Staff Book Club: The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test

I was thinking it would be nice to start some discussions for faculty via a summer reading opportunity. As we move forward, it is important to have collegial discussions about pertinent topics related to our ongoing school improvement efforts for all students.

Here is our next book…The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test by Linda Nathan.

Prompts to consider (see the chapter titles in the book, such as):

  • How are discussions of race and achievement taken on by a healthy professional learning community?
  • What makes great teachers possible, and how much can school leaders really ask of them?

Please add your replies to our blog.



Book Description (via Amazon): The Boston Arts Academy comprises an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse student body, yet 94 percent of its graduates are accepted to college. This remarkable success rate, writes Principal Linda Nathan, is in large part due to asking the right questions and being open to seeking solutions collaboratively with faculty, parents, and the students themselves. Nathan doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but seeks to share her insights on schools that matter, teachers who inspire, and students who achieve.


9 thoughts on “Staff Book Club: The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test

  1. Finished chp. 1 (June 25). I like the idea of having common “Habits of Mind,” which is a framework to practice certain ways of thinking in ALL classes. Students apply the Habits of Mind to classwork, homework, projects, and exhibitions. The Habits of Mind gives everyone a common vocabulary for discussing work and asking questions. Pg. 10 & 11 explain this concept, & the rest of Chp. 1 gives real life examples of how such a framework plays out in this school, which is an arts academy in Boston. I’m wondering how this could work in a big school like SMHS…author’s school only has 400+ students…

    OK, on to chp. 2…

  2. Mary – thank you for sharing. It sounds similar to school culture. School culture is the way we do things here. It is possible to change a school culture – it takes time and buy in but is definitely possible. I look forward to reading further comments from you.

  3. Nathan presents a good discussion of how important it is to have a “unifying framework” in any school. Her school (The Boston Arts Academy or “BAA”) tried to adopt several pre-made frameworks, which didn’t end up with buy-in, and ended up spending three years developing their own workable framework. It is another example of Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits,” which shows the value in developing a mission statement in which all the stakeholders participate so that there is buy-in. The Author points out how important it is to ask and encourage challenging questions about the school and its mission so that the school is constantly evolving to meet the needs of their students.

    The book is filled with inspiring stories about BAA’s students and teachers. There is a good discussion of what the author believes makes great teachers as well as a look at how PLCs work at BAA.

    I really liked how high the “Buy-In” level appeared to be at BAA – not just among the teachers but also among the students. Nathan drives this point home with her many stories about issues that came up and how they were resolved.

    BAA has a huge advantage over most public schools in that they are small (420 hand-picked students) and have 45 teachers. This means they have about 1 teacher for every 10 students on campus. It is clear that such an advantageous student/teacher ratio has allowed them to grow and flourish and fulfill their mission in working with underrepresented students. In reading the stories, the “relationships” on campus are very powerful and strong. 95% of their students go on to college. Impressive!

  4. Just finishing up this book and the main point that resonated with me was that the entire school community agreed upon core values/beliefs that really served as the guiding principles for decision making, dealing with issues, etc. They also spent a great deal of time discussing and wrestling with issues and always went back to their core values and beliefs. I wonder if it is possible to replicate this model with a larger school and staff. Is it possible to get a larger school community to agree upon core values and beliefs. We do have our ESLRs but I’m not sure that we have regularly looked at them as our stakeholders have changed.

  5. My reactions echo what has already been said by all here. I’m impressed with the importance Linda Nathan puts on the faculty wrestling with fundamental questions like, “what do we all care about together as a school community?” rather than allowing test scores to drive our conversations. I appreciate her openness to the faculty pressing on with honing their guiding framework for student learning: questioning, revising the question, and reshaping how students will demonstrate progress over time. I remember an after school faculty meeting we had in the fall. One of us commented on how important it is to stick with a goal/issue overtime, rather than constantly moving on to new objectives and issues each year. It seems “Rigor, Relevance and Relationship” helped us shape our conversations and efforts, much like BAA’s unifiying framework, RICO (refine, invent, connect and own).

    I love the value and practice of “owning” one’s learning process via various checkpoints across a student’s high school experience. As Olin and Mary have alluded to already, BAA is a small learning community, so it is logistically easier to carry off the “Sophomore Benchmark” conference tied to demonstrations of RICO and a Senior Project (like a oral defense of a master’s thesis). Years ago, we imagined the possibility of smaller learning communities at SMHS, and it seems we have created some: Health Academy, APPLE, and now the Entrepreneurial Program. I wonder whether we can renew those conversations about creating smaller communities among the rest of our student body, so that we can follow our students’ successes and failures and create interventions as they move along.

