Toward What End

I owe the 1990s an apology.

No, not for canceling performance events as a tool in large-scale testing; leaving us vulnerable to No Child Left Behind and the advocates of selected-response tests.  I’m not quite over that yet. We can work through those issues in a later post.

What I need to apologize for today is holding a grudge all these years against the 1990s for shifting the focus of educational research and education, in general, from inputs to outcomes.

I get it now.

We were out of control. A nation was at risk. They did what they had to do.

1984 – Morning in America

I came of age as an educational researcher in the mid-1980s. It was just about a decade earlier that people realized that the teaching model included more than main effects for teachers (T) and students (S). There was a significant TxS interaction (literally) that explained a lot and had to be accounted for.

It was the  golden age of inputs.

Time on task, feedback, active responding, wait time, opportunities for successful responding, teacher questioning (as opposed to questioning teachers) …

The list went on and on. If it was part of the process of teaching and teacher-student interactions we were going to call it a variable, figure out a way to measure it, think of ways to alter it, and research the crap out of that sucker.

It was a heady time. Schools and schooling mattered. Teachers and teaching mattered.

As Benjamin Bloom (1980) described the research we were conducting, “these are very different from the pre-post demonstration studies of an earlier period, since they center on the teaching and learning processes that take place between the pre and post measurements.” (p. 338)

At some point, of course, you have to pay the piper. You have to concern yourself with the pre and post measurements.

The 1990s called in our loan.

Our research was based on the premise that improving the instructional process would lead to improved student learning and outcomes.

The 1990s demanded payment in full.

Show us the results.

The pendulum had swung from inputs to outcomes.

And for the next 30 years, it stayed there.

And so, I decided to go with the floe – the large, spreading, standardized, outcome-based mass of ice enveloping education – and my career shifted seamlessly from educational research to educational evaluation to educational assessment to educational accountability.

Then just as suddenly, the climate changed, and the ice melted.

2020 – A Brave New World

Seemingly overnight, the pendulum that had been stuck in the ice for 30 years broke free.

Dig if you will the picture. 

No longer were we focused on the re-designed SAT and the next ACT (the first assessment with its own social media presence).

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Justice

Culturally sensitive, relevant, responsive, and sustaining.
(It’s impressive, yet at the same time slightly disturbing, that you can form a grammatically correct sentence without an actual subject, object, or verb.)

Latent traits, make way for social constructs.

OTL over IRT.


Even traditional input folks who had been tucked away in a commune in the foothills of the Rockies for the past 30 years re-emerged, older and grayer, but eager to get back in the game.

Once again, it’s a heady time. It’s like we’re back in the 80s again, but with more people at the dance.

Kick off your Sunday shoes!

But amidst this impressive flourish of sound and fury devoted to improving the instructional process, so far, I am hearing only vague generalities and hopeful assertions that life will be better on the other side.

Having lived through one outcome-based backlash and purge, the question that I have to ask about all of this flurry of activity to improve the process is “Toward what end?”

An End in Itself

As I wrote in a recent post, to some degree the current activity is an end in itself.

Diversity is better than uniformity. Inclusion is better than exclusion. Equity, justice, respect for individuals – movements, even revolutions, have been launched in the name of such ideals.

But will those goals be enough?

This is still education. The end is still improved student learning.

If/when we manage to attain the current process goals which set of lyrics will be singing?

something more

I’m fairly certain the correct answer is all of the above. We will start out at ‘Option a’ and move fairly quickly through to “b.” to “c.”  then we’ll spend a bit of time humming  “d.”, before finally moving on, accepting “e.”; wondering what went wrong this time while we log on to the  Donors Choose website and donate $50 to help Mrs. Sanchez purchase items to support dramatic play in her PreK class and another $50 to help Mrs. Sousa purchase a set of inclusive books and games to use with her students.

A Means to an End

Perhaps in addition to being a desirable end in itself, we believe (or think, whichever you prefer) that achieving these goals is a means to an end.

Diversity, inclusion, equity, and justice are a prerequisite for, well, for achieving anything important in education.

Culturally sensitive, relevant, responsive, and sustaining curriculum and instruction will lead to improved student learning.

Attention to and respect for student identity will increase engagement which will result in better outcomes.

All of the above may be true and I sincerely hope that it is.

Because this is still education. The end is still improved student learning.

Perhaps we’re in a better place than we were in the 1980s.

Perhaps this time we’re more focused on improving the failed system and not simply on identifying failing schools, and teachers, and students.

Perhaps all of the research linking instructional effectiveness, culture, identity, engagement, etc. to improved student learning is in place just waiting for interventions to be developed and implemented with fidelity.

Then all we’ll have left to do is to agree on what it is students should be learning and why, and figure out how to teach it effectively.

The End is Closer Than You Think

Over the last couple of years, and especially the last couple of months, it’s been tempting to give into the thought that the end is near. Seriously, sign, sign, everywhere a sign. How many signs do you need?

But when I say here that the end may be closer than we think, I mean it in a good way.

It may appear that we are not quite sure right at this moment about a few little things like

  • what it is students should be learning,
  • whether all students need to learn it (whatever “it” is),
  • how to teach it,
  • how to measure whether students have learned it, or
  • what the goal is of having them learn it in the first place.

But there’s a lot of noise now surrounding educational standards, curriculum, instruction, assessment, and measurement. If you cut through the noise there’s also a lot of clear signal.

There are things that we know how to do, and we know how to do them well.

We know how and when to individualize, how and when to standardize, and finally we have the technology to help us do both well.

 What’s more…

There is a common body of knowledge, skills, abilities, and attitudes (yes, attitudes) that all children should have by the time they reach high school, plus a couple of additional important things that all students should learn in high school.

And we know what it is. We’ve always known what it is.

And deep down we agree on it. We’ve always agreed on it.

And we know that it’s more than enough to fill a PK-8 curriculum.

Yes, included in that curriculum, ideally scaffolded and spiraled at every grade (old school Bruner-style) is the knowledge that there are different perspectives, the ability to view things from different perspectives, and a willingness to accept different perspectives.

And perhaps even more importantly, despite our many differences, …

A person’s a person no matter how small (in any sense of the word), no matter their color or  how colorful they are, no matter their culture or lack thereof, no matter their identity or identities or whether they are still in search of one.

And we know a whole lot about people, how they learn, and how to help them learn; that is, we know a lot about teaching and learning.

The end.

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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