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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

School Of The Future

Grades 6-8 | New York City, NY

How the School of the Future Got It Right

This New York City, 6-12 school measures student ability through formative assessments, presentations, exhibitions, and tests. Their special sauce? A rigorous focus on measuring "authentic" tasks tied to real world challenges.

Manhattan, School of the Future has a dedicated core of teachers who are making learning relevant and assessment a rigorous part of the process.

Credit: Tom LeGoff
 

The School of the Future (SOF) is a grades 6-12 public school in New York City's bustling Gramercy Park neighborhood. Rising 11 stories above the East Side of Manhattan, SOF is a small school -- it has fewer than 700 students -- and is well known as a progressive one, a place where students develop the ability to think critically rather than just ace a standardized test.

What makes this school different is this: SOF measures the full range of student ability through formative assessments, presentations, exhibitions, and tests that focus on authentic tasks to assess students' skills and knowledge as they relate to real-world endeavors. SOF holds its students (and its teachers) to high standards of performance, demanding a level of rigor not found in many other schools. Notes Stacy Goldstein, the director and principal of SOF's middle school, "We are serious about figuring out how to fold assessment and accountability into our progressive school culture." And here's proof that what they are doing works: Although 40 percent of SOF students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, 98 percent of them graduate and continue their education by going on to college.

Like all schools, SOF faces its own peculiar challenges. The building is nearly 100 years old and shows it. With classrooms housed on 10 floors, it's not easy to foster a full-blown sense of community. There is also room for a wider and deeper infusion of technology into the learning process. Nevertheless, SOF is succeeding impressively. When we visited, we discovered a smart, enthusiastic, and ultra-dedicated community of administrators, students, teachers, and parents. We also discovered their unflagging approach to comprehensive assessment, which they call authentic assessment.

Authentic Assessment

There are many ways to talk about authentic assessment, but the essence of this approach is that it is, in fact, authentic. This means that a physics assessment should involve doing physics -- performing experiments and solving problems the same way that a real-life physicist would. An authentic history assessment requires students to ask questions, do independent research, and formulate answers to their questions, just like a real-life historian does.

What else does authentic assessment do?

  • It engages students and is based in content or media in which the students actually have a genuine interest.
  • It asks students to synthesize information and use critical-thinking skills.
  • It is a learning experience in and of itself.
  • It measures not just what students remember but how they think.
  • It helps students understand where they are academically and helps teachers know how to best teach them.

SOF's Rob Olazagasti teaches sixth-grade science. To teach a unit on the human cell -- the smallest unit of life -- and then assess what the students had learned, he used a "go big" strategy as in "big city" big.

Comprehensive Assessment: A New York City Success Story

Running Time: 03:28 min.

He had his students research organelles, the discrete structures within a cell that have specialized functions. Then he had the class build a model of New York City, one that matched the functions of major city departments to the functions of each organelle in a cell (e.g., the nucleus was the mayor's office, the endoplasmic reticulum was the subway system, and so on). Next, the class constructed large models of actual organelles inside one gigantic cell in Rob's classroom. (Words can barely do it justice. Watch the video for yourself.) Finally, the students taught an in-depth lesson to their fellow students while standing inside the gigantic cell.

Authentic assessment does not always have to involve building humongous human cells and models of New York City. But the thinking and planning that Rob used can be replicated in just about any classroom in any school. And that leads us to . . .

Planning

Authentic assessment involves a substantial amount of planning, specifically backward planning. That means you start at the end. It goes like this:

  • Identify the goals, skills, and knowledge that you want your students to ultimately acquire.
  • Determine what that learning would actually look and sound like (the teachers at SOF use a lot of rubrics).
  • Devise summative assessments (projects, presentations, etc.) that will demonstrate your students' learning at the end of a unit.
  • Devise formative assessments (small check-ins) that will lead your students to the summative assessment and help you know how to teach them along the way.
  • Create lessons and projects to promote the learning you want to happen.

If this sounds like a lot of advance work, it is. Authentic assessment is front-loaded for teachers, but according to SOF learning specialist Whitney Lukens, "It makes teaching more efficient and really speeds things up." Because you always know where your students are in the learning process, you can be much more directed in your teaching, and you avoid wasting time teaching students what they already know or aren't yet ready to learn. It also means you're a lot less likely to reach the end of a unit only to discover what your students didn't learn. (Talk to others who care about assessment in Edutopia's Assessment Group.)

Still, planning takes time and that brings us to . . .