    Nathan describes what might happen to a student, Gerry, had he attended a traditional school and not participated in his Sophomore Benchmark conference. She writes, “Perhaps at another school, Gerry might have gone mindlessly through the motions of school, hoping to just get by. He might have been secretly grateful for the chaos, confusion, and disconnectedness of his high school experiences because they would have enabled him to remain anonymous and unnoticed. But Gerry would be the first to say that while his Sophomore Benchmark sometimes made him squirm, it also made him think hard about what he wants to accomplish during the next two years of high school and even beyond.” Benchmark conferences include a peer representative who offers observations and suggestions too. Rigor, relevance, and relationship. It’s built into the benchmark and senior project processes. Students at BAA cannot hide out. They have support at every level.

    I also like that the young scholar who presented a promising capstone senior project featured in Nathan’s book shares my name, Melanie. I’ll end with her project rationale: “Young adolescents need the opportunity to be a positive asset to their community. I know firsthand how easy it is to be brought down by the bad things going on around you or in your family or your community. The goal of this program is to give the youth a place of refuge from the negativity of society and also to teach them how to safely express themselves.” Though her vision pertains to the arts and the community beyond her school campus, it mirrors well the hopes of our faculty–that school can be a refuge–a place where students can safely make mistakes, revise, rethink, and grow more confident in their “academic skin” and in the use of available resources to support their learning.

  6. I have enjoyed reading Linda Nathan’s book The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test. She is candid about the challenges her school has faced and the struggles she and her education community have gone through to address these problems. She is honest about those times when she felt less than successful. What is impressive, however, is her determination to have a school in which students are engaged and growing. Her school’s mission is to integrate the arts and academics to create “engaged members of a democratic society.” She and her colleagues have done well with this mission by having high expectations for their students but also by giving them a voice. They responded as a school in real time to problems as they arose. A student run theatre group, “Soul Element,” formed to address the “issues of how young men of color struggle to succeed in society.” Other student groups formed to address issues of homophobia and substance abuse. The faculty uniformly expected rigor; but relevance and relationship were also keenly part of the equation.
    At the end of her book, Nathan describes the many problems educators face today. And yet she has had the luxury of having a small school with a high faculty to student ratio and the powerful pull of the arts. Her BAA consists of an EL population of around only 6%. This should in no way diminish our appreciation for her extraordinary achievement; but it should also not prevent us from forging ahead with our own efforts in the face of daunting odds. I can think of some real achievements that SMHS can be proud of; and this is due to some smart and courageous choices we have made over the years. For instance, to address the wave of bullying and homophobia sweeping the country, our administration supported the “Everyone is Gay” assembly last year. And if my memory serves me, we have had the Gay/Straight Alliance on campus for several years now. In addition, we have had lots of support, in the form of workshops, for those of us who teach English learners; and these students’ progress over the years has been impressive. I was also really touched by the student reaction to the great “Every 15 Minutes” program last year. When students talked about it in class afterwards, they were visibly moved. These are just a few examples of the school’s commitment to SHARED VALUES, the kind of values Nathan discusses (the commitment to diversity and respect for the education and well being of all). And if we ever wanted a report card for how we are doing with shared values, we only have to remember the lockdown we had on campus just a few years ago. People followed directions, they created solutions to problems on the spot, they worked together, and they were good to each other. The students and staff and admin performed admirably. That is authentic assessment. And SMHS passed with flying colors.
    Finally, there is one point I would like us to think about for the upcoming year. Nathan rightly points out that we need to focus on all learners. We must be flexible and strong so that we can adapt to the needs of everyone in our rooms, even the most reluctant of learners. This summer, as I was reviewing my notes from previous years, I ran across my folder for the Buffum Conference that several of us attended at the SBCEO in 2008. We came up with an action plan. Some of the items have come to fruition. We do now have an Intervention Committee, for instance, that has done some good work. But an item that we have not put into place, and I would like to see for this year is: late start Thursdays should be devoted to interventions for struggling students. I can think of a student I was assigned last spring. Through collaboration with my colleagues, we were able to raise his two failing grades to C’s by the end of the year. Let’s try to expand on this in 2012-2013.

    • Thank you Phil for sharing about this book. I agree focusing on student learning and assisting struggling students during PLC time on late start Thursdays is an excellent way for us to continue to make progress to better serve ALL students.

  7. A lot of good points already brought up. But after reading this, something keeps popping up in my head. And if I have to be the scapegoat to bring it up then so be it. When was the last time we (as a staff) really looked to see if our modified block schedule is still serving the needs of our students? If it is, how do we know that? How can we prove it? The book talks about the need to evolve and change to fit the needs of our students.
    Is our modified block working because we think it is working and it is what we are used to? Or do we have proof to show the new assistant superintendent and Dr. Cash that it is working since the data that the public always sees show that we are behind DP and SB?

    As I said, there are many great ideas from this book that others have already discussed. But after reading it, our Modified block schedule and it’s effectiveness keeps creeping into my head. Is it a discussion that we need to have with the staff, a discussion that will take more than 3 or 4 meeting to thoroughly review,

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