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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

Perfect Porridge: Searching for Balance in Environment and Assessment

As a child, I found the story of Goldilocks and The Three Bears creepy. However, it did teach me that good porridge shouldn’t be too hot or too cold. It’s all about balance. 
 
This summer I was reminded of balance at an MIT cryptography program where I met students from across the Northeast. Two in particular stood out to me because they attended very differently structured schools. One came from a Montessori-esque school in western Massachusetts and the other from a top public school in New York City. I spoke with both of them about how their respective schools balanced structure and freedom. 

Environment

The Montessori friend spoke of freedom. He could pursue what he wanted, at his own pace. One year, quantum mechanics piqued his interest, so he asked for and received guidance from his teacher on the subject. One of his classmates extended an engineering class to construct an electric scooter from scraps. The flexibility and opportunity provided by his environment helped those who were motivated and curious to succeed. However, he noticed those in his school who slacked could easily continue to slack. Generous homework extensions and flexible deadlines allowed those who were not engaged to scrape by without prodding or pressure from teachers.  
 
My NYC friend spoke of a more rigid school structure. Even to be admitted to her specialized technical high school, she had to compete against 30,000 other eighth graders in a grueling entrance exam. She too was exposed to lots of opportunity. Her school collaborated with a local college to offer extension courses. Her summer project involved analyzing data from the magnetic fields that stars emit in tandem with a local professor.  One of her fellow classmates was working on creating affordable, miniature satellites. Yet she too noted problems. 3 AM nights (for schoolwork, not Netflix or YouTube, she assured me) were not uncommon, and access to several classes required competitive selection processes. The flexibility and at-your-own-pace mentality of the first friend’s school is replaced with fast, competitive schedules and a Jenga tower of deadlines and stress. 
 
My school is a mix of both. There’s a competitive vibe, certainly, but only if one wants to be engaged in it. Everyone follows a core curriculum with some required courses, and while the high-level classes are often fast paced and time consuming, many students simply choose not to take them. There’s both structure and freedom. My school is far from perfect, though. There are valuable elements from both of my friends’ schools, but I believe there must be a balance of exploration and guidelines, of flexibility and pressure to create an environment where all students can succeed. 

Assessment

Thinking about the varied environments of my peers this summer reminded me of my work with CCE this summer, specifically thinking about assessment practices in schools. Some teachers deliver multiple-choice exams with answers directly from the textbook, while others disdain Scantrons and employ unique assessments that often focus more on creativity than content. I believe both can have a place in accessing the higher Depth of Knowledge levels; traditional multiple-choice exams can assess mastery of straight-forward math skills or multiple layers of understanding in history and the sciences, while research papers and hands-on projects are useful for assessing synthesis, application, creation, and defense of ideas. Once again, it is all about balance. From my work this summer, I found that rubrics are an apt tool for achieving this balance between structure and freedom in assessments. 
 
One element of Quality Performance Assessment (QPA) that stands out as vital to me is developing excellent rubrics that provide structure while also leaving room for student innovation. There is an emphasis on QPA rubrics being as objective and evidence-based as possible; this resonates with me. One of my English teachers provided a razor-sharp rubric for all our papers. We could find comments on our essays corresponding exactly to each part of our grade. She was not an easy grader, but she was fair. Many people asked for rewrites, but rarely did anyone come to argue or seek explanations concerning a poor grade. I have also seen the alternative; rubrics with vague requirements such as ‘Wow me!’ only confuse students. Those instructors may have intended for these rubrics to provide freedom- for me, however, they only increased stress levels. There is more freedom, I’ve discovered, in assignments with clear, structured rubrics.  
 
Goldilocks is still not my favorite fairy tale, but it does yield important lessons. Make your porridge too hot, and you’ll scald your tongue; make it too cold and you won’t want to eat it. There's a balance to be found in everything, from porridge to school environments to assessment. 

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