Growth, Proficiency, and Lebron James

Teachers everywhere are stuck in that inordinately long break between Martin Luther King and Jesus this year. Seriously, waiting until mid-April for a resurrection has us all wishing for the third day a little more than we normally would.

Religious calendar humor aside, I thought this was the perfect chance to pick up on the Growth v. Proficiency conversation that Betsy Devos and Al Franken got started for us last month at those SNL-worthy confirmation hearings. I know this is what all of our 14 readers were patiently anticipating, so we’re giving you this light read to fill 7 minutes of your time in the long, cold stretch until spring pushes through. 

First, some background: I have worked in schools that most would consider failing.  I kind of hate this term, in the same that mental health workers probably hate the word crazy. It’s just too over-simplified. It is a term that lives on these sort of arbitrary bars that we love to set in education. It is a term that places victim-hood on people and, whether that is teachers or students or communities or whatever, that never seems to help.

But we place those bars all the time, and one of those is “proficiency.” On the surface, it is not a bad thing at all. The state has decided what score on the standardized test demonstrates an appropriate amount of knowledge and ability. For the last few years in PA, passing the state reading exam puts you in just about the 50th percentile. In short, roughly half of our student are passing. In my school, we were under 40% proficiency in Literature.

The public seems to love this kind of thing. But it is not just the public, administrators and politicians live for these numbers too.  In fact, some teachers start to endorse or condemn their own work when test scores come out every year.

Proficiency is helpful for some things, but it doesn’t help me that much as a teacher.

For the sake of example, imagine that I am teaching a bunch of random people how to dunk a basketball. Dunking a basketball would be the goal so you would have to be able to do this to be proficient. This, of course, would be ridiculous considering my own dunking ability but you will have to allow this for the sake of this bad example. Then imagine my class would have all kinds of people. Let's pretend my class includes Lebron James and my 3-year old daughter. We would reach the dunking test and Lebron would pull some crazy dunk contest 360-between the legs- windmill thing that made me as the teacher feel proud. Proficient- all the judges would agree.

But then my daughter would step up. She would run up to the hoop, because she is pretty good at running, and maybe she would jump at the right time and get about 25% of the way to her goal. We would all look around with a sense of unease, then agree that the attempt was clearly “below basic.” She didn’t even get half way.  

In this scenario, I did nothing as a teacher. Lebron could already dunk.  In fact, he was really good at it and I did nothing to help him get better. My daughter doesn’t have the skills to dunk, but I did nothing to to help her motor skills, speed, or whatever else goes in to dunking.

If I didn’t lose you yet, then thanks.

Politicians and folks who wear suits for a living need things like proficiency. They need to be able to make sweeping decisions about schools, districts, and what is working.  But it is terribly short-sighted. Teachers, or at least good teachers, should care very little about Lebron’s dunk. Good teachers need to care about growth.

See, Lebron could dunk before he entered my class. He is an amazing talent and can only grow with really intense high-end tweaks to his approach. My daughter needs a lot of help. Dunking is the wrong goal, because she first needs to learn some simple things that may include dribbling a basketball.

There are growth steps before the dunk for my daughter and after the dunk for Lebron.

In other words, everybody in a classroom can grow, and a good teacher should be able to talk about that. Anybody can talk about proficiency, but it takes an expert to understand growth. It takes even more to help both Lebron James and my 3-year old grow in the same class. 

In my ten years as a teacher, I’ve learned many ways to talk about growth. The first, and maybe the least important, happened this week. We received the state test scores back from the January re-takes. One student, Jillian, thought she had no chance of passing the test.  She didn’t know this, but the state gave her a 2% chance of passing the reading exam. The state projected that she would be in the 18th percentile. When the scores came back, she passed. She worked hard, and what the state called a long shot went in. This is the educational equivalent of my daughter dunking, so we celebrate that.

But there are so many other kids who didn’t pass. Instead, they went from barely dribbling to finishing lay-ups. They outperformed every projection based on their learning trajectory to this point. They grew. They got better. We should all clap and cheer and throw the same parties that we throw for proficiency.

Most teachers also recognize that most growth can’t be measured on state tests. There is the student who couldn’t write a paragraph in september that just finished an essay, there are students who are reading sections of text they wouldn't have looked at in December, and there are kids with confidence in class that simply didn’t exist last week.

We are working on ways to measure this, as well as the tests that have become common in so many educational experiences. There are so many signs that we are getting better at these forms of measurement. This conversation is the one I want to have. I think Betsy Devos and her friends should care a little more about this conversation as well.

For now, the question we should be asking every teacher we know is this: How are people growing in your class?

Tell me a story about that.

-Jason