School Culture

No teacher is an island at the School of the Future. Put simply, there's no way that an individual teacher could pull off authentic assessment without substantial support for her efforts. SOF teachers benefit from a great deal of professional-development time, both in-house and in collaboration with Columbia University's Teachers College. And SOF middle school director, Stacy Goldstein, and high school director, John Fanning, make sure their teachers have the time they need to teach and to assess. Some of the structures built into the SOF schedule include the following:

  • Weekly grade-level team meetings for teachers
  • Two to five common planning times per week for same-subject teachers and special education teachers
  • Half-day Thursdays when all SOF teachers can plan and meet
As part of the New York Performance Standards Consortium and in keeping with the principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools, SOF students work on year-long research and writing projects, called exhibitions, in lieu of the New York Regents Exams, which are typically required of high school students in the state of New York. You can learn more about SOF's exhibitions here.

This much planning time may not be possible at every school. But if school leaders can find ways to give teachers more planning time, they are likely to see positive results, especially around assessment. SoF high school director John Fanning says, "The most concrete example is that when our kids come back from their first year of college, they thank us and say, 'I can write a 20-page research paper and my roommate can't.' Also, they feel more comfortable talking. They report they are participating in class discussions and backing up what they say with evidence and that they feel very comfortable in their first year of college."

We invite you to learn more about the School of the Future, to watch its teachers in action, and to see how they use authentic assessment to answer the key question that every educator must address: How do we know the students got it?

Comments (12)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Andy S's picture

CaradoriL - Which part(s) reflect your district's direction? Which parts of what we're doing seem to you most encouraging?

I'm going to be doing a webchat with the Edutopia folks on Wednesday Feb. 23 - and I'd like to know which aspects have the most resonance for you and other educators.

Philip Cooper's picture
Philip Cooper
High School and Community College math teacher

My hat's off to teachers at SOF! Keep up the good work!

I can't help noticing, though, that all the teachers are under 30 (or perhaps right around there,)- Rob, Esther, Andrew and Sarah - those in the videos: even the principal is pretty clearly younger than 50. Age discrimination, anyone? I am a little concerned (and perhaps a tad bit jealous) that being young and energetic wins awards per se.

But from a long-term institutional point of view I don't think it's a wise or sustainable use of your employees to focus on 20-somethings and make them feel they have to work nights and weekends to have flashy websites and flashy lessons.

Meanwhile, enjoy the limelight. I look forward to re-visiting SOF's successes in the coming years.

Andy S's picture

Thanks Phillip,

Most of us, I think, are older than we may appear in these photos (talented photographer).

But your larger point strikes me as accurate and important. We need to make schools in which the workload can be sustained and the experience and insights of veteran educators can be valued. Since I'm in the middle of my 10th year at SOF, and a few respected colleagues have been here significantly longer, I don't think that SOF has adopted the "burn-them-and-replace-them-every-two-years" model. But lots of schools have and some of the current policy rhetoric clearly originates from the promulgators of that model.

SOFParent's picture

While we may not have the newest technology at SOF, I can see from my 9th grader's experience that the teachers are thinking about how to use technology to further the learning process. In several classes my son is writing papers and sharing them with his teachers on Google Docs, and receiving quick feedback online that he uses for revisions.

Art Dowell's picture

Maybe the fact that not many 50+ educators believe in the concept enough to apply for the positions accounts for the majority of "younger teachers. Certainly the tone of "Meanwhile, enjoy the limelight. I look forward to re-visiting SOF's successes in the coming years." implies that you don't believe in the concept.

Philip Cooper's picture
Philip Cooper
High School and Community College math teacher

No, Art, if I understand you, I do like the concept and practice of "Authentic Assessment." My point was well understood and responded to by Andy S.

On to your statement... "Maybe the fact that not many 50+ educators believe in the concept ..." I have to ask "What fact? What concept?" Please be clear. I wouldn't be so bold as to generalize about "50+ educators" except to say that we have 50+ years of life experience and decades of professional experience... :)

Mike - 80540's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It obvious that school must be changed as children are learning so outdated thing that won't need them after graduated. Even technologies of learning have implemented but they doesn't reflect to school just yet.
Mike, vocabulary answers

davidgriffin's picture

i want to say that that'sall so mutch help to the new way i'll think for now on in life.tank's nyc

davidgriffin's picture

the hand's on is a grate teacher to all the young and old,it was my grates tool as i grew up and past those's same teaching down to my on kid's.

davidgriffin's picture

the hand's on is a grate teacher to all the young and old,it was my grates tool as i grew up and past those's same teaching down to my on kid's.

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