way a school and its curriculum is organized takes that into account. It means assessments that are part of the learning process and that mimic or are actual real life products or performances for the most part.

Long term projects would be at the center of most learning activities, activities that require students to integrate a variety of skills and abilities across disciplines. This mimics the kinds of activities and work people engage in for the most part outside of school. Real learning takes place when we work at real tasks that matter. The more in-depth the project is, the deeper the learning will be, and the more likely it will stay with us. Such learning takes time.

Students would sty with the same teacher for a minimum of two years. Deep learning takes deep relationships, and when teachers and students only work together for one year, those deep relationships are hard to build, with the family as much as with the student. If you are changing whom you work with too often, it gets hard to put in the investment in the relationship.

The school would be run collaboratively among the faculty. While it is important for all members of the school community to have a say, how much say would vary depending on the kinds of decision. Major curricular decisions would be the purview of the teaching faculty.

Another aspect is school size. Most of the above ideas are hard to implement in a large school. The larger the numbers of people the more such institutions must make decisions based on expediency and the smooth running of the institution rather on the educational needs of the students. Also, the number of people needs to be small enough so that the school can be a community where all members actually can get to know each other over time.

Some people claim such schooling is only appropriate for the gifted, or is not practical, and could not work in the real world. However, as I have documented in earlier blogs, the evidence is quite strong that it does work, and that actually such practices are probably more important for the disadvantaged than the advantaged, since the advantaged get so many of these advantages outside of school.

Second Language Acquisition

Which non English speaking immigrant child would be better off academically and in learning English, the student entering our school system in kindergarten, or one entering in fourth grade? The obvious common sense answer is the kindergartner, as they can begin their schooling and start learning English sooner. Like many things that seem obvious and just common-sense, it happens not to be true.

In reality it is a lot more complicated, with lots of factors that would influence which student would actually be better off—but all things being equal, the fourth grader is likely to be in a better position. Why, how could this be?

Ban bilingual educationThe main theory that explains this counter-intuitive reality is a concept called the Common Underlying Language Proficiency (CULP). This theory, developed by Jim Cummins, explains that languages are really not separate entities, but that when we learn language, we learn… language. That most of what we learn as we learn our first language is actually a base for any language we may end up speaking. And any concepts we learn in our first language we do not have to relearn in a second language, only the words that go with those concepts. In other words, the differences in languages are mostly superficial, but the underlying structures are mostly held in common.

In practice what this means is that those who have a solid base in their first language have an advantage in learning a second language. Five-year-olds do not yet have a solid base in their first language; nine- or ten-year-olds, much more so. And we are still developing our use of complex grammatical structures well into adolescence. Therefore, actually, the older you are the quicker you are likely to pick up a second language—again all other factors being equal. This means that, as Stephen Krashen has put it, the older students has had de facto bilingual education.

One thing that makes this appear not to be so is that five-year-olds only want and need to express 5-year-old ideas, which are fairly simple to express. Ten- or 20-year-olds want to express more complex ideas, and so, while they can express 5-year-old type ideas as quickly or more quickly than a 5-year-old, that does not seem adequate and makes them appear less fluent.

A second factor that can make it seem as if children learn language easier is that older second language learners are less likely to be in immersion situations. Children are more likely to be thrust into situations where there is a need to learn the new language—such as English-only schooling. Such children show early and quick language development at the basic conversational level. However they often plateau after that. Since their oral language appears fluent, when their school success starts falling it is seen as a problem of their intellect rather than language.

What the older child or adult has though, is a command of language and more sophisticated thinking. Language is our tool for that sophisticated thinking. The more developed our language is the better our tool for thought. This is one of the reasons that, in fact, schooling in a second language in the early grades is particularly difficult. Children are just trying to develop abstract thought. As Piaget showed, it is around the ages of 7 and 8 that children move into that stage of more abstract thinking. Along with that thinking is the language needed for those more complex ideas. We clearly can think, express ourselves, most easily in our first language. But much of schooling requires children to engage in decontextualized conceptual activities. This is hard enough in a first language, and even more so in one’s weaker language. This is particularly seen starting in third and fourth grade, which may explain why in many school serving immigrant students, there is a sudden test score drop at those grade levels. Up until then the tests tend to ask more concrete questions which they have the language to handle. When it gets to the more inferential and abstract questions that are asked of third and fourth graders, their language may not have developed to that extent.

