Painting the Clouds

Broadmoor Hotel RoomMy Dad would say, “You’re in High Cotton, son!”  Snap, and I’ve left Greensboro, North Carolina, and landed at The Broadmoor Hotel near Colorado Springs.  It was late when I got here last night and still dark this morning, so I haven’t seen the place from the outside.  But this is the first hotel room where the first thing I wanted to do when I walked in was pull out my camera and take a picture (see at the right).  It’s not my style, but I’m impressed.

I’ll be speaking to the Colorado Association of School Boards today and then going home tomorrow morning, for a couple of days.  But while I was flying west, a conversation I had at NCETC haunted me.

First, I want to say, I am certain that the two people I’ll be referring to a  good, caring, talented educators, with the very best intentions at heart.  I feel a bit uncomfortable and even sneaky reporting on the conversation here, but I am pretty sure that this is important — either in terms of my objections or in terms of finding, from you, that I’m wrong.

It was a teacher and a principal of an elementary school in a rural county of North Carolina.  I asked my usual question, “What’s knocked your socks off?”  The young one, the teacher, 4 years experience, started telling me about a web service that they are excited about.  She was practically bubbling.  I listened.  Then she described an online assessment service that was tied directly to the North Carolina standards, and that it would enable the teachers to frequently test their students’ mastery of specific standards,  evaluate their strategies, and adapt. 

Now normally, I’m losing interest at this point, but she was so excited, I have to say it was contagious.  My skeptic antenna stayed put, and I started proding with questions.  The principal, then, described the assessment tool that they were currently using, and how it worked, and I interrupted.  “So how good has your current assessment tool been at predicting performance on the state’s End of Grade test?

She looked at me, and said, “Terrible!”  She said, we were so excited and proud, and proud of our students, when testing time came, because they were doing so well with the assessments.  But then, the test scores came back and they were very bad (don’t recall the descriptive word she used).  This is why they are so excited about the new tool, that seems better aligned with the style of the NC tests.

OK, most of the readers here know where I’m going with this, so there’s no need to elaborate.  But as we were climbing to our cruising altitude last night, approaching the Appalachian mountains, I thought, we’re trying to paint the clouds.  Our kids are not a picket fence with identical rails you can paint.  They’re all different, they all have different strengths and weaknesses, talents and challenges, surfaces and depths — and they’ll all need to know different things for their futures, futures we can’t even describe.  Certainly they need to learn certain basic literacy skills (which we’re still trying to redefine).  And we need to be sure these skills are attained.

Sunset Photo from Flickr Creative CommonsBut when we teach kids how to pass tests, we’re trying to paint a picture on to something that just want hold it.  Looking out to the west, and seeing the setting sun shine through the ubiquitous clouds of the Smokies, I felt that this is how to get your picture.  Not by painting the clouds, but by showing the sun shine through the clouds.  Empower learners to surprise you with their brilliance.

And, perhaps even more important, what did those children think, when they’d been so successful with the schools assessment practices, only to fail the state test.  What do schools mean to these children.  How long will they stay in those schools?

2¢ Worth!

Image Citation:
Sparrow, Tom. “Flying Sunset.” Tomsparrow’s Photostream. 11 Sep 2007. 30 Nov 2007 <>.

8 thoughts on “Painting the Clouds”

  1. What does it say about me/us in education that I can completely understand her enthusiasm? All she has been taught, as a teacher in the modern system, is to go for the test! How can we blame her for wanting to do the job she has been hired to do the best she can do it? And why shouldn’t she be excited about a tool that will help her and her students achieve high levels of competency in relation to the standards that exist?

    I am sure your words were not really directed at her but more for the folks up the chain of command from her where they rightly should fall. I can’t imagine that she has any real say about the content she is allowed to deliver or about how she is supposed to deliver it. Good for her that she got excited about doing her job better, and even more good for her that she is looking toward tech tools to assist in that goal. Shame on the system for making that the most exciting thing she saw at the conference.

  2. David, I understand your frustration. I am sitting in the lobby at TETC in Nashville watching all the “techies” going to sessions. A friend and I are together blogging, updating wikis, sendint out Twits, Skyping other educators to discuss teaching practices, and training a few passersby who are interested in what we are doing. Others just look at us as if we are from another planet. Very few have laptops with them. I sat in a Web 2.0 conference yesterday and was singled out by the presenter because I was blogging during the session. With our teachers coming to tech conferences without using technology, how can we expect them to think any higher than moving their paper assessments to the computer?

  3. Scott makes an interesting reference to the chain of command. I teach in CT and the chain of command goes right up to the state level where in the name of 21st century education the state is debating new social standards, a more universal curriculum students mastery of which will be assessed by a standardized test. There is nothing 21st Century about any of that. High standards should be set for teachers and students and we all should be assessed – but according to those standards. Unfortunately it seems to me that the least expensive, easiest to administer method of assessment is used, and the assessments then dictate an outdated approach to curriculum.

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