Are High Test Scores the Measure of a Quality School?

My oldest daughter, Julia, is half way through her junior year in high school. On the morning of the third full day of review for mid-term exams this week, my phone began vibrating across my office desk. It was a text from Julia.

                THIS IS SO STUPID!! – 9:32 am

I figured she was texting her friends about what was going on in her class, so I thought I would let her know her message did not reach its intended recipient.

                I think you sent this to the wrong person. What is so stupid? – 9:34 am

She responded immediately.

                No I meant 2 send it 2 u lol. Just sayin I could be doin same stuff @ home. 9:34 am

We have had this conversation before – how pointless it is for teachers to regurgitate information for hours on end without any real thinking or learning going on – so I thought I would try to be understanding.

              Got it. But if you were home you could do it more effectively and comfortably, right?                              Frustrating, I know.- 9:38 am

Fifteen minutes later the next text came.

                It’s so annoying!! And I still have 4 more stupid pointless hours. 9:53 am

I thought I would try to add a little levity to the situation to maybe at least put a smile on her face.

                The German philosopher Nietzsche said it best, “What doesn’t kill you makes you                                stronger.” 10:10 am

At that the texts stopped. I imagined her grimmacing, knowing she wasn’t going to be excused, and then probably trying to find some productive use of her time without getting yelled at for not paying attention. It wasn’t until later that I found out her class had ended around 10:15, and she went to lunch. I know I always eat my lunch at 10:15 in the morning, as I’m sure many of you do.

As her next class started the texts began, again.

                I don’t know, this just might kill me. Didn’t the Nazis use that quote in their prison camps.                     Can’t you get me out of here? – 11:10 am

I don’t think it is a good idea to bail your kids out of most situations, especially one so benign, so I simply responded…

                Sorry. – 11:14 am

Then, as kids can do, came a barrage of pleading and bargaining.

                Please this is so bad – 11:16 am

I’ll pick up Sophia (her younger sister) from school – 11:17 am

                So she won’t have to suffer in the cold – 11:17 am

                 Because I am a good and caring person who should’t have to suffer from this torture                          11:18 am

                 If you have a change of heart, here’s the office number xxx-xxxx. 11:18 am

I didn’t have a change of heart, but it does break my heart that students around our great nation need to suffer through so much mind-numbing activity when we know better. Shame on us for allowing this to continue. Unfortunately, Julia’s experiences are not uncommon, but they do help illustrate my point.  Let’s start with a simple one.

Julia’s alarm goes off at 5 am every morning so she is ready to leave for school by around 6:15 am, unless she has chess club, or student council. On those days she has meetings before school so she has to leave substantially earlier. We know that the typical biorhythms of a teenage brain make it difficult to go to sleep at night, and produce profound sleepiness in the morning. If you don’t believe me, look for the research that has come out of the sleep labs at Stanford, Brown, Harvard, UCLA and basically any other sleep lab around the globe, or just sit in on a high school class that starts at 7 am.

On the other hand, elementary age students usually have biorhythms that allow them to easily fall asleep at night, and they tend to jump up almost fully awake in the morning. If you have children you can probably relate to the first time you woke up to your child breathing on your face, or jumping cheerfully on your head at 6 am on a Saturday morning. Regardless of this information, and that we also know the brain must be alert in order to learn, we continue to drag teenagers out of bed at what feels to them like the middle of the night, while our elementary students are often ready for a nap by the time they start their school day. I am exaggerating for effect, of course, but you get the point.

So what drives this decision-making? I have been asking school leaders this question for decades and do you know what they all tell me? Sports schedules! In order for one district to switch their elementary and secondary schedules, all middle school and high school sports schedules in that region would have to change. Therefore, in order for one district to change, all districts would have to change. There are other factors, but school administrators seem overwhelmed with the magnitude of this one challenge. We hear endless chatter about needing to fix our failing schools. Well, how serious are we about student learning if we can’t even address the simpler challenges.

Through my daughter’s text, I also realized that she eats lunch before 10:30 am five days per week. I know, I know, a good father should have known this before the school year is half over. According to a literature review conducted by Jerome Siegel of UCLA, nutritional status, along with a number of other variables we can control in the school environment are “vital for optimal performance in learning.” I won’t spend the time here to discuss the nutritional options students are provided at lunch, or the fact that snacks and water are not officially allowed in class even though they are needed for optimal performance throughout the day. What is clear is that many students do not get the fuel they need throughout the day to learn optimally.

Another obvious point from Julia’s text is that the primary pedagogy being used by her teachers is direct instruction. Julia lamented that this is not just during exam review, but their primary mode of learning every hour of every day throughout the year. “Just in time” direct instruction is essential, but the research is clear that lecture and worksheets is one of the least effective ways to learn. Julia comes home exhausted most days – not from hard work – but rather from having to sit quietly and listen all day. Now with exams looming, her teachers had decided that trying to cram as much information into students’ heads as possible for three solid days is an effective way to prepare them to succeed on their exams.

There are anomalies, of course. Julia’s Medical Health class is hands-on, as well as classes like art, music, and PE. There have been the occasional academic teacher over the years that has employed project-based learning, but these are far and few between. I don’t want to single out our school district. I have worked in urban, rural and suburban schools across the country and it is safe to say that direct instruction, and the “drill and kill” worksheet methodology is pervasive in secondary schools nationwide. One major difference in suburban districts like ours, however, is that parents tend to have more time, money, and education to help their children succeed in spite of the school.

Julia did survive her “day of torture”, but the first thing she grumbled at me when she walked in the door was “the only even remotely interesting thing I did all day was text with you. I don’t know why they just don’t give us the information to read or let us Google it ourselves. I don’t need someone to tell me something over and over that I can read on my own.”

On another note, I find it interesting that our district is part of the League of Innovative Schools, our district leader has been named a “Tech Savvy Superintendent” and Julia’s high school is a “Blue Ribbon” school. The use of cell phones and texting is not officially allowed in her school. In fact, the only technology Julia uses in instruction on a regular basis is in the hands-on Medical Health class I mentioned above. I don’t think my daughter’s experiences are unique. There are decades of research on the lack of student engagement, especially in secondary schools. Today, however, students and parents are beginning to question the relevancy of public school education and are looking for more meaningful and engaging opportunities. This makes me ponder a couple of important questions:

  1. “Are the current ways we measure a school’s success an accurate measure of a school’s quality, or are students achieving in higher performing districts in spite of the school?”
  2. “What is the most effective way to help all districts transform their learning and teaching practices, and if they don’t change their practices soon, what is going to happen to the public education system?”

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.
Chief Operating Officer
One-to-One Institute

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