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What It Really Takes to Inspire Students to Perform Well (It’s Not Test Scores)

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    Ron Berger

You don’t have to make a choice between doing well in standard test scores and having kids doing brilliant, beautiful work that inspires others. That’s a false choice.

Amid the clamor in every state around student testing, a critical goal is missing from the debate: the ability of students to create high-quality work. We’re obsessed with test scores, when we should be focused on helping students learn to do the work that helps them for the rest of their lives.

When a student is done with her schooling, she will be judged for the rest of her life not by her scores on a test of basic skills, but by the quality of her work and her character.

What is high-quality work?

This kind of work can be a project that helps change our community, or it can be something small – such as a poem or a song or an essay – or it can be an act of courage or kindness. But the point is that this work is inspirational: it inspires other students to act and create and aim for excellence. Students sharing their high-quality work has a butterfly effect on those near and far – both peers in their classroom and students around the country who can witness this work online through the technology tools we have today.

EL Educations’s own open-source online Models of Excellence has videos of student work that have been seen by millions of students nationally. The Austin’s Butterfly video has spread virally among educators and students to become a kind of classic of how peer feedback can improve student work.

What makes high-quality work “contagious” to students?

Work that has a “real-world” impact is something that particularly grabs kids’ attention. Students at the more than 160 EL Education partner schools, coast to coast, tackle projects ranging from real-world neighborhood to personal artistic creations linked to community initiatives. At the Springfield Renaissance School in Massachusetts, ninth graders were trained by city engineers to become energy auditors – researching and then presenting a report to the city’s mayor on energy loss at schools. The city adopted the
students’ recommendations for retrofits, which saved the city $160,000 in two years.

Even though Springfield Renaissance is a large, urban public district school with primarily low-income families, this kind of work is inspiring students there to break expectations: about 98% of students graduate on time, and every graduate gets into college.

We see every day that deeper learning is about the really exciting research people do in real life – not textbook research. This is the kind of learning that gains longstanding traction in kids’ minds, and makes it memorable. All of us have a virtuous side that wants to contribute something of value to the world. And once a kid has done something he is proud of, he is never the same kid again.

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The “false choice” between good test scores and high-quality work

Many educators view the time constraints posed by test prep as limiting their ability to get creative in the classroom, but schools can have both. You don’t have to make a choice between doing well in standard test scores and having kids doing brilliant, beautiful work that inspires one another. That’s a false choice.

We hear people say, “we don’t have time to do beautiful work because we have to prepare for tests.” But the fact is that schools like Springfield, where beautiful work is happening, outscore other schools because the kids care more deeply about what they do. We don’t have to sacrifice success in traditional measures in creating high-quality work.

Test scores do not inspire students and teachers, yet this is what has driven the conversation about education in this country for too many years now. It’s not that we don’t need assessments of basic skills – of course we do. But they provide a shamefully low bar and narrow vision for driving education. Showing students and teachers models of beautiful, sophisticated work, created in schools like their own, creates a ripple effect among those students about what is possible.

Ron Berger, Chief Academic Officer of EL Education has spoken recently at SXSWedu in Austin and at Lincoln Center’s “Culture at the Core” symposium. His most recent book, Transformational Literacy, gives teachers tools for strengthening their implementation of the curriculum designed to meet Common Core standards.