Unsectored: Teachable Moment Missed

The post below was originally published on a new blog, UnSectored, of which I’m honored to be a part. The new blog is best explained by Founder Jeff Raderstrong: “In the shadow of the nation’s Capitol, there are those working towards social change in ways that cut across sectors and elevate the dialogue beyond a sectored paradigm. This site is a place where those individuals and organizations come together to share thoughts and learn from each other. This unified community in the National Capital Region will be an example for others across the country to follow.

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Last week, District of Columbia Public Schools announced the addition of a new assessment – a standardized test measuring knowledge of health and sex education. A number of questions emerge: Why is this a priority? What will be measured? And, most important, To what end?

Given the District’s historically troubling statistical profile, I have little issue with the district’s decision to measure knowledge in these areas. One would hope that the identification of knowledge gaps would lead to targeted instruction in those areas. I do, however, have issue with the use of standardized testing to achieve these goals.

This blog hopes to facilitate a discussion that crosses industry boundaries to create real solutions to pressing social challenges. The organization I founded, Reach Incorporated, is built on the premise that students are a key component – or, in my opinion, the key component – to addressing social challenges in their communities. What would this new DCPS assessment look like if students were put at the center and sector membership ignored?

Imagine this: We create a class at the George Washington University School of Public Health. The class is open to DCPS students in 11th and 12th grade, GWU graduate students, and GWU undergraduates. The class would be team taught by professionals from both secondary and post-secondary institutions. These individuals come together with a single purpose: design a way to assess knowledge and attitudes related to health and sex education.

During the first half of the class, students could learn about historical trends, current assessment tools, and available interventions. The class could learn from the work already being done in the community – Whitman Walker Health and Metro TeenAIDS come to mind. These community organizations could contextualize local challenges and provide lessons to ensure the students are asking the right questions.

During the second half of the class, students could be supported in becoming researchers. Working with funders and organizations experienced in training students to work (perhaps Urban Alliance), the students would create surveys, facilitate focus groups, and identify trends in the data.

Let’s look at the benefits:

  • Students gain experience in a college-level class.
  • Students have an engaging and meaningful academic experience.
  • Students gain important 21st century skills – research, critical thinking, and collaboration.

Instead, most will focus on the challenges. This plan would, admittedly, involve getting representatives from several institutions – community based organizations, public schools, and local universities – together in one room to do some serious planning. Some people would worry about the reliability of the data collected. Others would question whether anonymity would be preserved. There are always reasons not to try.

But, if we can efficiently gather information while creating a valuable experience to the students we serve, wouldn’t it be worth the risk?  The possibility exists to create a second class that would focus on creating an action plan to address identified knowledge gaps. Our students, with the support of their community, could do this work.

Instead, kids will take a test. Whether or not the students pass the test, we have already failed. One question remains: When will the educators learn to identify teachable moments?

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