3 ways to build the differentiated, equitable school of tomorrow

3 Ways to Build the Differentiated, Equitable School of Tomorrow - TLG-IMG-10032019When looking back at the vision of the future in the 1950s and 1960s—think Epcot or The Jetsons—I’m always struck by how well this vision captured the spirit of what the future would look like, even as it often missed important details.

A great example is a comic from 1958 titled “The push-button school of tomorrow.” It describes the future as follows: “Teaching would be by means of sound movies and mechanical tabulating machines. Pupils would record attendance and answer questions by pushing buttons. Special machines would be ‘geared’ for each individual student so he could advance as rapidly as his abilities warranted. Progress records, also kept by machine, would be periodically reviewed by skilled teachers, and personal help would be available when necessary.”

The future is here

There’s much that 1958 comic got right. More than 60 years later, class sizes are ballooning and teacher numbers dwindling. The mechanical tabulating machines on each kid’s desk aren’t all that different from Chromebooks and iPads. Most importantly, technology’s purpose in that imaginary classroom is all about differentiation; “‘geared’ for each individual student,” it facilitates taking frequent formative assessments and providing individualized support based on that data.

As the sophistication of schooling grows, we should look for ways to enhance and empower the functions of a good teacher, rather than attempting to replace them.”

The key problem with the comic, however, is the vision of teaching detached from the classroom, a “sage on the screen.” No present or future technologies will replace the emotional, motivational, and academic supports a high-quality (and in person!) teacher provides. But technology can certainly overpower us if we let it. As the sophistication of schooling grows, we should look for ways to enhance and empower the functions of a good teacher, rather than attempting to replace them.

Building the right present—and future

What would it mean for technologies like those described here to continue to empower teachers? In my mind, three major things are needed:

1. Give teachers time. Teachers need time to motivate, set goals, work with small groups, and make sophisticated decisions based on both assessment data and academic standards. As Bruce Fuller, Luke Dauter, and Anisah Waite argue in Handbook of research on teaching, the cadence of the work of teaching must adapt to the reality of the work becoming more nebulous, independent, and complex. Teachers must be given greater authority to organize their day, collaborate with colleagues, and direct learning activities.

At NWEA, we’re hard at work on tools that reduce the time teachers spend administering assessments, translating results, and connecting those results to instructional content, from offering MAP® Reading Fluency™ and a new MAP® Growth™ Family Report to forming a partnership with Khan Academy that will make it easier for teachers to quickly connect to instructional resources.

Still, it’s incumbent on administrators, district leaders, school boards, and policymakers to recognize the value of the time teachers spend planning, collaborating, and learning. It is often the time spent outside the classroom that amplifies the impact of the time spent inside it.

2. Leverage high-quality data to create a unique learning path for each student, one on which teachers act as guides instead of bosses. Using student-centered technology to free teachers to be directors of learning—and to allow students to start where they are—does not happen just by plopping a tabulating machine on every desk. It also requires using that technology to better understand what students know and can do, then using that understanding to inform individual learning plans for each student. This practice of “sensemaking” relies on teachers making sense of what data means for them—in their own context—as Vincent Cho and Jeffrey Wayman explain.

The NWEA Professional Learning team works to help educators build the skills they need to understand high-quality assessment, connect assessment results with curriculum, and make formative practices a seamless and culturally attenuated part of regular instruction.

Through both our MAP Suite and formative instructional practice professional learning offerings, teachers can learn how to use different assessments as complementary and additive sources of information about what students know. They can also learn how to use assessment data to plan lessons, differentiate instruction for all learners, help students set goals, and give students ongoing feedback on their learning. Together, these strategies can produce a learning experience that is uniquely tailored to and appropriate for each student.

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3. Use technology to avoid either/or choices between achievement and growth, or between formative assessment and assessment for other purposes. Technology can help us analyze and interpret individual student data more and more effectively so we can become increasingly capable of understanding student outcomes. Applying that understanding lets us see the whole child, not just parts of them. A holistic view is not only in the best interest of students; it is also a requirement of the increasingly complex world in which kids learn.

Here the role of assessment literacy in particular is critical. As Serafina Pastore and Heidi Andrade explain, recent understandings of assessment literacy—including the current InTASC Model Core Teaching Standards—underscore the importance of using the appropriate assessment for each assessment purpose while also using assessment data to communicate student progress, measure students against content standards, and give students responsibility over their own learning, among other goals.

It’s incumbent on administrators, district leaders, school boards, and policymakers to recognize the value of the time teachers spend planning, collaborating, and learning.”

Connecting the dots

What these three items have in common is the importance of the human element: ensuring teachers have the requisite knowledge and skills necessary to use student data to strengthen instructional practice and also establishing a culture in which open inquiry into using data is expected and normal.

It is not enough to put a new technology in front of the student and hope for the best. The mindset toward change—and the resources leveraged to support the people who enact change—mark the difference between technology that empowers and technology that perpetuates inequity and learning gaps. At NWEA, we have the good fortune of working each day with partners who deeply understand that idea and implement sophisticated approaches to assessment use that drive learning on the individual student level.


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