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Posted at 9:45 AM ET, 05/ 4/2010

Deborah Meier's education advice to Obama

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is renowned educator Deborah Meier, founding principal of Mission Hill School in Boston. She is also a leader of the Forum for Education & Democracy, part of the Rethink Learning Now campaign, a national grass-roots initiative designed to restore the focus of education reform on learning, and the core conditions that best support it. Each month, the campaign is featuring a new issue in K-12 education and providing things people can read, watch, listen to and do to raise awareness. For May, the topic is performance assessment.

By Deborah Meier
As the Obama administration explores new ways to support a national culture of learning – as opposed to our current national culture of testing – it faces a central dilemma: How to satisfy all of our country’s education stakeholders at once.

There are our students, who need timely and instructive feedback that reflects what they really know and are able to do; our parents, who need accurate evidence about their children’s progress; our teachers, who need information that helps them improve the quality of their professional practice and better meet the learning needs of their students; and the general public, which needs to know if schools and teachers are helping children learn how to use their minds well.

Before the conversation progresses any further, I have some unsolicited advice: Don’t expect to satisfy all four needs with the same policy.

For our nation’s students, the evaluative process should be treated less like the part of the driver’s test where we complete a pen-and-paper exam, and more like the part where we actually get in a car and show what we can do on a real road with real traffic and real-time scenarios unfolding all around us.

There’s a term for this sort of approach – performance assessment – and it requires schools to invest in seven interrelated components: active learning; formative and summative documentation; strategies for corrective action; multiple ways for students to express and exhibit learning; graduation-level performance tasks that are aligned with the school’s learning standards; external evaluators of student work; and a focus on professional development. (To learn more about performance assessment, visit

For our nation’s parents, we need to afford to all what only the most privileged among us once had – schools and teachers they can trust, and clear and compelling evidence of student progress that is regularly reviewed and shared between teachers and parents, and teachers and students, in one-on-one meetings.

Currently, the central obstacle to this sort of parental engagement and public accountability is that we don’t provide the time for such meetings, which have been squeezed out by the relentless push to raise basic-skills test scores in reading and math.

But as my late friend Seymour Sarason said, this is by far the most effective method to ensure that students, teachers and parents are on the same page. Indeed, in these sorts of learning environments the last step at such meetings would be a written summary and agreement about next steps— perhaps with all three parties signing it!

For our nation’s teachers, we need to allocate time in the school day for educators to meet with their students and colleagues to revise plans, provide feedback, and make mid-flight corrections based on evidence.

Teachers need to be observed by their colleagues on a planned basis as part of a peer review system. And schools need external reviewers to look over student work and classrooms in a non-punitive environment that lets educators focus less on hiding their weaknesses, and more on listening for helpful advice.

And finally, for our nation’s general public, we need to provide publicly available, easily accessible information regarding all of these interdependent processes: Who is involved, how often do student, teacher and whole-school assessments occur, and how have educators responded to the information they’ve acquired in order to improve the learning conditions for children?

At Mission Hill, the school I helped found in Boston, we had a simple graph that charted each child’s reading progress from the time s/he entered the school until s/he graduated — and it was based upon an oral interview.

The interviewer scored samples of a student reading aloud and discussing the text with the interviewer twice a year, providing the student’s teachers with a valuable piece of hard evidence.

Similar assessments in areas where “development” tends to be linear can be developed. Tasks can be created that track a student’s increased understanding, information and sophistication in science or math or history or art. But this can’t happen until we insist on school schedules and educator supports that create the time and conditions it takes to do this well.

Does this seem overwhelming? It shouldn’t. Most of it is, itself, educational—a form of both professional and student learning. And all it requires is what the Japanese and Finns already provide: School time for serious professional work, not just classroom instruction, and deep investments in cultivating teacher capacity.

We wouldn’t settle for a driving test that didn’t rest on actual driving and rely on an expert to judge our competence. Why should it be any different in education?


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By Valerie Strauss  | May 4, 2010; 9:45 AM ET
Categories:  Deborah Meier, Guest Bloggers, No Child Left Behind  | Tags:  Deborah Meier, No Child Left Behind, Obama and blueprint, President Obama and blueprint, guest bloggers, performance assessment, school reform and Obama  
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These are great ideas. Real reform, and less expensive in that there would be less paperwork and less payments to testing companies for tests.

Posted by: celestun100 | May 4, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

Deborah Meier is a remarkable individual and extraordinary educator.

That being said, she's another member of the Fair Test crowd (that's Monty Neill and Lisa Guisbond and Robert Scahfer?). These people want nothing to do with quantitative assessments. They're all in love with portfolios, reports, projects, essays, etc., as "authentic" assessments, aka assessments that can be compromised in a heartbeat by ANYONE associated with the student in question: AKA - these assessments offer a license for gaming or cheating. Deborah is also a graduate of the now defunct Antioch University from Silver Springs, Ohio, the school that could no longer get anyone to enroll in because they're so progressive and so unrealistic, so they were forced out of business.

Why does none of this surprise me from the "Answer Sheet?" It doesn't.

Posted by: phoss1 | May 4, 2010 7:05 PM | Report abuse

"Tasks can be created that track a student’s increased understanding, information and sophistication...... this can’t happen until we insist on school schedules and educator supports that create the time and conditions it takes to do this well."

Thank you, Deborah for bringing up the critical issues of time and other support conditions. I would like to see one of those conditions be SPACE. During the last 15 years or so of my teaching - from the early 90's to 2008, my mantra was "time and space, I need more time and space". With the addition of all the new technologies,constant revisions of reports and assessments, more and more adaptations for special needs' students, etc....Well, time obviously became a very precious commodity, but so did any kind of quality space conducive to collegial exchanges and clearing one's head to think clearly and creatively about very critical issues. Being confined to cramped quarters with piles of books, papers and computer equipment, institutional tables and chairs
while watching the ever-present clock does not call forth the best of one's problem-solving skills.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | May 5, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

the thing that goes through my mind is that by posting work on line, such as a blog where student work is easily read by parents, and subscribed to by e-mail, we can improve the involvement of parent stakeholders and increase the relevance for students

I find it very exciting times as IT brings so many more possiblities

I teach grade eight and my class blog is linked below

Tim Comfort

Posted by: tcomfort | May 8, 2010 9:19 PM | Report abuse

Authentic assessment seems to mean no real assessment. Meier is a progressive and a Deweyite. I tend to suspect both are synonymous with where we don't want to go. Schools should not be engaged in ideological engineering. That's been our curse. Schools should be engaged in intellectual engineering, which means lifting each child as far academically as each one can go.

Bruce Deitrick Price

Posted by: BruceDeitrickPrice | May 11, 2010 6:04 PM | Report abuse

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