All of these factors help explain the advantages of bilingual education. Bilingual education lets a student continue to use and build their primary language while developing the second language. The theory of English-only and immersion is that any time spent in the native language is time taken away from developing English. However the fact is that the two support each other, rather than compete with each other. The best and most successful bilingual programs have students still studying in their primary language into adolescence (as they simultaneously built the second language). Immersion works with adults who have already a firm foundation in their native tongue.  (And even then we rarely expect them to be studying new academic content in that language as they learn it).

Another reason bilingual education is effective is the socio-cultural one, and in fact may be at least as, if not more, important (for an excellent full discussion of why and how this works read Jim Cummin’s Negotiating Identities). Many immigrant students are part of stigmatized groups—such as Mexican immigrants in this country, where the media portrays them as inferior. They get a clear and constant message from the dominant culture that their language and culture is less than desirable. This interferes seriously with feelings of self-worth which in turns interferes with learning. In some students it makes them not want to use their native language, which also interferes with their language development (not to mention with family communication!). Schools that have bilingual/multicultural curriculum can counteract this message. The most successful of these programs have students from the dominant culture learning side by side with immigrant students. This way, at least some of the time, the immigrant students are the “experts,” putting them on a more equal footing, a position rarely found in traditional schooling.

This is, of course, also leaving out the advantages of having a populous that is bilingual! Many people argue, “Well they can learn their native language at home.” Yet we do not expect English-speaking children to learn to read and write and develop sophisticated language at home! Many immigrant children actually lose their native language if schooled in English-only settings, and very few end up being literate in their native tongue. Being bilingual is advantageous in terms of intelligence, economics, as well as socially and culturally. Why would we not want to preserve that? (Oh, I know—that might give language minority students an advantage! Can’t have that. Am I being cynical?).

I have oversimplified many ideas here, and left out other factors as well, but I hope that in this short essay, I have clarified a few of the ideas behind language acquisition and bilingual education.

Is this just a nice theory? Well, if you read my previous post, the evidence backs it up.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

On the theme of popular ideas that I feel a need to critique….

Bloom’s taxonomy has been around for a long time as an aid to teachers, presented as a hierarchy of sophistication of thinking. I was first introduced to it when I started teaching in the 1980s. The college where I currently teach asks all of their instructors to keep it in mind when developing and teaching their courses.

I have two central problems with Bloom’s taxonomy, both of which I will discuss. Then I will mention how it can be used positively.

First of all, when I have used Bloom’s list, or the new revised list, to analyze a lesson and to think about which categories are being tapped into, I find it hard to pigeonhole activities or questions. My teacher education students and I often find that we can put the same questions into multiple categories depending on how we interpret them. In other words, real ideas and lessons do not seem to fit neatly into these categories, and getting agreement on categories is not intuitive, making them less useful. For instance the top of the six categories is: Creating, putting information together in innovative ways. But “Applying” (third level from bottom) on one chart I am reading is listed as using the knowledge gained (level 2) in new ways. What is the difference between applying knowledge in a new way and being creative or innovative?


A bigger problem I have with Bloom’s taxonomy is that they are presented as a hierarchy, and Bloom meant them that way. In this hierarchy the first stage is knowledge or remembering. In other words, rote learning comes first. The next level, understanding, is that then we learn the meaning of what we memorized. Next we learn to apply the knowledge. After that we can analyze it—break it into parts. Then we can judge it. And finally we can use it creatively. For instance, I was told by someone instructing college professors that they would not get to the highest category with undergraduates, but should reserve that for graduate students!

If Bloom’s taxonomy were used just as a taxonomy—in other words a description of different types of thinking, I can see them as interesting and possibly useful. But generally they are used in the former way as developmental steps to be gone through, as Bloom designed them to be used.

