To Dreaming Things That Never Were


“You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’” – George Bernard Shaw


The quote above is from Shaw’s play, or collection of plays, Back to Methuselah. I’ve read that the full play covers the time period from Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to 31,000 AD (or CE, if you prefer) and had to be performed over three nights. This post, therefore, easily could have been a cynical analysis of the parallels between Shaw’s work and voluminous state content standards (the NGSS and several sets of social studies standards come to mind) and much-too-lengthy and time-consuming state tests.

It is the content of the quote, however, that captures our attention. We are familiar with it today primarily because President John F. Kennedy used it in a 1963 speech to the Irish Parliament, and his brother Robert F. Kennedy adopted the quote and approach to life as a central theme over his remaining five years.

Or perhaps some of you remember the quote from the 2011 concert in Washington, DC when Taylor Swift had it written along her left arm, a confluence of her “arm writing” and Kennedy phases. (That concert was part of Taylor’s Speak Now Tour. The long-awaited and highly anticipated Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) will be released on July 7. Pre-order your copy now.)

Like the rest of the people I’ll be recalling in this post, Taylor does dream impossible things and ask herself, “Why Not?”

Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer

If it’s true that we are shaped by our earliest influences, I guess that I’m very fortunate to have encountered three visionary dreamers so early in my career, two while in graduate school in Minnesota and one in my first testing industry job in New Hampshire.

 Stan Deno – I enrolled in Stan Deno’s introductory course on Behavioral Psychology in Fall 1983, the first semester of my doctoral program at the University of Minnesota. As I told him at the time, I chose the course in an effort to learn the “other side of the story” after years of learning of the evils of behaviorism from more cognitively oriented folks during my undergraduate years.

I had no idea at the time of the work that Stan and his students had been doing in developing Curriculum-Based Measurement or of the seminal 1985 article, Curriculum-Based Measurement: The emerging alternative, that they were writing. By the time that I left Minnesota in summer 1986, I was more familiar with CBM and the work of Stan and his former students such as Doug Marston, Gerry Tindal, and Lynn and Doug Fuchs.

It was early 1989, however, when I realized the extent of their influence, sitting in Portland, Maine, attending a professional development workshop on CBM being conducted by researchers from the Pacific Northwest.  In just a few short years, the little idea that a set of procedures could “decrease the separation between measurement and instruction – to make data on student achievement more integral to daily instruction” had spread from Minnesota to the west coast and back 3,000 miles across the country to our meeting in Maine; and has continued to spread across the country and the world in the decades since then.

It was through my connection to Stan that I became research assistant on a project that one of his former students, Steve Robinson, was directing to evaluate and develop classroom-based applications for a new product called Discourse – a computer-based innovation to support teaching and learning developed by a man named Jack Zawels (Ziv-el).

Jack Zawels – The coast-to-coast journey of CBM described above pales in comparison to the journey that resulted in my working on the Discourse system in an elementary school in St. Paul, Minnesota. The system was envisioned and developed by Jack Zawels, a cybernetics engineer who saw a need and the opportunity for technology to enhance the typical classroom/training environment of a single instructor responsible for a large group of students. Originally developed in South Africa, the system had been picked up by 3M, based in Minnesota, and 3M had called on the Amherst H Wilder Foundation to evaluate a classroom-based version of the system.

Unlike most computer-based, or computer-assisted, instructional technologies of the time, Discourse was designed to support rather than replace the teacher as the instructional leader in the classroom. Dubbed a communications system, rather than an instructional system, the essence of the system was that it allowed allstudents to respond to teacher prompts/questions simultaneously via a small keyboard and enabled the teacher to view all of their responses in real time. The system allowed the teacher to work with the full classroom of students at the same time (social mode) or to divide the students into up to 8 separate groups (self-paced mode). Teachers could enter questions in advance, in plain language without any programming skills required, or ask questions on the fly, if necessary. The system could provide feedback (correct/incorrect) to students if the teacher supplied an answer to the questions. In short, it checked many of the boxes for effective instruction and student learning. 

And all of this (plus a printer, projection screen, and other peripherals) was being run through the recently introduced IBM PC with its single 5.25-inch floppy disk slot and minimal memory.

Rich Hill – After the aforementioned position in the Portland, Maine Public Schools was abruptly eliminated due to budget cuts, I found myself at Advanced Systems with its co-founders Rich Hill and Stuart Kahl. It should be enough to say that in a 1994 EdWeek article, Grant Wiggins described Rich as “the equivalent in this field of Steve Jobs of Apple.

