While he was completing his graduate work at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, one of the most memorable learning experiences for Mark Wise, now the WW-P district’s K-12 supervisor of curriculum and instruction, was the “spring exercise.”
During this two-week period, his class set aside its usual curriculum plans to solve a real world problem: a fix for Social Security. Classmates from the ethics, public speaking, and other classes came together to work on a solution.
Wise has continued to use such exercises to expose his students to the skills needed to solve real-world problems. In 1996, he ran for the U.S. Senate to allow his students at the time (at J.P. Stevens in Edison) to learn how to work on a campaign. He was a third party candidate who ran against Bob Torricelli and Dick Zimmer.
Wise is continuing this approach in the WW-P district, most recently through the Grade 8 Exit Assessment project, in which students perform hands on work.
WW-P students are well known for their exceptional scores on standardized tests and for a range of other academic achievements. But school officials will test whether they can use those lessons to solve a real-world problem.
Prior to moving on to high school, all 860 eighth graders in the district are putting themselves in the shoes of officials from around the world as they aim to find solutions within various countries that would meet the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for 2015.
The goals, established by the UN, include: End Poverty and Hunger, Universal Education, Gender Equality, Child Health, Maternal Health, Combat HIV/AIDS, Environmental Sustainability, and more.
WW-P students have been studying these goals and are using the skills they have developed throughout their time at WW-P to make presentations on Friday, June 10, to apply their problem-solving skills to these causes.
The program requires students to research the MDGs and then apply their knowledge as country delegations charged with defining their assigned country’s root problems, identifying challenges and barriers to growth, and then designing an action plan with criteria-based solutions to enable their nation to meet the time-sensitive development targets.
The country teams will then present to a group of community volunteers who will be serving as United Nations officials who will be evaluating the students based on a set of standards for effective communication and practical problem solving. The top teams will be awarded a fictitious $50 million development package. In addition to winning the development aid, the top-scoring teams will make their presentation to an authentic audience relating to their cause through Skype or teleconference.
The Grade 8 Exit Assessment will not only gauge whether district students can apply the “21st century competencies” the district hopes to provide to them, but it will measure areas where the district can improve its curriculum, says Wise, who developed the program.
The goals established by the UN are real. “There is a real time frame,” he says. “These goals have to be accomplished by 2015. There is a pressure with four years to go that countries are supposed to meet these benchmarks or targets.”
What’s also good about having the students study the MDGs is that the topics tie in with a variety of disciplines, allowing students of all levels and backgrounds to apply what they know to solving the problem.
“Every eighth grader is participating, whether they’re ESL (English as a Second Language) students or pulled out of Special Education programs, or whether they’re the highest flying kids taking college courses at Princeton,” says Wise.
While the South Brunswick school district has a program for its sixth graders that is similar to this, Wise says he is not familiar with projects in any nearby districts that are as sophisticated or as complex — dealing with global development — as the one in WW-P.
There are two phases to the project. “We didn’t want Phase II to have such difficult content that we wouldn’t be able to assess the skills we are interested in, so we knew we had to build up comprehension,” said Wise.
So in the first phase, the students are in the classroom, focusing on a particular goal and developing an expertise. They will then make presentations to their classmates. This will generate feedback about how well they communicate, with the idea that “this is a scrimmage.”
In the second phase, students are given 16 hours from Monday morning to Thursday afternoon to design a 10-minute presentation for their particular country’s solution, based on the needs of that particular country.
“The teachers are going to be there and offer mini-lessons on certain aspects,” but the students will decide how to best use their time and are not required to use these mini lessons. But how well they used their time will count in the assessment.
When they make their presentations, judges will consider how well the students are able to speak and utilize the media, and their problem solving. “Were they able to identify with clear evidence why they prioritized that problem over others, and does that plan have coherence?” said Wise.
There will be three to five judges in a given room (there will be 18 rooms running simultaneously), and each will see between 8 and 10 presentations. A winner will come out of each room.
The winners will have the opportunity to Skype with someone in the field. Wise has lined up officials from each industry. If someone focuses on hunger, for example, officials from the Hunger Project will be available to chat with the students. Some of the officials include those from the London School of Economics, environmental consultants, and Azamat Abdymomunov, the Kazakhstan Vice Minister of Education and Science, who is based at MIT Massachusetts in Boston.