My experience in elementary school bears this out. The “low achievers” and “remedial students” we are told first need to get the basics, and they are given tasks that focus on rote memorization, factual recall and following instructions. The “advanced” or “gifted” students are given assignments that allow them to be creative and analytical. They are asked to evaluate the characters in the story, to do the creative extension activities, and in math they get to do the extra “thinking” problems in the textbook.

This hierarchical idea of thinking ignores what Piaget demonstrated so long ago. Even babies are engaged in all levels of this taxonomy, and the different forms work together synergistically not separately. Learning by rote is the most inefficient way to learn. We are more likely to remember something when it has meaning attached to it. Then even more likely when we apply the knowledge, which is why hands-on and authentic activities are so often recommended. I would want most of the activities that students are engaged in at school to have them using all of these levels of thinking as they carry them out.

Any kindergarten teacher will tell you her kindergartners are creative. In fact there is some research that shows that we actually become less creative and innovative as we progress through school, less able to see the world in new and novel ways, not more so. I hope we do not wait until our students are in graduate school before we let and encourage them be innovative again, the way they naturally were as children.

It is possible to use Bloom’s taxonomy in a positive way. For instance, we create a teaching unit (level 6). We can analyze our unit to see it if includes all the levels of Bloom’s taxonomy (level 4). We apply the unit as we carry out our lessons (level 3), for which we must have understanding and knowledge of our content and pedagogy (levels 1 & 2). As we go along and at the end we evaluate the unit and how it went (level 5).

For a full look at this whole idea of teaching children to think, one should read Franks Smith’s book, To Think.

Differentiated Instruction

One of the buzzwords in education these days is differentiated instruction. In the field of teaching this means that we create different lessons for our different types of students.

Differentiated instruction is the way in which a teacher anticipates and responds to a variety of student needs in the classroom. To meet student needs, teachers differentiate by modifying the content (what is being taught), the process (how it is taught) and the product (how students demonstrate their learning).”  (from http://education-portal.com/academy/lesson/what-is-differentiated-instruction—examples-definition-activities.html)

The idea of differentiation is that some of our students are different—e.g. some are second language learners, some have learning disabilities, some are just behind, some are “gifted” etc. These students need either different lessons, or more commonly alterations and adaptations of the lesson that the “regular” students get.  This is seen as an advance from the one-size-fits-all structure of many lesson plans and textbook lessons. In fact most textbooks now come with suggestions for such adaptations. All of this sounds very good—we are taking seriously that not all students are the same and helping teachers to support such students.


But is this really such a good idea? I am going to critique this theory on a few levels. One, is it realistic? Elementary school teachers already have a massive job on their hands making lessons for each different subject area. Now they have to multiply that by how ever many different types of student they have. An adaptation for their second language learners. But can they assume all their second language learners need the same adaptation? One might be a new comer, another an intermediate speaker. Then there are the students with learning disabilities. But again—each one of these is likely to have a slightly different disability. And we move on to the “gifted” students. And what if some students fall into more than one category? When and how does a teacher find time to create all these adaptations and manage them?

There is also the factor that this approach singles out some students as “normal” and others as “different” needing differentiation. There is a lot of evidence that labels often become self-fulfilling prophesies for students. It also sends a message about normalcy to both groups. How will this effect the self-identity of these students, and the view of them by other students?

So, should we return to the one-size-fits-all approach so as not to single out students and to make teachers jobs easier? This is one of those false choices. These two choices assume a teacher (or textbook) centered approach to learning.

Another option, that progressive educators have been practicing successfully for over a century is to have lessons and teaching units with activities that are open-ended and allow students to find their own approach that meet their individual interests and abilities while still helping them develop necessary skills and abilities. This actually mirrors how people have learned effectively outside of school since time immemorial where people of differing abilities, backgrounds and interests all work together on common tasks. Thematic instruction, project-based approaches often fit this. One common example of this approach is the Writer’s Workshop. All students work on writing a class book, maybe even within a certain genre or topic, but they all get to write what they want within that framework. They each can work at their own pace and ability, and the teacher and their peers all help each other refine their writing.

