Voices in Education

How to Change Our Schools in Just One Day
The following article originally appeared in The Harvard Education Letter (volume 10, number 2). Copyright 1994 President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

Dear President Rudenstine:

For several years now I've been working on the idea of using portfolios—collections of students' work documenting their progress and development over time—as an alternative way of assessing children's learning in school. I meet regularly with groups of high school teachers to show them how it works. Quite often I get this reaction: "Very nice—but it could never happen in my school. The kids and their parents are too worried about getting into college, and they know that the colleges don't look at portfolios. If I used portfolios instead of tests, I'd get clobbered."

It's true that a number of reform-minded schools and school districts are experimenting with portfolios, but many of us are eager for large-scale changes. We want to see radically different schools by the end of this century. And I've heard the standard objection to portfolios so many times that I've constructed a rather elaborate fantasy about how really big changes in our schools might happen.

My daydream starts with the formation of a consortium of colleges and universities, public and private, large and small, new and old, from all over the United States. It doesn't matter how many colleges are part of this consortium, but it is important, in my fantasy, that Harvard University be one of them. The consortium has come together because of a shared commitment to the reform of K-12 public education.

The group members have may meetings. They consider sponsoring research. They consider establishing model high schools and elementary schools. They consider revamping teacher education. They consider setting up university and school partnerships. They consider weighing in as a group with state legislatures on certain policy decisions. They talk about going to the President of the United States.

But, being wise and prudent and having a strong sense of the history of public education in this country, they become depressed. They don't believe that any of these ideas will bring about the changes they so deeply want to see before the end of the century.

The consortium enters a dark period. They consider giving up. But through a strange set of circumstances and an accident of technology, something unusual happens. A college president who is a member of the group has a daughter who is a senior in high school. They have two phone lines, and two of those wireless phones with ten channels. One night his line gets hooked into his daughter's channel and he overhears her talking with a friend. They are very distressed about their college applications. They don't know how to present themselves. They don't know what the colleges are looking for. In the end, deep down, they believe it is only the SATs that really matter.

This phone call becomes the catalyst that brings the members of the consortium to a breakthrough. They realize that if they want K-12 education to change in profound ways, higher education may have to change in profound ways. And on that very day, they decide that they will no longer base admissions decisions on SATs or any other form of standardized test. They hold a press conference and announce their decision.

In my fantasy I see the headline on the front page of the New York Times the next morning: "Harvard Changes Locks: High School Seniors Scramble to Find New Keys."

There is a panic across the land. And it isn't just seniors who are scrambling. It is guidance counselors and parents, superintendents and teachers. The shock is felt all the way down to the elementary schools.

The next few years are a mess, but they are exciting. College admissions offices double and triple in size. The whole process of articulating what is wanted and expected of high school seniors, what is looked at and what will count, changes drastically. What replaces those tests? After much debate, the colleges decide to look at the actual work students have produced in high school.

Fortunately, there have been many teachers around the country helping students produce portfolios of their work. Those teachers become highly sought-after consultants. Ina particularly delicious part of this fantasy, it becomes clear to everyone that the people who know the most about working with portfolios are elementary and middle school teachers. (This is in fact true. Why? Because all those high school teachers have been so afraid of getting clobbered.)

So, in my fantasy, college administrators and high school faculties start flocking to workshops run by kindergarten, first-grade, and second-grade teachers. They are lining up to observe in fourth-grade classrooms and begging for time from middle school math teachers.

Okay. It's all a dream. But if you want to see K-12 school reform in real life, please stop a moment to consider four quick thoughts that my fantasy suggests:

Higher education has a responsibility to do all that it can to encourage school reform.

Efforts made by individual colleges are probably going to be far less effective in large-scale reform than efforts made by schools working together in groups.

Acting as modelers of change is a critical role for higher education. It is hard to ask others to change if you yourself aren't involved in the process in dramatic and visible ways.

It is very important to examine the pints of direct relationship between higher education and K-12 schools and to focus joint reform efforts at those points. Admissions is one of them. Teacher education is another.

As often happens in fantasies, I've completely overlooked some pretty big problems. Perhaps the most glaring is that only about half of high school graduates ever go on to college. What would these changes mean for the other half? Would they be beneficial? Perhaps. Would they be irrelevant or, worse, hurtful? Perhaps. Certainly all of school reform cannot be guided by college entrance requirements.

But neither should school reform be guided solely by the interests of higher education or, for that matter, the needs of business. Yes, these interests and needs are important. But any reform must be measured against the real needs of actual children—for physical safety and physical challenges, for a place in the community, for meaningful work, for intellectual and social challenges, for respect, for nurturing, and for ample opportunities to learn and grow. Creating a system that responds to the real needs of children—now there's a worthwhile fantasy for you.

About the Author: Steve Seidel develops portfolio assessment strategies as Research Director of the Apple Project, affiliated with Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.