"How do you know when you are ready to graduate from this school?"
When I ask this of students at schools around the country, the answers I typically get seem either arbitrary or abstract. "I am ready after I have been here for four years." "I need one hundred and [fill in the blank here] credits." Or simply, "When I get my diploma."
Students at some schools give a different kind of answer: "In order to graduate, I have to argue my case. I know I am ready when I can prove to a panel that I have gained the skills I need to move on." Then they rattle off the list of skills that their school has challenged them to master.
That is how students answer the question at Kamaile Academy in Waianae, Hawaii, or Envision Academy, in Oakland, California, or Los Angeles High School of the Arts (LAHSA). They and a growing group of schools all over the country are tying graduation to a powerful, academic rite of passage, commonly referred to as a "defense."
It's certainly not a new idea, and its similarity to what Ph.D. candidates must do to earn their doctoral degrees is no coincidence. The idea is catching on in high schools and middle schools because of our field's maturing understanding and rising estimation of performance assessment.
That's all a defense really is — a culminating performance assessment that synthesizes what we want our students to know and be able to do before they move on to the next level. Schools have long codified their goals in the form of mission statements, standards, declarations of values, and graduate profiles. The premise of performance assessment — that to evaluate skills we must observe them in action — challenges schools to take the aspirational words in the handbooks and on the posters and embody them in real student performances.
What students defend, and to whom they make their defense, varies in creative, practical, and school-specific ways. At Envision Academy, each student assembles work from across her subject classes into a portfolio of five artifacts that demonstrate her ability to research, analyze, inquire, create and apply. During her oral defense, she presents three of these to a panel of teachers and fellow students. The event takes an hour, with over a third of it devoted to a rigorous Q&A session with the panel.
At Kamaile Academy, a school on the leeward coast of Oahu that serves disadvantaged native Hawaiian youth, students must not only argue their mastery of academic skills, but also explain their plans for embodying the value of "Kuleana," or responsibility to the world, one of the cultural values of the school. Local community elders join teachers on Kamaile's defense panels.
At Health Professions High School in Sacramento, California, students defend a year-long, cross-disciplinary senior project. It starts with an extended explanatory research paper on a chosen medical issue, evolves into a stance expressed in an argumentative essay and is then taken to the streets in a public advocacy campaign, working in collaboration with a local medical professional. Anyone who watches a student defend one of these projects knows, without having to read the school's graduate profile, what kind of student Health Professions has aspired to mold: "A student prepared for college and career, a responsible citizen, an independent critical thinker, a life long learner and an excellent communicator."
Regardless of the variations on well-designed defenses, the transforming effect that they have on learning communities is similar. For one, defenses help schools focus on the fundamentals. There is a logic to defense design — that need to distill — that converges on a set of performance tasks that express what is elemental to the core subject areas and to college and career readiness in general: research, textual analysis, experimental design, mathematical reasoning, historical argument, artistic judgment, collaboration, communication and critical thinking. Most defense systems are built around some subset of this list. Not incidentally, they also align with and encompass the essence of the Common Core.
I taught English for six years in a school that was built on defense, and the structure impelled me to focus my courses on what was essential and transferable. Students needed to walk out of my courses with textual analyses that they could defend. My classes needed to be suffused with feedback and revision, ultimately the only route to mastery. More than any other factor, preparing my students for defense made me a better teacher. Now I have the privilege to travel the country and help other schools develop performance assessment systems, and where I see defenses I see the same clarity of purpose.
Just as defense helps teachers focus their teaching, it also helps students make sense of their education, seeing it not as a collection of credits but as a multi-year project toward a unified end. I never encounter students as eloquent about their learning as students who go to a school that requires them to defend. These students have a deep understanding of what they must learn. They are asked not just to do the work but to reflect on what it means. If they don't pass, they try again.
Some wonder, once students have assembled a portfolio of college-ready work, why the final oral defense is necessary. What students will tell you is that the oral defense is where the deepest learning occurs. Defenses are arguments but they are also stories. Students tell the story of their education. And the insights they discover in the act of telling that story are often the most important things they take with them.
Designing and implementing learning defenses is a huge job for all involved — the students, teachers and school leaders. But I haven't met anyone who regrets it once he or she is able to look back. And I can't name another mechanism that offers a school more leverage for transforming itself into a place of deeper learning.