A LYS Superintendent asks the following:

I would like to hear your thoughts on the subject of student choice. I have been meeting with a panel of high school students, which I have thoroughly enjoyed.  The message that I consistently hear from our students is they are interested in learning, but want more freedom to explore topics that interest them.  That makes sense when you think about things from their perspective.  Netflix, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc., allow them to choose what, where, and when they “learn” pretty much everywhere except at school. 

As a result of what I have heard from our students, I’ve been reading about the benefits of student choice.  As expected, giving students a choice, or autonomy, in what they learn increases student motivation and engagement. 

The obvious question is how can we give students autonomy in their learning in Texas?  What students learn is pre-determined (TEKS).   I may be missing something here but it seems to me our ability to allow students to explore their interests is greatly restricted by our accountability system, thus reducing student engagement and motivation.  While not a fan of our current accountability system, I do believe assessment is essential and accountability with the right perspective is beneficial.  Is there a way we can have the best of both worlds, can we give students autonomy and still measure learning?    Thanks.

SC Response Great questions. Here are some of my initial thoughts, as a practitioner and realist.

When it comes to student choice, I have to carve out a path in the middle.

I do think that students should have some flexibility to pursue their interests.  But I also know that they are children, and part of our job is to prepare them for success in an increasingly competitive world.

Which means that I place an emphasis on literacy, numeracy, critical thinking, complex problem solving and being multi-lingual.  I’m OK with this, because that is my responsibility and to repeat my favorite modified Dagget quote, “In America we need to realize that the DEGREE matters.  We need more scientists, engineers, mathematicians, doctors, researchers and programmers. We have all the SOFT DEGREE holders that we need.”

Now I can still offer a lot of varied courses and meet this mandate.  I just make sure that my electives use their content to teach the critical core.  For example, my art classes can teach applied geometry.  Do this and your campus will drive instructional relevance off the charts (instead of off the cliff).

We do have to move instruction and learning outside the four walls of the classroom. What that looks like right now, I don’t know.  But I’m not talking about replacing the teacher. I’m talking about leveraging the impact of a good teacher.  This will require an evolving teacher skill set and the sad truth is if we are not willing to pay for this new type of knowledge worker, I don’t think we will ever attract the right kind of candidate.  Leaving schools in a perpetual situation of having an idea of what they want to do, but never quite being able to do it.  

Now for some ugly truth.  I could argue that accountability has a negative impact on teacher innovation and instructional quality.  Except that teacher innovation and instructional quality, at scale, was never there in the first place.  If you look at the past 25 years, accountability has moved the bar simply because we now teach more students poorly instead of choosing which groups of students we will teach poorly.  But understand, I don’t blame the prior generation of educators for this clearly obvious fact. The teachers before us had little in the way of instructional tools and next to no objective research.  Now we have tools and knowledge of best practice – that as a profession we too often fight to not implement.  Throw into the mix that the only meaningful improvements in teacher practice has occurred at campuses facing some level of adversity and the “Accountability stifles us,” complaint falls flat.  However, at this point the State of Texas accountability system is a freaking training wreck. But even with that being true, the real “problem” of accountability is that now doing what we have always done ensures failure. And in spite of years of warnings and arguments to the contrary, too many schools are still doing a lot of what they have always done.

Think. Work. Achieve. Your turn…

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