This assessment program allows the district to measure whether students meet the district’s list of “21st century competencies.” To meet these “competencies,” WW-P students will ideally be globally aware; active and responsible students and citizens; self-directed learners; innovative and practical problem solvers; collaborative team members; effective communicators; and information-literate researchers — all of which come with a detailed set of ideal traits for students to have.
Measuring these “outside the box” skills requires “outside the box” assessments, like the Grade 8 Exit Assessment, and Wise is already experienced in performing these kinds of assessments.
Wise grew up in Fairlawn. His mother worked for Lucent as a team staff developer, and his father owned his own business in refrigeration and air conditioning. He earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and taught in Washington, D.C., for three years, as a program instructor and as an outreach coordinator.
He moved to J.P. Stevens High School in Edison, where he was a government and history instructor. During his five-year tenure at J.P. Stevens, Wise had his high school students organize and run his campaign for Senate.
Students gathered and filed the ballot petitions, created a new political party and platform, conducted polling activities and focus groups, coordinated the media effort, and mobilized grass-roots support. “We ran a real campaign in 1996,” he said. “Part of it was always wanting to do real-world stuff.”
The project was part of an Advanced Placement government class, and Wise designed the curriculum to fit the project. Parents supported his efforts. “If there were things that needed to be done outside of the curriculum, we did it at lunch or on weekends,” he said. “It was their project. I was running on their ideas and not necessarily mine.”
The project generated media attention from outlets like MTV, CNN, and Fox News, and any time he made an appearance, he brought his students with him.
While Wise was not intending to win, the campaign generated 1 percent of the vote — close to 14,000 votes. The campaign was run before the Internet was widely used, and Wise and his students did not participate in fundraising. “I knew I wouldn’t get elected,” he said. “It was really just about the educational experience.”
It did not stop there. When Wise came to WW-P in 1999 as the district’s supervisor of curriculum and instruction, he wanted to model that type of work here. At the time, the district had an end-of-the-year model UN for eighth grade students. “We weren’t quite satisfied it was doing what we wanted it to do,” he said.
This new assessment program morphed as the district began work in 2002 on its middle school competencies — what officials thought were essential skills that are equally as important as what the students learn in the curriculum.
“Regardless of the curriculum they may be exposed to, the bottom line is we want the kids to be able to problem solve,” as well as be self-directive, globally aware, and have a sense of responsibility, Wise said.
The Grade 8 Exit Assessment was developed into a program that would incorporate teamwork and allow for an outside audience to help evaluate it.
“These are skills that are ultimately why we are teaching the curriculum we are teaching,” Wise said. “We’re not teaching students to memorize facts, that as technology increases, they are going to have at their fingertips. It’s more how do you use the information you have out there? What kind of workers are we going to need? What kind of citizens are we going to need? What kind of college student is going to be most successful?”
Wise said the project gives every type of learner the ability to shine. “It inherently allows for differentiation by the mere fact that kids can present at a Ph.D level or present at a fourth grade level, as appropriate for their learning,” he said. “It’s like going to a yoga class. Everyone is being pushed to reach a little bit higher.”
For example, last year, one team had two special education students. One of the students, who had not been engaged all year, stepped up. At one point, the team had the opportunity to talk to Gayle Smith, a special assistant to President Barack Obama and senior director at the National Security Council, where she is responsible for global development. The student took the reins as the lead communicator with Smith.
“It just blew everyone away that out of nowhere, he found himself,” said Wise. “We’ve found that with a lot of kids. It didn’t feel like school; it felt like the real world. They really appreciated what they were doing.”
Further, the assessment falls on the second to last week for eighth grade students in the district. “The kids are working harder than they ever have,” he said. “But there’s no grade. They are being scored by the outside evaluators, and there is no grade. That is a big leap of faith that kids will work hard when there is no grade attached, and they have.”
Wise says the program is not meant to simply judge the students, but also to judge the district’s program. So what has the district learned so far?
WW-P students are better at the type of problem solving that is statistical. For example, students perform well on solving mathematical problems that calculate how long it takes a high-speed train to go a certain distance based on mathematical factors.
But they have a harder time with another type of problem solving: whether that type of transit is a good solution for the current transportation and economic situation — a problem that requires analyzing various views and pieces of information on the matter to make a decision.
“That’s the kind of problem-solving that we need to have students do,” said Wise. “With a project like this, we’re hoping it highlights this, and people would be more encouraged to do the latter kind of problem solving. There’s so much competing information out there. How do you sort through and determine who has a better argument?”