My Inner Conflict Between Logic and Creativity

A superintendent struggles to reconcile the stifling effects of over-testing and the joys of unbridled learning by Terry K. Holliday

Do you ever have one of those days where you finally think you have it figured out? Do you ever have one of those moments when you think you are the only one in the gallery who is getting it? Do you ever have one of those days when your life finally makes sense?

I’ve yet to have such a day, but I recently had one that came close.

I was attending a North Carolina Public School Forum board of directors meeting. This group has led the way in North Carolina for many years. It is responsible for many of the excellent programs that our state has put in place to improve education. The group is a wonderful blend of legislators, educators, business leaders and nonprofit leaders — a blend of talent and knowledge that has been emulated across the country.

During the meeting, the chief operating officer of Research Triangle Park located between Durham and Raleigh, gave a presentation. Research Triangle Park is one of the fastest-growing regions in the nation and is creating a tremendous number of jobs for the future. I went into the meeting thinking I was going to hear yet another business leader tell educators what a terrible job we were doing based on standardized test scores.

Dual Worlds
Just before attending the meeting, I reviewed a wonderful video on the lack of creativity in public education. The presenter, Sir Ken Robinson, builds a powerful case for changing education, as we know it today. (This presentation is available at www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/66.)

So what do Robinson’s video and the Research Triangle Park speech have in common? The answer is me. I have lived in two worlds for many years. As a former band director and musician, I was constantly immersed in the world of creativity. Jazz music requires creativity. Marching bands require creativity in order to excel. Even today, after 36 years in educational administration, I spend my weekends judging band contests that require long hours at very low pay. I do so because I enjoy the creativity and enthusiasm of the students and the directors as they create a powerful art form.

The other world I am immersed in is that of school superintendent. I’m also a member of numerous state commissions that are looking at education reform recommendations for our General Assembly and state board of education. The two worlds seem to conflict, and I am often polarized between creativity and logic.

As a superintendent, I am constantly pulled back into the logic of the real world of No Child Left Behind and accountability. This accountability manifests itself in standardized tests using a multiple-choice format that many researchers are saying is “dumbing down” or “narrowing” our curriculum. More than a few authors (including Thomas Freidman and Daniel Pink) say this approach is stifling creativity in our schools.

Exam Applications
I often am puzzled by business leaders’ emphasis on school accountability and basic skills. One of the state commissions on which I serve is looking at ways to change state testing and ensure our high school graduates are prepared for the 21st century global workforce skills. As we look at the current state model for high school accountability, the commission sees a heavy emphasis on end-of-course tests in four core subject areas. As we looked to our “customers” of high schools — businesses and colleges — we asked whether they used the results of the tests as predictors of success in business or college.

The chief operating officer of the Research Triangle Park said no. Business assumes graduates have the basic skills and then they assess applicants for work skills and creativity skills using computer-based assessments and scenarios built into computer games. Colleges agreed that the results of high school tests were not used as predictors of success. Colleges rely more on SAT, grade point averages and extracurricular participation. Colleges typically assess high school graduates with their own screening and placement assessments. So I asked a follow-up question: “Why do we spend millions in North Carolina to test high school students when no one uses the results?” The answer is clear — federally mandated accountability and No Child Left Behind.

The emphasis on standardized testing becomes clear to every child in North Carolina as soon as he or she steps into a 3rd-grade classroom. North Carolina uses performance-based assessments in K-2, but students see a different kind of accountability in 3rd grade. Recently one of our elementary guidance counselors explained the impact. She said students come to 3rd grade each year excited and with a love of school. Within the first few weeks, however, the students encounter the state’s 3rd grade pre-test of math, the 3rd grade field test of reading, an academic ability test screening for giftedness and a local reading assessment. The counselor said their bright and energetic smiles quickly fade to frowns and moans when multiple-choice test after test are stacked on their desks.