Larger projects can use this approach as well. Such a project might be the study of an ancient civilization. It might be the investigation of one’s community. It might be an examination of the physical environment. In this approach students investigate, build, write, read, observe, and create around the theme, each at their own level.

I am not going to say this approach is not a lot of work for the teacher, but it is not about creating lots of individual lessons, but rather creating a climate for learning, making the materials and resources available, and then knowing how to support each student to do their best within that framework.

To see a wonderful example of this approach at the elementary level see the video “We All Know Why we are Here”


The more I think about education and learning, the more I see relationships as the key to what really matters. If I think about all the movies I have seen about “great teaching,” both fictional and those “based on a true story,” while the actually teaching going on in them varies enormously, what they all have in common is a teacher that builds caring strong relationships with their pupils, from “To Sir with Love” “Up the Down Staircase” of the 60s, to more recent movies such as “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and “Dangerous Minds.” But of course that portrayal could just be the license of the writers and directors.


But I would say I have found the same in my experience as a teacher. I worked with teachers with many different pedagogical approaches. If you have read my previous columns, you will see it is clear I have strong beliefs abut which are more effective. However, the most consistent thing that I noticed of teachers that appeared to me as more effective was that those teachers all had strong relationships with their students. The students knew their teacher expected them to learn, and was there to help them succeed in doing so.

It was really much for this reason that I decided to become an elementary rather than high school teacher. I did not see it as possible to really build those relationships if every hour I had a new group of students. With elementary school kids I had the same ones all day long. (It is also a reason I have never liked “regrouping” with other teachers—I never saw the trade off as worth the loss in knowing my students fully).

One anecdote. At one place I taught, we were using the Reading Recovery program for our struggling first grade readers. Reading Recovery is a strongly researched based program giving intensive support to the lowest readers in first grade, based on some of the best research of learning to read, with a strong research record of its own, and all the practitioners of it have to be credentialed teachers who have gone through an intensive training in the model. However, as a second grade teacher, my struggling readers did not qualify. So instead we used instructional assistants, who had a rudimentary training in more traditional phonics approaches to work with them. I would argue that second graders who are still struggling with reading are probably actually more difficult candidates, as they have a longer history of failure to overcome.

Yet, in the decidedly non-random and small sample that this consisted of, my instructional assistant succeeded with every one she worked with to at least getting them to the point of breaking the code in learning to read. The same cannot be said of the Reading Recovery program that had about a two-thirds success rate with our students. I attribute it to the strong relationship she built with each of them—letting them know that she believed they each would and could learn to read.

This, maybe, is what worries me most about many of today’s’ educational reforms. They make those relationships more difficult. Scripted curriculum, larger classes and school consolidation. use of technology for instruction, and worst of all, the tactics of fear—trying to scare teachers and students into doing a better job. Each of these, in a different way, makes it slightly more difficult for teacher and students to develop strong relationships.

I am about to embark on teaching an all on-line teacher education course. I will see to what degree this mode allows for and interferes with such relationships.

Assessment in California Teacher Education

(This column is adapted from a talk I gave at the University of Kyoto in January, 2012)

Those in the field of assessment often refer to two important standards that assessments are expected to meet, reliability and validity. Reliability meaning that the same results would be obtained if the assessment were given again, or if a different person was scoring the assessment.

Validity means that the assessment actually measures, assesses, what it claims to be measuring/assessing—and whether it predicts how one will perform in the future (Ormrod, 2005).

One type of validity is “face validity”—that is, it is accepted that the assessment actually does measure what it claims to measure, without needing statistical proof that it does. The road test portion of the driving test might be an example of that: We can easily agree that if we want to know if someone knows how to drive, we can sit in a car with them and watch them drive. Now, what constitutes good enough driving to pass the test, that is where things might get more difficult to agree. Both how good is good enough, and which things matter most, e.g. how well the student parked, used turn signals, obeyed signs, and how much should each count, can be controversial.

Other tests need to have their validity demonstrated. The paper pencil portion of the driving test might be one of those. Do we have any evidence that those who do better on the written portion are actually better drivers?

