When members of the ASCD Assessment Consortium visited the East Irondequoit, New York, schools in early October, we saw impressive results of a seven-year campaign to use performance assessment at all levels. Teachers in East Irondequoit are focusing instruction on performance tasks and using rubrics to evaluate the quality of student work. Students in a high school pre-calculus class I visited were using computers to investigate relationships between sets of data they had collected (such as tuition rates, application rates, and graduation rates of colleges), looking for correlations and possible interpretations.
But, when teaching for performance, teachers encounter problems different from those they have when the goal is primarily verbal understanding. Students in an interdisciplinary class had scarcely gotten settled and begun concentrating on their projects when it was time for them to gather their materials and put them away. That is because classes at Eastridge High School are just 42 minutes long. Watching classes change so frequently, those of us who no longer work in schools wondered how we could get anything done if we were obligated to stop every 42 minutes, move to a different location, and take up a completely different task.
Of course, schools have good reasons for the schedules they have. For one, numerous short periods let students take more electives. In fact, Eastridge adopted its nine-period day very recently after years of debate. Still, performance-oriented learning takes extended blocks of time, as teachers of classes that have always emphasized performance (such as science, music, and home economics) can testify. So the Eastridge faculty is now considering moving to a block schedule. If they do, they will not be alone. Schools across the United States are changing their schedules to provide longer blocks of time so that teachers can plan a variety of activities that otherwise would not be possible.
As one who supports active learning, I welcome this trend. But as one who has watched innovations come and go, I hope that educators will consider the research findings discussed by Fred Newmann (p. 70). Newmann heads a team of researchers from several universities who have devoted five years to intensive study of schools deeply involved in improvement efforts. Happily, they discovered that school restructuring can substantially improve student performance. On the other hand, they found that schools equally involved in restructuring sometimes vary considerably in the quality of teacher instruction and student work (which they call “authentic pedagogy”). Newmann and his colleagues have concluded that restructuring does not necessarily improve intellectual quality.
Newmann regards the many components of restructuring—site-based decision making, cooperative learning, detracking, even performance assessment—as useful tools educators can use in their quest for intellectual quality. That is quite different from focusing on the tools themselves, as though they are the ultimate purpose of change.
This caveat applies as much to alternative scheduling as it does to other intended reforms. Scheduling, too, is a powerful tool that can be used to improve the quality of teaching and learning, but by itself it will not necessarily improve performance. Educators who share a vision of quality education and who are determined to work with others to achieve it have an exciting array of tools, including new forms of scheduling and assessment, that can serve them well, but they must not lose sight of their real purpose.
Newmann and his fellow researchers confirm the importance of other factors affecting restructuring efforts, including a professional community that reinforces teachers' commitment to quality. Consortium visitors saw evidence of such a climate in East Irondequoit and in earlier visits to other school systems, including District 15 in Middlebury, Connecticut, last April. It is powerfully satisfying to see teachers, administrators, board of education members, parents, and students working together in pursuit of a shared goal. And it confirms the observations of researchers that such a climate is prerequisite to the successful organizational change that in turn brings better learning.