It’s always paved with the best intentions, that road to Hell. There is no better example of this concept than the brand new requirements for schools, resulting from our United States Department of Education’s “Race to the Top.” States are scrambling to get pieces of this HUGE pie. In the state where I live, New York, there are 700 million dollars at stake! Policy cogs are now racing like crazy to the top of that pile of money. In order to qualify for the funds, each state must submit a plan to the feds outlining how it will achieve the broad objectives of the “Race.” The so-called reforms that set the course for our race include the four broad categories of: adopting standards and assessments, building data systems, improving teacher quality, and turning around the lowest-achieving schools. These sound really good, right? As always seems to be the case in education, turning aspirations into policy is where things start heading in the wrong direction.
Most people believe that adopting standards and assessments is a pretty good idea. We certainly don’t want illiterate high school graduates. We should all agree on what kids should know and be able to do, and have some consistent way of measuring it. We are on the brink of establishing a set of national education standards, including 47 of our 50 states. Three still haven’t signed up, but eventually they probably will, so they can get their hands on the funding. Once the standards are approved, assessments will be developed so we will all be measuring our kids in exactly the same way. Great idea, huh? States will save a ton of money because they will no longer have to develop their own tests. There will be a real way to compare the progress from state to state, and loads of data to analyze so we can all get better at helping our kids to learn. States will still have flexibility with up to 15% of standards so they can include things that are locally important. The problem is that the panels who are determining how these assessments will work are loaded with...are you ready...testing companies. So, what type of tests do you think will result from this work? Will they be authentic assessments that evaluate how well kids can express themselves, think creatively, work collaboratively, and integrate learning to solve problems; all the things that our new national curriculum will likely stress? Hardly. These same companies are responsible for creating the tests that are causing the problems that I described in a previous blog. Testing companies are all about efficient administration and making money. LOTS and LOTS and LOTS of money. They link the tests to their own textbooks and then sell the books to schools wanting to crack the code of what is called “adequate yearly progress” required by the feds. As long as these conglomerates have a seat at the table, we are destined to even worse conditions than we have now.
Building data systems sounds great too. In fact, I actually work with a huge data system initiative and have seen first hand how valuable it can be. Educators can determine how they are doing and make adjustments along the way. But, the cost of maintaining these very sophisticated systems is robbing schools of valuable resources needed to help kids. Once a large corporation is contracted to build a system, the school district can become a hostage of that company. I recently witnessed a conversation between a school district analyst and a principal. The principal was truly interested in how she could improve and wanted fairly basic information. The analyst told her that the system had a glitch which could not be fixed because the corporation wanted too much money to fix it. There is a constant push-and-pull between educational agencies and the data management companies, usually resulting in either incorrect information or huge expenditures to fix it. The “annual yearly progress” indicators required by the feds have become so complex, such analysis is critical to continued funding.
Okay, this one should be easy. The “Race” includes a reform effort for “recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals.” What could be more basic and positive than that? So, we will determine if a teacher is effective by how well kids do on the tests. On the surface, that can work for teachers of core subjects that are tested. But, how do you determine the effectiveness of teachers of the arts? Physical education? Humanities? Is it okay to be effective at getting kids high scores on tests, but not establish sound relationships with those kids? Are there attributes that we think are important that we may not be able to measure? Are we really bold enough to completely overhaul how we license/certify teachers? Currently, each state has a system of certifications that includes very stringent rules that schools must follow, or lose funding. The problem is that there is no correlation between state teaching certifications and teacher quality. There is a great deal of consensus among educators, researchers, and policy makers that our current method of certifying teachers does NOT equal quality, yet schools must demonstrate to the feds that their teachers are “highly qualified” by virtue of their certifications. In other words, the federal requirements contradict themselves. Until we are ready to truly address this fact, we will not be able to improve teacher quality.
Finally, of course we want to turn around our lowest-achieving schools. Our “Race” includes an aspiration of a 95% graduation rate. One of the key indicators of how well a high school is performing is how many of its students graduate in four years. But once again, the translation of an ideal into policy is where we go astray. A stark example of this can be seen in alternative schools and juvenile justice facilities. Kids come to these programs because they have fallen behind. These schools, by definition, will have kids who will take a little longer than four years to complete high school. They frequently have extremely low reading levels which must be addressed before high school credits can be earned. They enter these schools with little or no high school credits. Yet, in order to meet the new requirements, these miraculous schools are expected to get the students to graduate “on time.” In order to be called a graduate, as it is defined now, the student must complete all requirements at the same time her cohort class graduates. To further compound the problem, there is no room for alternative paths to diplomas. Incarcerated students who pursue a GED diploma will be considered drop-outs. Therefore, in order to qualify for state and federal education dollars, a juvenile justice facility can only offer the traditional track, and the students must graduate “on time.” So, let me ask you: would you prefer that a 17 year old re-enter society with a few high school credits and no hope of high school graduation, or with a GED diploma and a path to community college?
So, what is the answer? It is actually very simple; outputs only policy coupled with market competition. Schools should be accountable for producing students who are college-ready. Don’t worry if the kids are going straight into the job market or to a technical school. Recent research confirms that all of the same skills and qualities are required for success in any post-high school arena. We already have a good start with our national standards, but let’s leave the testing companies out of the process. Instead, create authentic assessments, in collaboration with our higher education system, to evaluate if high schools are turning out the products they need. Then, our high school educators can design the assessments for the kids they will receive from the middle schools. Middle school educators will have the same opportunity to design elementary school grad assessments, and elementary schools will do the same for preschools. Forget high school credit requirements, teacher certification rules, prescriptions for minutes of seat time and reading instruction, and all of the other inputs that our federal and state agencies now require. Allow schools to truly redesign everything to get the highest number of kids to achieve the results we want. Schools can transition and graduate kids when they are READY, not when the calendar says it is time. I have seen kids ready to start college as early as age 15, and as late as age 21. It really is not a race, despite the name of the Department of Education’s initiative.
Once we have solid assessments in place, require transparent reporting of the results. Parents need to know what percentage of kids are ready when they transition or graduate. Now we can let market competition drive the system. Give all parent in the country their fair share of the education pie. Let them use this money to select whatever schools they want: public, private, or charter. Once parents have this power, they will become educated consumers of education. It will demystify the learning process and get them truly invested in their children’s learning, increasing graduation rates even more. The money saved by eliminating the infinite number of bureaucrats and administrators now required due to regs and rules can be put into the classrooms where it belongs. It is time to end the Race to the Top and begin the race to real reform.