In Part 1 of this series, “The Hypocritical Carrot”, we looked at standardized testing from a student perspective. Students often feel that the tests are a waste of time and that their teachers and schools’ motivational efforts seem artificial and hypocritical. Student voice is mostly silent and passive but they certainly have opinions nonetheless.
In Part 2, “Learn or I’ll Hurt You” we discussed how standardized testing has turned the tables on teachers. The “learn or I’ll hurt you” model used by generations of teachers to force student learning, is now being used to motivate teachers and schools to improve their outcomes.
Hypocritical carrots attempt to pull improvement forward while threats of punishments attempt to push it. Neither is authentic when not linked to an individual student’s personal development.
Is there a way to avoid the need for both carrot style incentives and “Learn or I’ll hurt you” punishments? We believe that politicians, school districts, administrators, teachers, parents, and students share more common ground than they realize. At the end of the day we all want the same thing. When a students graduate, politicians want them to be well-prepared productive contributors to society and the economy. Parents want their graduates prepared to be successful in their continuing educations, careers, families, friendships, and passions. Districts and schools want their graduates to be ready to compete in all these areas with graduates from other schools around the nation. And the students? They want all of the above!
This is powerful common ground but it is rarely expressed explicitly, or used as a guiding principle to align teenage students with the adults and institutions working on their behalf.
Two major pieces of the puzzle are missing to get all parties on the same page. The first piece is communication. When my colleagues and I explained the modern context of STAR tests (See Part 1: Hypocritical Carrot) not one student remarked that they had heard this news before – it was totally new! (Or at least they understood it for the first time.) Students and their teachers are not having enough genuine conversations about the importance of testing. Distrust and fear exist on both sides. It was clear students did not feel like they were a positive part of this equation.
Teachers and students must engage in an authentic dialogue about what testing is, what it is designed to do, and how it is in the best interest of not only their individual educations, but also the future of our educational system. The conversations and communications need to stretch well beyond testing so an organic sense of trust exists in several arenas.
The second missing piece is a change in the way we think about education both in individual classrooms, and as a country. We have to resist the urge to motivate through punishment and move away from the “learn or I’ll hurt you model” towards an “I’ll help you learn, grow, and succeed” model.
Former Education Undersecretary to President Bush, Dianne Ravich says it well when she states that we need to change the rhetoric about education, “Instead of speaking about punishing, firing, failing, and closing, speak instead about improving, supporting, developing, encouraging, and inspiring.”
If students and teachers can establish a relationship as allies rather than adversaries, everything changes. When students understand and feel that their school and their teachers genuinely want them to be successful, they will be more likely to ask for help when they need it, and work much harder to reach their potential. Teenagers will work and put forth effort if it benefits them directly, or if it benefits someone who has aided them personally. We must move away from indirect benefits and impersonal relationships which at best engender apathy.
Imagine students, teachers, principals, and schools working together as allies all year long. Imagine honest and open communication that flows not only from teacher to student, but also from student to teacher. Imagine a school full of students who believe their teachers and their school are on their side.
The benefits reaped on all sides are innumerable and powerful. When it comes to standardized testing, there will be no need for bribing or begging with hypocritical carrots. Students will want to give back to a school they believe believes in them. Test scores go up. Threats of punishment disappear. Everyone wins.
“OK Tim and Todd. This all sounds great in an imaginary utopia, but would this work in reality? Give me specifics. How can this be done?” It takes time and a focused mission but we’ve experienced something very close to this vision – it can happen.
In our next blog we will outline 5 specific strategies for meeting teens on the edge, intentionally building relationships that put teachers and students on the same side as allies, and closing the Great Rift.