The “I Ching” teaches that “Before there can be great brilliance… there must be chaos.”
This is PART 2 in a series of blog posts that document our research, strategic thinking, observations and debates as we take on one of the last vestiges of the industrial revolution: the practice in schools of organizing kids into grade levels according to their chronological age.
This past week we completed the 2009 version of the California Standards Test. It is a standards-based test designed to assess the degree to which children mastered the standards at their grade level. If they get higher than a scaled score of 350, they will be considered “proficient” and everyone will be happy.
Of course, anything less than that means they are “not at grade level” and it will be a reason for great concern. And if 45% of our overall students or 45% of our Latino students or 45% of our English language learners are not at grade level, the state of California will declare us to be a “Program Improvement” school.
So here is what I don’t get.
If we have a standards-based curriculum, and students’ mastery of those standards is determined by a standards-based assessment (in our state: the California Standards Test), then why aren’t kids grouped in classrooms according to their mastery of those standards ? In other words… a true, standards-based school.
Where do we see standards-based schools? In that Taekwondo studio down the street– the one in your neighborhood strip mall.
In Taekwondo and other martial arts, students are assigned a white belt until they demonstrate mastery of ALL of the techniques, blocks, kicks, forms, and philosophies that are taught at that beginning of the learning continuum. They advance through the curriculum- color belt by color belt– until they reach the level of black belt. There is a high price to pay for not mastering all of those blocking and striking techniques if you spar with another black belt so Taekwondo instructors tend to promote students only when they are ready to be promoted.
Not so in your school or mine.
The significant difference is that in Taekwondo we group students by their demonstrated competence. In public schools we group kids according to 1) their chronological age and 2) the grade level they were sitting in when the clock ran out at the end of the game last June. Our 11 years-olds are fifth graders no matter what level of mastery they have attained in school. And next month, they will become 6th graders and they will struggle to catch up all year until it is time to take the California Standards Test again. When that time comes, they will be handed the Sixth Grade Test– not because they are ready for it… but merely because we placed them in a student grouping called “Sixth Grade”!
So what if we organized our students for instruction like they do in so many of the schools for the martial arts– in a mastery-based model that is thousands of years old instead of the archaic system that we all perpetuate today where students are promoted merely because it is June outside.
I have a pretty good idea what would happen and I’ll bet you do too. Some of it would be good… especially for students and teachers. But some of it would create such profound dissonance within the “testing and accountability system” that my school will face absolutely blistering criticism. And maybe worse.
So we are going to have to think this through. And we are going to need your help.
Cross-posted, in part, on Leadertalk