Douglas Christensen: Assessment Maverick
Credit: Peter Hoey
Douglas Christensen, Nebraska's state commissioner of education, is gifted with a maverick streak of common sense that is not only changing public schools in the Midwestern state, it's also getting the attention of educators throughout the country. An early critic of the high-stakes testing dictated by the No Child Left Behind Act, Christensen told Time magazine last year he had informed the U.S. Department of Education that "we had a better way." Since 1999, he has been acting on that bold claim by implementing a very different approach to student assessment.
To assess their progress, Nebraska's students in grades four, eight, and eleven complete a statewide exam that includes a written essay. In some school districts, that assessment might also include projects, demonstrations, and oral presentations. Nebraska's teachers are free to design curriculum for their classes as long as it aligns with state standards. So, how has Nebraska's approach to assessment worked out, and how does it compare to the results other states are getting?
"Eighty-five percent of our kids are proficient in reading, writing, and mathematics, which is very high," says Christensen. According to the research, he adds, "you can use writing for an indicator that will just about predict any other literacy-based score -- math literacy, science literacy, reading literacy." The state supplements its writing tests with standardized exams, such as the ACT and the MAPE. "If our state proficiencies are going up, we expect those standardized scores to be going up, and they are," the commissioner says.
Christensen feels strongly that schools must be classroom centric. He is committed to a bottom-up model with, he says, "teachers teaching, kids learning." Teachers, he believes, should decide how they teach, and they are in the best position to assess how their students are doing and what they need. The teacher, not the principal, must be the instructional leader, he says. Teachers should always be assessing their students' grasp of what they're being taught, Christensen contends. "You shouldn't have to wait until the end of the year to find out that a certain percentage, or an individual kid, didn't get it," he says.
A public education system, he adds, functions best not as "a hierarchy with the teacher at the bottom" but rather as what Christensen terms "a concentric-circle model." The classroom and the teacher, he says, should be in the center, with the principal supporting the teacher and the superintendent and the school board supporting the principal. "And the state and federal governments ought to be supporting all of that," he concludes.
It means that all the players take somewhat different roles, Christensen admits, but "they're all leadership roles, and there isn't a hierarchy." It makes teaching and learning in the classroom "the core," he says. So far, this approach to assessment has brought about what he calls "dramatic shifts" in Nebraska's schools. And that, the iconoclastic commissioner concludes, is good for students.
How do you use the Web or other technology in your work?
We had a grant that trained about 300 administrators over a two-year period in the basics of using technology; they all get a laptop computer. It was intended to create literacy among the participants so that they, particularly principals, could manage instruction in terms of data and its uses, and encourage the teachers to use technology.
One of the spin-offs is that we've got a couple of schools in which junior high school and high school kids have laptops, and they do some amazing projects -- for example, tracing the history of the people who homesteaded the land in their area, putting it up on the Web site, and creating DVDs the folks in the local historical society are selling.
And we've got a teacher who has used that same kind of idea to learn about the history of the community and has mapped these lessons to the standards. In a recent project, she and her class went to the cemetery and took down all the names, and they're tracing the history of those families. Old folks really like that kind of thing, and they buy enough of the DVDs that it funds the next project.
They also did a project on the history and the architecture of the old-style barns around here. Some of those old dairy barns and the big, fifty-stall horse barns are still here. Kids learn math and science in the process.
We have a school-improvement model on the Web site. What we're after is schools engaging in the use of data to do continuous improvement.
Which resources have inspired you and informed your work?
The intellectual capacity and passion of teachers shows no boundaries. I've never met a classroom teacher yet who didn't want to do the best for every kid. If you can find ways to unleash that, the mental-creativity piece of it -- the ability to put a master's degree and ten years of experience together with that, the ability to work as a team, and then the passion that causes anybody to become an educator in the first place -- you start putting that together, that's what drives me.
Who are your role models?
There's a part of me that's Rambo. I mean, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone. I don't worry about who likes what I do, doesn't like what I do. If it's the right thing, I don't worry about the politics that might precede it. I jump in and then deal with it as I go along. An idealist like John F. Kennedy was a role model for me, because I believe he could put ideas out there that people would respond to.
And John McCain, the presidential candidate, who wrote Why Courage Matters. You read that book and you think, 'This is a person who has a soul.' People whose wisdom simply comes from being comfortable with who they are, are role models for me.
Winston Churchill is another. And Ulysses S. Grant. I like General Grant's leadership. He wasn't a technician; he was a strategist. He didn't worry about where Robert E. Lee was. He simply said, "We're going to be prepared to meet Lee whenever we meet him." I don't have one role model; I have lots of them.
What advice would you give those who consider you a role model?
Watch what my heart is saying in my actions. Lead with your heart, lead with your soul. As to how I do that, this job has given me the gift of being able to live those issues.
What fundamental beliefs have guided your work?
The fundamental belief that kids are the future. The work of adults, the nobility of the work of our adults, has to do with loving kids, helping them get as much as they possibly can in preparation for their future, in preparing to make a contribution to their future. And that's a legacy we all can leave: what we did for the next generation that comes along. One of the things that I say all the time is, 'It's about planting trees in whose shade you're not going to sit.' I believe in helping kids with a future that's theirs, and then stepping aside and letting their future be.
What is your mantra in the face of adversity?
Trust your heart; trust the voices inside of you. And the courage to do that comes from your conscience. The hardest job in the world is to live your conscience. That's the bravest thing you can do, because a lot of times, it really annoys people.
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