However, while we accept that the road test has more face validity, we might wonder about its reliability, the possible subjective nature. The written portion is more reliable, you either filled in the correct bubble/answer, or you did not. However, on the driving portion, maybe the traffic conditions were more difficult when you took it than when your friend did, maybe one instructor is tougher grader than another. Maybe he had a fight with his spouse that morning! Despite these shortcomings, we accept the trade-offs as worth the advantages of such an authentic assessment. A built in safeguard is the opportunity for second, third, and as many opportunities as needed to retake the test.

It is easy to create paper and pencil assessments that are reliable and easy to administer. However, how one’s score correlates to real life application of the knowledge or skill that the assessment is designed to measure is harder to determine. Some, such as myself, argue that there is a built in tension between reliability and authenticity. Real life tasks and situation are by their nature not standardizable: Conditions vary, there is ambiguity, and there is more than one right way to approach a situation or problem. Creativity, a very important human trait, cannot be measured, and one’s ability to act effectively in novel situations is also by its nature not standardizable. Therefore to assess one’s ability to use one’s knowledge and skills in real life situation is likely to have a degree of unreliability, unpredictably.

Furthermore, what one person views as good enough, as quality, in most real life applications also varies. A movie I thought was well acted and crafted, my best friend thought was poorly acted and rang false. And that is in movies made by highly paid seasoned professionals! Multiple publishers initially turned down a number of best selling classics in literature.

Compulsory public schooling in the United States was instituted at a particular point in history, with other changes and advances happening. Part of that was the belief in scientific experts and the new field of psychology as a science rather than philosophy, and the invention of standardized intelligence tests. Americans often want to find the one right way (Smith, 1988). Americans are known for their obsession with measuring everything, and putting numbers to everything. This has played into schools in the forms of tests that can be reduced to numerical scores, and a belief that if everyone takes the same test at the same time in the same way, and test is designed by outside experts, it is therefore objective.

Critics of the standardized tests of today point out the shortcomings of such tests: they don’t really have reliability at the individual level, they are culturally biased, and their inauthenticity—their lack of actual validity in terms of measuring any important, useful skill, ability or knowledge beyond the school house walls. They also object to the indirect influence of these tests in encouraging the teaching of discreet skills and rote knowledge that is quickly forgotten once the test is over (Hursh, 2005; Kohn, 2000; Meier, 2002; Ohanian, 1999).

However, it must be remembered that standardized tests were put in place in part as a seemingly fairer alternative to an aristocratic system, where social position and money was what decided who got into the best schools and got the best jobs. Standardized tests were seen as scientifically objective tests, and therefore gave an equal chance to all. One could rise by one’s merit, not relying on family name or wealth (Smith, 1988).

What authentic assessment is proposing to do is to let people show what they know and can do based on merit, but also more accurately than standardized tests reflect the skills and abilities the person should have by seeing how they apply that knowledge in a realistic situation.

Of course even “authentic assessment” is always a matter of degree. Authentic assessments are generally applied in somewhat contrived or hypothetical situations. In school situations it is rarely practical or even possible to have students demonstrate in the real life situation, and even authentic assessments give us just a sample of the full skill being assessed. To go back to the driving test example, even on the road test, not nearly every possible driving situation is encountered. The driver is asked to carry out a predetermined set of maneuvers at the direction of the tester over a relatively short period.

A large issue for authentic assessment is to overcome the issues of “bias,” which is really an issue of reliability—would a different scorer give that person the same score? One way to address this is through multiple assessors. For instance, at some high schools that use portfolio or exhibitions for graduation, such as was developed at Central Park East Secondary School, they use multiple assessors, while also having outside experts examine their system, and watch it in practice to help them improve and refine it (Gold, 1993; Meier, 1995; Meier 2002).

Another common system to obtain more reliability that is used in authentic or performance based assessment systems is to have scorers be calibrated. A set of benchmarks are set up—examples of the performance assessment carried out at different levels, and the scorers are first trained on what qualities to look for, and then they are asked to score these benchmark examples to see if they give them the expected scores. In theory, only when they can consistently give the expected scores are they considered calibrated, and therefore the scores are considered reliable.

