What Are We Losing By Keeping Learners On-Track?

Voices from the Field   06 February 2019
By Elliot Washor, Big Picture Learning and the Met Center


Can students get credit for being off-track from the standard measures? Are the schools adapting to the students or is it the other way around?

Elliot Washor

Once again, there is a push from policymakers to use big data to monitor student progress. They believe, as they always have, that by doing so, we can immediately identify who is on-track and who needs redirection, so everyone can graduate “on time.” But, what does it mean to be on-track? What does a student know when they are on-track? Who knows they know what they know? What do we really know they know? And, when a student graduates “on time,” what important things have we predicted in the process?

Policymakers and districts use graduating at 18 years old as an anchor because, from their vantage point, it is one of the only ways they can “easily” keep track. Therefore, “staying on-track” becomes an important phrase. This sounds simple to understand until you look at an individual person unattached to statistical averages. Once you do that, you have to know the student and where they are in many more ways than we currently account. Policymakers are placing a heavy bet that a narrow set of measures will suffice in determining whether or not a student is ready to graduate into a world where they will be measured by employers and their communities in ways far more complex than a simple score on a test.

Can We Make Off-Track Learning Legal?

When I was a kid, the only betting that was legal took place at the racetrack. Of course, there were plenty of bets being made off-track, and rather than continue wasting resources cracking down on it, off-track betting was legalized. What was illegal became legal.

Like betting, learning occurs off-track. And, like the betting days of old, only on-track (in school) learning counts. Off-track learning isn’t illegal, but in the eyes of our education system, it’s seen as second-rate. In the world at-large, so much profound high-quality learning is happening off-track. To meet policymakers in the middle, why can’t we use the same technology that tracks big data in the classroom to keep track of what students are learning in places beyond school?

About a year ago, I was reading a story in the Craftsman’s Quarterly featuring a high school student from Oakland. Rakau “Rocky” Boikanyo had been recognized as a Future Master and a Harbor Freight Fellow for his abilities and skills. Rocky was shown displaying a prosthetic metal hand he had constructed in two weeks time. Is this student off-track? Does his unique creation of prosthetic hands count even though it’s not part of any curriculum? Or, by doing what he loves, are he and students like him on-track? Can students get credit for being off-track from the standard measures? Are the schools adapting to the students or is it the other way around?

What if Rocky decided he wanted to pursue his craftsmanship by becoming an apprentice to a Master Craftsman? Let’s look at the movie business for some parallels.

A dinosaur reads directions for survival as a meteor hits in the background.

The 2018 Academy Award nominations featured the movie, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, written and directed by Martin McDonagh. I saw his first play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, over 20 years ago, and have been following him ever since. At 16-years-old, McDonagh left his Irish secondary school to become a writer and director. He is yet another director, like James Cameron, Ang Lee, and many others, where the fit to school was not a good one. Cameron left college before finishing his English degree and Lee, to the disappointment of his family, twice failed the Chinese exams he needed to pass to get into a university. Are these men living permanently off-track lives?

According to McDonagh’s bio, he used his free time to write, watch movies, and put his plays in the hands of producers. No one seemed to pay any attention until Garry Hynes, the founding director of a little theatre in Galway called The Druid Theater, asked to see what plays had been submitted for consideration. Early on, this theater barely had a stage to perform on, and today, it has produced many recognizable film and theater stars on and behind stage and screen. It was at the Druid Theater that McDonagh was discovered, and the rest is hard work and history. A few years later, Garry Hynes went on to become the first woman to win a Tony Award for Best Director. It was for directing McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Linnane.

When is Being Off-Track the Right Track to Be On?

Three Billboards was inspired by a road trip McDonagh took through the middle of America to better understand the plays of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. During the trip, he saw a billboard that chastised a police officer. He doesn’t remember where it was or what it stated, but it was how the billboard communicated a message that stuck with him and inspired the movie.

The origin story of Three Billboards and McDonagh’s personal story fascinate me for a number of reasons. McDonagh not only went off-track, he got side-tracked! I find it beneficial for schools to spend time measuring whether students are on-track to graduate. But, every student is on different tracks at different times. How do we measure that, while still honoring the times students get side-tracked, off-track, or otherwise through no fault of their own? The conventional assumption that students must be on the same track as everyone else all the time doesn’t honor the natural flow of life.

At sixteen, guitarist Les Paul, another high school dropout, was asked by his mentor, Joe Wolverton, to join his band. Les Paul went home and told his mom, “I don’t care about algebra and who sank the Titanic. Nothing means nothing to me, just Joe.” Was Les on-track or off-track? Why can’t we have schools that allow students to leave the school building, engage in their communities, and credit their learning around their interests? Isn’t this what micro-credentials are supposed to do?


I’m flooding you with anecdotes to show these stories aren’t anomalies. They are completely natural. And, they shouldn’t be ignored.

Elliot Washor

Earlier this year, a friend sent me an email about Connecticut Congresswoman Jahana Hayes. By conventional school measures, she was way off-track. She left school to have a child, graduated from a high school that specifically served expectant mothers, took low-wage jobs, went to community college, and got a teaching job. While teaching, Jahana went on to graduate school and eventually became National Teacher of the Year.

Her story doesn’t stop there. Twelve days before Connecticut’s Congressional Democratic Primary, Hayes decided to run and came out victorious. She is the first African American woman ever elected by Connecticut voters to be in Congress. She is one of only a few black members of Congress serving a district where the majority of the voting population is white.

I’m flooding you with anecdotes to show these stories aren’t anomalies. They are completely natural. And, they shouldn’t be ignored. We are motivated to keep our kids in school, but what’s the why behind it? To keep them on-track? What if Congresswoman Hayes never had the experiences she had? Would she have made history? Do we take the time to understand or evaluate our decisions differently for the benefit of the individual student? These are difficult questions to answer, but if we had a system that credited off-track learning, Hayes would be off the charts. What can we make of that?

How Can We Credit Off-Track Learning?

Perhaps you think there are great risks in trying to account for off-track learning. But, what if with the technology we have, we change our system so that every student had a learning plan whether they are on-track or off-track by conventional measures, and we manage learning longitudinally? At Big Picture Learning, we have been advocating and using a personal learning plan for every student for decades.

We could consider all of these people with all of these stories off-track. Some graduated “on time,” and some did not. Perhaps you are side-tracked or, like Les Paul, you are multi-tracking. Even when you are on-track, we are all always learning somewhere off-track. Hopefully, someday soon, our system will learn how to fit every student, to honor and count the many ways students really learn, and to make off-track learning “legal.”

We can never hope to learn how Les Paul, Jahana Hayes, Ang Lee, Martin McDonagh, or even young Rocky Boikanyo got to where they are until we recognize off- and on-track learning and accept and appreciate how much significant learning happens outside of school.

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