44. A Nation at Risk Updated

The small group of leaders is trying to shape strategies for introducing the proposal from the language arts subject area committee to the curriculum council. But the council itself will need to sell the idea to the district’s board, educators, parents of students and patrons.

Once those hurdles are surmounted, another challenge is to convince governmental and professional bodies charged with accrediting the district.

In this story the team of leaders analyzes the 1983 A Nation at Risk report. They agree with its descriptions of the kind of nation we seek.

They disagree with strategies the report offers, centered on a return to traditional techniques for creating and supporting curriculum and instruction. 

Also rejected is the suggestion that student learning and other indicators of achievement can be discerned through measurable data-generating techniques. Techniques such as standardized tests and other statistically compatible instruments and indices.

The leaders see a disconnect between the 1983 aspirations for this nation and the report’s means for reaching those goals.

But they agree student mastery must be the primary goal in 1983 and the future.

The future includes COVID-induced logistical, political, and emotionally charged issues. Mastery of subject matter is still the foundation of educational excellence.

But what is the distinction between “learning” and “mastery?” Are they synonymous?

But learning the alphabet is a far cry from mastering language as a rich communicative medium. The same for learning basic arithmetic and mastering mathematics as a sophisticated computational tool.

Learning is the result of cognitive development. Mastery operates at a high level of cognition, depicted in complex human behaviors that exceed the mundane.

The “A Nation at Risk” report vigorously rejected minimum competency tests. The report’s well-written narratives depict a “learning society” that goes far beyond minimal learning. It defines a “learning society” as having intellectual rigor, a kind of human interaction that transcends the ordinary.

The “ordinary” can be classified as based on remembering and understanding. The two lowest levels in Bloom’s Taxonomy of Cognitive Development. Outcomes most often applied in traditional schools. Accepted by the public. Measured on pencil and paper tests.

True/false, multiple choice, short answer, matching, and fill-in-the-blank tests. Easy to create, evaluate and score. Designed to be valid (measuring what is intended) and reliable (consistent results over time). Scores aggregated and used as a database to determine levels of scholastic achievement.

But how should we define scholastic achievement? Using tests that merely check for remembering and understanding only scratch the surface. Mastery is more akin to the four learning categories: applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating.

Applying is the third level up in Bloom’s Taxonomy, “learning by doing.”  Scholastically, not simply another way to describe an apprenticeship or on-the-job training. How someone THINKS about what is being done.

Analyzing is the fourth tier, given more gravitas than a mere examination of something. Systematically or scientifically analyzing a condition or occurrence requires a strong foundation of previously existing knowledge.

Evaluating is close to the top of the hierarchy and was once preeminent. Only significant if the one who evaluates has the scholastic and cognitive credentials to precisely examine something and draw valid conclusions.

Creating is at the top. Once lower in the Taxonomy but now rightly reclassified. Creative social leaders in politics, government, medicine, law, the arts, business, science, technology, architecture, and engineering were not always good public-school students. For them, “school was boring or irrelevant.” Their creative abilities were being ignored, as was their ability to transcend the ordinary through the power of insight and challenging intellectual engagement.

The ability to create incorporates the five categories lower in the Taxonomy. Creativity does not operate independently from those other cognitive forms. New ideas are not generated in an intellectual vacuum.

As the work of our school district leaders continue, they will conclude that mastery is the key selling point. To gain acceptance of the new learning infrastructure among stakeholder groups.

 But it must be explained in ways that make sense to those who hold diverse political and philosophical opinions.

Rebecca Reflects on What It Takes to Gain Public Acceptance

One disadvantage for a public-school administrator with a doctorate is that colleagues believe it is symbolic of deep knowledge, wisdom, and insight. What it really means is that I chose to enter a domain in which one is expected to think based on evidence generated by systematic research.

The most successful doctoral student associates were not always the best students in public school or undergraduate university programs. Some were genuine mavericks. They did not appreciate being constrained within academic boxes.

Many exemplary public-school students who enter doctoral programs never finish. The usual reason is “ABD” — “all but dissertation.” They complete the coursework but are unable to make the leap to independent or creative thinking and acting. They meet explicitly issued expectations but are unable to independently and vociferously develop or pursue an idea.

I was an above average public school and undergraduate university student which helped my GPA as I applied for a graduate program. A good foundation for the master’s degree.

But the PhD program was a different challenge. Three characteristics were essential for my success: unmitigated determination, risk-taking, and a fascination with problem solving.

All three were developed in me by my family. Phrases such as: “Johnsons never give up.” “Accomplishing the impossible takes a little longer.” “Eat the problem-solving elephant one bite at a time.”  

My gender was no excuse. My parents wanted me to have a happy family life.

But relationships are valuable only to the extent they support who we aspire to be as individuals.

I prepared to participate in the next meeting with Ken, Barbara, and Bryon.  Ready to suggest that we do some “shark tank” thinking. Convincing as many people as possible that this district is serious about student mastery and how it is achieved.

©2021 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

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