Learning Centered: A Silver Lining Amid School Closures

April 22, 2020

by Kristin Cuilla, Senior Director, District & School Development

I’m always looking for a silver lining.  Some label my optimism Pollyanna, but I have made it a life goal to choose happy, whenever possible, in professional and personal endeavors alike.  Today I find myself searching for hope—the silver lining on a horizon filled with clouds of uncertainty—and I’m finding that hope in an unlikely place: state testing.

When I started my fulltime teaching career in the early 90s, in the days long before No Child Left Behind (NCLB), my sole focus was on student learning.  My colleagues and I delighted in watching our students engage in problem finding and challenging one another’s assumptions productively about American Literature, American History, Physics, and Algebra II/Pre-Calculus; it was the best of times.

Accountability isn’t the enemy.  It can be an ally in the pursuit of student learning; for example, NCLB surfaced the urgent need to improve learning within subgroups.  Shining that light on inequities across subgroups galvanized my conviction that education is a civil right.

Since then my commitment to ensuring students of color and students in poverty experienced authentic, complex thinking and problem-solving, not just the rote, low-level instruction that emphasizes memorization to which they had been historically relegated has not wavered.  Yet that challenge endures in the post-NCLB world largely because the institution of education—the “system”—is driven by accountability (i.e., student scores on state testing) instead of learning. 

There’s a fundamental disconnect between the purpose of accountability structures and the systems of feedback they reinforce.  My best hope is that we seize this moment in education to rethink those systems of feedback and our insatiable compulsion to reduce students to a single test score through which we can rank order both our schools and our future. 

As a mother of four children—two in college and two in secondary school—I marvel at their four institution’s responses to the realities of COVID-19.  My college-aged children are “business as usual”—just fully online.  While our graduate school-aged daughter decided to stay in her beloved mountains off-campus, our college-age junior (son) had to move out of his dorm and come home to learn; he misses school, but he’s still learning. 

My secondary-aged kids aren’t “business as usual.”  For the first time since our oldest went to Kindergarten (18 years ago), our public school focus has shifted to something beyond scores.  It is so refreshing!  Perhaps the federal government’s recent approval waiving all standardized testing in my state provided the necessary permission to focus on more than just scores, but I’d like to think it’s the beginning of a long-awaited pendulum swing toward a more balanced approach to the purpose of education—one that values skills as much as scores and that focuses on the whole child.

For the past decade, I’ve worked with public K-12 schools to create that balance; together, we interrupt the perverse incentives created by current accountability structures and supplant them with a whole school, systemic approach where skills are valued as much as scores.  To be clear–all of these public schools take all the same tests required of all other public schools.  The difference is that those student test scores are not the only data points driving instructional conversations.  You see, the schools with whom I work aren’t just driven by student performance on a test; they are driven by students’ holistic performance on challenging work that prepares students with the skills and abilities to thrive in the workforce of tomorrow.

This posture speaks to purpose.  The institution of American education is a public good founded to equip citizens with the knowledge and skills to fully participate in our democracy and, thereby, prosper.  Tolstoy extends that public good to freedom–“The only purpose of education is freedom; the only method is experience”–while Einstein reminds us not of the importance of teaching but of the importance of “the conditions in which they [students] can learn.”

Our current reality serves as a golden opportunity to upend Einstein’s indictment that “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education” and to engage in a useful thought experiment to unthink school to rethink learning.  Now, more than ever, we have an opportunity to control our destiny on the future of public, K-12 education and to create a movement rededicated to the centrality of learning as its goal.