Monday, January 09, 2006

Holiday Dinner parties and teachers

Over the holidays, my wife and I had a wonderful dinner with some long-time professional teachers. After dinner , the out-of-district teachers discussed the culture of perpetual testing.
  • "In our district, the scores are extremely high and yet we are greeted with ever greater expectations the next go round. We are handed reams of literature on improving [teaching for] test scores."
A teacher in a religious institution commented that they are not obligated to administer these tests.
  • "Well, the high scoring towns manage property values based on the scores. I mean the developers would have a fit if the scores were not adequate to justify the cost of the housing."
  • "I love working with the kids but after decades of teaching my expertise is wholly ignored and the only thing administrators care about are these test scores. I know these kids and I can't effectively help them. Heaven forbid we should have ONE free class to just do something creative!"
  • "The people making money on this are the testing industry who sell all the specialized cirriculum materials for test preparation."
So I asked why they don't express these opinions to the administrators. They answer, "Look, in the old days I'd say something. Today, they're likely to punish you by changing your assignment next year to something undesirable. It isn't worth it."

In some cases I've slightly paraphrased these conversations from memory but I hope the internalized outrage of a few teachers offers a voice and an insight into what our schools have become for professional teachers. Finally,
  • "I moved from another state to come here and teach and I have to say that the thing I'm so proud of about Connecticut is that we have an Attorney General [Blumenthal] with the guts to file a lawsuit against NCLB (No Child Left Behind)."
These opinions are important because professionals who are trying to improve schools are calling for more pro-active teacher involvement in the dialogue. For example, this article discusses the topic precisely.

Bring teachers to the table

By S. Paul Reville | January 3, 2006

As the volume of schools identified as ''in need of improvement" ratchets upward under the idealistic assumptions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the urgency for the state to act intensifies. It is morally and educationally unsound for authorities publicly to label poor performance without a plan and the capacity to intervene.

Intervention planning is challenging work. There is little evidence of dramatically successful ''turnaround" strategies anywhere in the country. Policy makers in virtually every state are grappling with the question of what to do with their failing schools. Research evidence is limited. State takeovers have not been successful, except on financial matters. Most state departments of education, as is the case in Massachusetts, have limited capacity, personnel, and expertise to address the complex issues of school performance.

Naturally, the policy discussion migrates away from state bureaucracies. In Massachusetts, conversations on interventions and poor performance have focused on management prerogatives, turnaround partners, and chartering or privatizing failed schools. These strategies, like many others, have little or no research evidence to support their effectiveness.

Conspicuously absent in the debate on intervention has been the role and voices of teachers and teacher unions, arguably the front line troops in any ''turnaround" strategy. There seems to be a belief in some policy circles that school improvement can be accomplished in spite of teachers rather than with them.

Some of the assumptions embedded in the prominent strategies, management prerogatives, turnaround partners, chartering, and privatization imply that teachers are the problem rather than part of the solution, that the source of expertise on fixing school problems is external rather than internal or that current leadership is highly competent. Although each of these assumptions is sometimes true, none is always or typically correct.

Teachers and, certainly, unions don't have all the answers either. They are also sometimes the source of problems, but it is folly to shape school intervention and turnaround plans without extensively consulting teachers on policies and practices.

A common flaw of educational policies is that they take a ''one size fits all" approach to solving problems or meeting challenges. Not all failing schools fail for the same reasons. Therefore, not all successful school interventions will look alike. Our intervention policies will need to take into account the substantial variation in context: communities, leadership, curriculum and teaching, resources, students, demographics, mobility and a host of other factors. Our intervention policies will need to be strong but flexible and responsive to local circumstances. Above all, we will need policies and practices that those charged with implementing see as worthwhile and likely to succeed.

However, it's not just some policy makers' neglect or management bias that keeps unions from the intervention policy table. Union leaders are sometimes ambivalent about participating in solving the problems of the accountability system for fear of being seen as collaborators with a system of assessment and accountability which some of their members still actively reject. However, enlightened leaders across the country increasingly see that, however flawed, the system of accountability is here to stay and teachers have a vital role to play in improving that system. These leaders know that unions need to be at the table.

In addition to including teachers in policy formulation, we would do well to craft state intervention policies that increase the capacity of the state Department of Education to provide real assistance and tools, like formative assessment data, leadership training, extra time, and professional development, to our most challenged schools and districts. We should also view our policy efforts as experimental. We don't have much evidence to support any of the most prominently mentioned strategies, but this doesn't absolve the state of the obligation to get involved in helping educators improve teaching and learning in the Commonwealth's most challenged schools.

S. Paul Reville is president of the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Although the State being discussed is Massachusetts, the content is relevant. But how can this nation ever hope to have such discussions with teachers when NCLB, for all intents and purposes, encourages little more than a draconian, adversarial conversation?

NCLB is a failed social engineering experiment that needs to be suspended sooner than later.