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Proficiency, Rigor, and a Time Bound Curriculum (12/28/13)

Public Schools in the United States are tasked with educating the citizenry. This task has become increasingly daunting in the current age of high stakes testing accountability. The challenge of the task is not in working to meet the requirements of state accountability tests, as I believe the majority of educators to be dedicated professionals and believers in the merits of accountability. Instead, the challenge is to reconcile the instructional methods for, and measurements of, two of the fundamental component ends of 21st Century-PK-12 education in the United States, proficiency and deep conceptual understanding.

In the December 2013/January 2014 issue of Educational Leadership Carol Ann Tomlinson writes about the need for PK-12 educators to reconsider the definition of mastery as it is used in current practice. In One to Grow On: Let’s not Dilute Mastery, Tomlinson indicates that what educators currently call mastery is a misnomer because it does not fit Webster’s Dictionary definition of the term, which denotes expert knowledge and skill and connotes “superiority, ascendency, dominion, authority in, and command.”

I agree with Tomlin’s argument on what mastery is. What educators currently call mastery is actually proficiency, typically demonstrated on a state accountability test. It is also the first of two fundamental ends detailed in this article. Proficiency is listed as a fundamental end because it does indicate one summative measure of student knowledge and it is a necessary and required component in today’s educational system. However, proficiency does not stand alone. Tomlinson’s call for true demonstrations of mastery learning by students is actually a call for students to gain deep conceptual understanding of the content, the second fundamental component detailed in this article.

As a former school superintendent, I recognize that the problem in reconciling proficiency with mastery is that the instructional methods used to achieve each and the instruments used to measure them are often very different. What is needed is balance in both forms, acknowledging the need for rigor and depth while understanding that the curriculum is taught within a time bound school year and student learning on that curriculum must be accounted for. Tomlinson proposes three requirements for mastery, which I will expound on here.

First, Tomlinson indicates that for mastery to occur, students must identify with and be inspired by the curriculum. Tomlinson sites the use of authentic experiences and real-world scenarios as platforms from which this can be achieved. I agree fully with Tomlinson’s assertion, students relate best to the curriculum when they are able to experience it in ways that have meaning for them. There is also another point to consider with the identification and inspiration methodology as well. Authentic experiences and real-world teaching scenarios take place within the context of whatever scenarios are presented, leading students to apply their learning to specific sets of circumstances.

In delivering real-world learning we must be certain that while students solve specific problems they maintain a broad view of the related issues because the “big picture is composed of all the details.” In the same way, students must be taught to consider the written curriculum/content standards as an interconnected whole so that they understand how and why concepts build on and impact each other. Assessment for this type of learning should include extended projects with rubric based grading balanced with shorter quizzes and presentations along the way to monitor student progress.

Tomlinson’s second proposal is for attitudes for success. In this section, Tomlinson talks about work ethic, the use of exemplars, and building student perseverance. All of the listed elements are requirements in today’s standards based schools and are often rated in many of the new value added teacher and school evaluation models being used across the United States. From experience, I also know that the key for added success in this area is school culture. Parents, community members, teachers, principals, and central office personnel must work to create a culture of achievement in schools. Student achievement must become a priority of all stakeholders to successfully inculcate the attitudes that Tomlinson speaks of. High standards for staff and student performance must be set, monitored, and shared. In such a culture, the school community as a whole takes ownership for student performance, with everyone contributing based on their expertise/gifts. Achievements are publicly celebrated and setbacks are met with support, from the whole. In this type of culture, the success of each student becomes the community’s success.

Tomlinson ends her article with a section titled “Why I’m Worried.” In this section, Tomlinson indicates that much of the current student body in the academe, while very proficient during their PK-12 years, lack the ability and passion to think critically, problem solve, read, and debate. I do not believe that the students actually lack the skills that Tomlinson noted. Instead, PK-12 schools in consideration of the new Common Core Standards must clearly define and fine tune the types of graduates/scholars that they are producing so that students leave high school with the appropriate knowledge based acquisition, synthesis, evaluation, and communication skills.  

For university work, one must be very adroit in his/her ability to acquire, synthesize, evaluate and effectively communicate on large volumes of information. Also, even in today’s tech savvy world, at the university, you must have a quality of hand-to-book scholarship that has been lost in PK-12 schools. All of these qualities are also necessary at varying degrees of proficiency, commensurate to responsibility, in any profession that students might enter into.

All of this said, PK-12 schools must seek to bridge the gap with higher education for its students. Quality critical thinking, real-world problem solving, research, and writing activities must become a significant part of the curriculum so that our students succeed in later life. No doubt, this is daunting as PK-12 schools seek to balance proficiency and rigor within in a time bound school year. However, I am confident that as districts continue to refine best practices in maximizing the effectiveness of methods that promote the types of teaching and learning described here, public schools will continue to rise to meet the challenge.

Shawn McCollough
President & CEO