I still vividly recall the spring morning I ran into Rich in the Advanced Systems parking lot, my first day back after spending the previous week at the AERA/NCME conference. I asked what was new. Rich calmly, but excitedly, told me that we were going to bid on and win the contract for the new Kentucky state assessment program – the largest contract of its kind to-date; and that we were going to do it by proposing a system that was based solely on open-response items, portfolios, direct writing prompts, and performance events. And that summer we did win the contract.

At the time, the data analysis department that I supervised consisted of myself (with 2 years’ experience) and one data analyst hired the previous year. We eventually hired a psychometrician and one more data analyst.

As Rich described Advanced Systems in the EdWeek article:

“We couldn’t afford to hire anybody who knew anything about testing, so we hired people who were bright and committed, most of them teachers, and we wound up inadvertently developing a company that was very strong in those attributes. When the testing industry changed all of a sudden, we were no less qualified to do the next kinds than we were for the old kind, … and we really did have a mindset that we could become a new organization at a moment’s notice.’’

 Why Not?

 It would be an understatement to say that each of the efforts described above presented some pretty significant challenges; and it would require being in state of denial not to acknowledge that there were failures along the way in each of the projects.

Some might have walked away from that set of initial experiences a much more cautious person (or looked more closely at the law school brochures their parents were sending them).

But I came away with the default response, “Why Not?”. We were trying to solve important problems in PK-12 education and educational assessment. When the stakes are high and the waters rough (as Taylor says), solutions are going to require bold people with bold ideas.

That’s the attitude that drew me into MCAS with its non-scale scale, and led to our attempts at focused retests and a cohort-based performance appeal system.

That’s what led to me spending a decade working with the NECAP states and a decade working with Rhode Island on their proficiency-based graduation requirements.

That’s why I connected with Damian Betebenner and his attempts to provide a useful answer to the persistent questions related to defining and quantifying a year’s worth of growth. Spoiler alert: In both CBM/progress monitoring and Damian’s work, understanding growth is not as simple as just knowing the change in student scores over time.

That’s why I was excited too last week when a former student and colleague excitedly described an app she had developed, SPEDfi, to help special education collaboratives and school districts navigate the maze that is special education finances.

And if I worked with you for an extended period of time or continued to take your calls year after year, that’s why.

To Seek a Newer World

Consider the following four quotes.

There appear to be three trends in recent educational developments which suggest that educational systems may be able to make responses to the needs of rapidly growing modern societies. First, there is interest in new ways of achieving a wider distribution of education. Secondly, there is a growing commitment to humane personalized systems of instruction, and thirdly there is the recognition of the significance of educational technology. It may be argued that the technological advance which promises to make the greatest contribution to the wider distribution of effective individualized instruction within the developing science of education is computer-based education. This form of instruction requires more than the provision of hardware, software and courseware. It demands the creation of a complete educational environment which is characterised by the specific applications of educational and computer technologies to aid the learning process.

Whatever bromides are offered to improve the quality of education in the United States, one principle of instruction continues unchallenged: Measurement of student achievement is basic to evaluating the success of our educational programs… [G]eneral agreement regarding how this measurement must be done does not exist. The most widely accepted measures of achievement – commercially developed, standardized, and norm-referenced tests – are biased regarding curriculum content, technically inadequate for making decisions about individual students, and are not useful for making instructional decisions.

We realized it wasn’t practical to think about administering the new kinds of tests in the same way we could the old ones. It just took too much time. What was needed was a way to conduct those evaluations as part of the regular work that students do in the course of their studies, not to treat them as add-ons.

We are on the threshold of an exciting and revolutionary period, in which the scientific study of man will be put to work in man’s best interests. Education must play its part. It must accept the fact that a sweeping revision of educational practices is possible and inevitable.

I think that most will agree that with only minimal changes to wording any one of the four quotes could appear in an article published today.

The first is from the 1979 South African Journal of Science article describing Jack Zawels’ original educational communications system.

The second is from Stan Deno’s 1985 Exceptional Children article on CBM.

The third is a quote from Rich Hill in the 1994 EdWeek article, The Little Firm That Could, on Advanced Systems.

And the fourth is a quote from B.F. Skinner that was originally published in 1958.

We know the problems that we need to solve. We know that there have been and will continue to be people who step forward with bold solutions, new ways of doing things. Some will succeed, some will fail, some will encounter failures on the way to success.

Before we are too quick to point out all of the flaws in their thinking, or potential problems with their approaches (because we are really good at doing that), I ask that we remember a much less-often cited quote from Shaw’s Back to Methuselah:

 One hardly knows which is the more appalling: the abjectness of the credulity or the flippancy of the scepticism.


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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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