Another common experience shows this conflict between logic and creativity. Many school systems across the nation typically pull students out of music and art when the students show gaps in basic reading or math skills. For years, I have resisted this seemingly simple solution. I know for many students, art and music are the link to their success in school and life. Recently, I heard Willard Daggett, chief executive of the International Center for Leadership in Education and an international expert in curriculum reform for the modern workforce, support this position. Daggett said much research is showing music and art can be the vehicle to help students with basic skills. My experience integrating arts and basic skills curricula certainly supports this conclusion.

Stifled Talent
In his video presentation, Sir Ken Robinson tells the story of Gillian Lynne. As a child in elementary school, Gillian was constantly fidgeting and lacked focus, and her teachers were growing frustrated. The teachers suggested Gillian might need to be tested. If she had been a student in today’s schools, she would have been labeled as ADD or ADHD.

Gillian’s mother took her to a doctor and had her tested. The doctor asked the mother for a consultation outside of the room. As he left the room, he turned on the radio. The mother and doctor watched Gilliam through an observation window. Gillian began to move to the music. The doctor told Gillian’s mother there was nothing wrong with Gillian. “She is a dancer; take her to a dance school,” he said.

Gillian’s mother did just that and Gillian became a wonderful dancer. Gillian partnered with Andrew Lloyd Webber and became the choreographer for “Cats,” “Phantom of the Opera” and other hit musicals. Today, she is a multi-millionaire.

How many dancers, musicians, artists, architects and authors have we labeled before we learned what their creative talents are? Standardized tests do not measure these skills. Are we stifling the creativity of our children by our over-emphasis on testing?

Amazing Possibilities
As a superintendent I am often amazed at the creativity of students and teachers in our schools, in spite of the emphasis on standardized testing. One of our high schools has been immersed in IPod projects for a couple of years. Teachers in this school have learned that podcasts are great ways to engage students in listening skills, research and creativity. This school has learned that IPods provide an excellent tool for students who need read-aloud as an accommodation. Also, the school has learned that IPods are an excellent resource for our English Language Learners.

We have an elementary school that has been labeled as an at-risk school. This school implemented high-tech classrooms with interactive software, hand-held assessment devices and multiple sources for video streaming. When I visit the school, I see children engaged and teachers facilitating instead of lecturing. Only time will tell if these high engagement tools will translate into achievement on low-tech multiple-choice tests.

I have been amazed at English teachers who have figured out how to get students really excited about writing by using blogs, wikis and web pages. As a musician, I am overwhelmed by the creativity of classrooms using computer-based piano labs, midi-interfaces and software to create and edit music manuscripts in minutes that used to take me days to complete. I visit our auto-tech classes and marvel at the students’ ability to perform computer-based diagnostics and read technical manuals that are well beyond high school reading levels.

I am certain many school administrators, teachers, parents and students share this inner conflict between logic and creativity. I finally figured out the answer. It’s best captured by Rick and Becky DuFour, consultants on professional learning communities, who talk about write about the genius of “and” vs. the tyranny of “or.”

Terminating Tyranny
Many of us ask this question: If jobs of the future require creativity and innovation, how can we continue to promote basic skills testing requirements that hamper creativity and limit the innovation of technology? The answer has to be that we must do both. We must ensure students have basic competency in math, science, reading, technology and citizenship. We also must figure out how to assess these skills in innovative and creative ways that use technology.

I keep reading blogs and articles that promote one over the other. I keep hearing politicians who support basic skills. I keep reading authors who attack stand-ardized testing. We must come together and figure this out. We must prepare our children for the future they will face, a future that will require a blend of logic and creativity. The leaders of schools and school systems will be preparing children for an age that we cannot imagine.

Let’s involve students in preparing for that future and not limit ourselves to the past that we know. These digital natives can certainly help the digital immigrants figure out how to assess basic skills through 21st century technology. Let’s end the debate of what the Dufours call the “tyranny of or” and work toward the conciliatory nature of “and.”

Terry Holliday is superintendent of the Iredell-Statesville School District in Statesville, N.C. E-mail: tholliday@iss.k12.nc.us