A Plane to Nowhere: The Reality of Teaching in the 21st Century

Much of the focus of the professional development going on in my school this year is on formative assessments. For those reading this who might be confused about what that term means, let me explain. There are two major types of assessments given to students in schools, formative and summative. Formative assessments can be any number of ways that teachers assess what students have learned within a given lesson. They are checks for understanding and mastery. Formative assessments are often graded but they don’t always have to be. They are not necessarily quizzes or tests, in fact, more often than not, they are something different. They are set apart from the more stereotypical summative assessments because they happen much more frequently—typically daily—and are used to gauge what students know and don’t know so that the teacher can modify and adjust their approach as needed. This is opposed to the finality that accompanies most summative assessments, such as cumulative unit tests, finals, papers, or projects that typically happen after all the instruction has taken place and often come with high stakes due to their impact on a student’s grade. 

In a recent professional development meeting, we were working with other teachers in our content area on modifying some of our formative assessments to increase the rigor and depth of knowledge required of students. This type of collegial collaboration aimed at making sure that all of our students are being pushed to a deeper understanding in each of our classes is typical of the kind of work we often do. The ultimate goal is to identify students who need more help or practice to master a standard so that they don’t fall too far behind their peers—to find them before it’s too late, in other words. It’s certainly a worthy goal toward which all schools should be striving work to improve. At the beginning of this recent meeting, we were shown a short video clip of well-known education researcher called, Dylan William. What Mr. William had to say in that short clip really got me to thinking and thus writing. When describing the shortcomings of the way teachers have traditionally assessed students, William used the analogy of an airplane pilot. Paraphrased, this is what he said. 

Imagine what would happen if a pilot flew like we have typically assessed students in schools. If he was supposed to fly to London, he might just point his plane east and fly for a certain number of hours and then land and ask,” is this London?” Of course, even if it was not London, he’d say everyone needs to get off the plane here because I have to get on to my next journey.

So, teachers around the country are charged with finding ways to get all our students to the correct destination at the same time…much the same as an airline pilot is charged with getting a plane full of passengers to the correct destination on time. We spend countless hours working on all kinds of new strategies and approaches to try to make sure that each student masters the standards and objectives of all our lessons. If someone—or many ones—fall behind along the way, we are expected to find a way to get them back on track while not neglecting those who never fell behind in the first place. It is a frustrating, albeit worthy calling. On the surface, Dylan William’s pilot/teacher analogy seemed appropriate enough, but as I reflected more, I started to see a lot of holes in it—holes that, I fear, are beyond fixing without completely overhauling the entire education system we’ve had in place for many decades. In the remaining portion of this essay, I will lay out two major problems with Dylan William’s pilot/teacher analogy as it applies to the current state of our education system. 

Problem 1: Our students don’t all belong on the same plane. 

This is always a huge elephant in the room when we talk about education in America. A lot of times, people are afraid to speak to it. I’m an old dog, so I have lost a lot of those kinds of fears, so here goes. Our education system still works under the faulty presumption that all students should be preparing to go to college. In fact, a significant percentage of students shouldn’t be preparing for a traditional college education. Face it, some of our students just aren’t capable of traditional college educations, still more just aren’t interested in that path, and many don’t need it. The 21st Century is a completely different playing field and some of our students need to be preparing for a completely different game. I’ve said it until I’m blue in the face, but it bears repeating here; we need to stop forcing all our kids down the same narrow educational path. To borrow from Dylan William’s analogy, we have a bunch of kids on a plane bound for London who flat out don’t want to go to London. But we say, too bad, you’re going…and if they don’t make it to London, we put a huge stigma on them and hold the pilot accountable. We need to follow the models of many other 1st World nations and give our students options to control their own educational destinations in a way they see fit. In short, we need a lot more planes!

Problem 2: Teachers can modify and adjust our butts off, but the rigid system to which we are held accountable does not change: There is only one plane and it’s darn well going to London, like it or not!

So, teachers are constantly fighting the good fight to improve our craft. We are trying to reach the students who fall behind while somehow guiding the students who aren’t behind to advance at the proper pace, so they don’t have to stand around waiting on us. We struggle, we strive, we succeed, and we fail. It’s all in a day’s work. It’s what we do and, in an ideal world, it’s what’s best for students. But it’s not an ideal world in Educationland. It’s a long, long way from an ideal world. While teachers are being tasked with coming up with formative assessments that we are supposed to be using to gather information about our students’ learning so that we can stop everything and adjust our approach in ways that improve their achievement, we are trudging away in a system that holds us accountable to a completely summative assessment-based reality. The cold, hard facts are that no matter how much we utilize formative assessments to modify, adjust, and cater lessons and pacing to our various students’ unique needs, both students and teachers will be assessed by an almost purely summative accountability system. Teachers are evaluated on how our students do on an extremely high stakes standardized summative test about which we are allowed to know nothing other than that there will be questions based on a ridiculously long list of standards, most of which won’t even be addressed on the test. As “pilots,” we’re essentially being told, you’re going to London, you have to get all your passengers there safely by May, you don’t get a map, and if everything doesn’t go right, we’ll dock your pay. Let’s face it, students are almost never held back anymore…they always get off the plane when it lands, no matter where they are. Then, the next school year, they get back on the plane with little idea where they are and no idea where they are going. They’ll get a new pilot, but it’s the same old plane. 

In closing, I don’t want to give you the impression that I resent being asked to change what I do and how I do it. On the contrary, I want to be pushed to change, to get better at my craft, to find ways to better reach more of my students, to slow down when I need to and to bring everyone up to the same level of mastery of the content I teach. All of that is great. But the reality is that while teachers are constantly being asked to change, the outdated system under which we toil never does. 

Planes can only stay in the air for so long until they run out of fuel and crash. 

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