I will now discuss efforts in California to bring a more authentic, yet standardized, assessment in a systematic way to credential teachers.

California teachers are given their credential based a variety of factors. Some have been (and still are) standardized paper and pencil tests. However, as we have discussed, there is a sense that these are not good indicators of how well they would actually teach. These tests are used as measures of minimum knowledge of basic skills. On the more authentic side these candidates are placed in classrooms to learn to teach alongside practicing teachers. In most teacher education programs in California, this is a semester long placement. In some, such as where I currently teach, we require two semesters of student teaching. However, some worry about the standards of those assessing that experience. Were they tough enough? Are they consistent? There is no standard set of measures for that experience. The same could be said of the other criteria, that they pass their college courses to become a teacher. Were the standards from one program to another, even one class to another, consistent (Chung, 2005)?

The legislature of the State of California decided to institute a performance based assessment system on top of the other criteria to both provide an authentic, yet valid and reliable way to measure whether a candidate was ready to become a teacher.

Linda Darling Hammond of Stanford University led a consortium of universities with foundation support to develop such a system, called Performance Assessment of California Teachers (PACT) (another similar system was also developed by the Education Testing System, the CalTPA). In the PACT assessment teacher candidates develop a 3-5 day lesson plan in mathematics or reading, they carry out the lessons in their placement, and videotape those lessons. They document all of this, providing a detailed description of the context where they taught the lesson, describing the school, the classroom and what they know about the students. They provide the lesson plans, and some discussion about those lesson plans. They reflect on what happened when they gave the lessons, what changes they made along the way, and what changes they might make if they were to give these lessons again. They select a 20-minute portion of the video for the portfolio, and discuss what is in that portion. They also provide examples of the assessment used in the lesson from three students of varying abilities. They discuss what they saw overall in reviewing the student assessment, and what they learned about the three students in particular.

This portfolio is then read and scored on a set of 12 rubrics. Several rubrics address issues of planning, several look at the execution of the lessons, several others look at the issue of assessment. The issue of how the lessons helped student access and learn “academic language” is also assessed by two of the rubrics. The people who score these assessments go through a two day scoring and calibration training, and must re-calibrate every year.

In practice, despite the training and calibration, there are still sometimes disagreements (if a student fails, it automatically gets scored by a second scorer. Randomly ten percent get two scorers to check reliability). While in the large majority of cases we probably score the candidates similarly, there are cases where we have scored them quite differently. In such a system, there is room for interpretation. If the rubric asks us if the lesson was appropriate for the students, or the teacher gave clear feedback, what one of us interprets as appropriate or clear may not be the same as another.

These are the trade-offs for a more authentic system. For everything we do, that we add, something is also lost, traded. On the positive side, in my institution it has meant that we have had dialog among the faculty about creating a more cohesive experience for the student. However, as many high stakes assessment systems can do, preparing our students for the assessment itself has taken significant university class time, time that used to be spent on content. In that way students may be losing out. Some also wonder to what extent is the ability to write well, to theorize being assessed, rather than the actual ability to teach. Though assessors are told that the writing itself is not being assessed, it is for the most part a written assessment, albeit of a performance (along with the short video clip).

It is certainly a system that is more uniform than what was in place before. From my experience with the system, it does appear that the stakes have been raised for student teachers. Are the teachers who have now gone through this system, better prepared? Are we better at keeping out unprepared teachers, while not excluding prepared ones through this system? That is a much more difficult question to answer for which there are no solid “facts.”

The problem in the United States is that people are looking for a foolproof “fair” system. The attempt is to avoid human judgment, which by its nature full of biases and well, judgment! Standardized tests, paper pencil tests, offer us the illusion of avoiding judgment, but it just moves such judgment to the creator of the test. It offers reliability often at the cost of meaningfulness.

In the United States we rely on human judgment for our criminal justice system, our courts—very important high stakes decision—and while mistakes are made, maybe even often, it is seen as better than the alternative. Authentic assessment systems at heart require the same faith. A faith that the trade-off of allowing for human judgment is better than the reductionism required to assess in a standardized form. I believe we need to bring more of such human judgment back to our educational system.


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