Our college’s biggest contributions to educational leadership include the superintendent certification programs offered in Vancouver, the Tri-Cities and Spokane. So I was delighted to speak last Friday to 50 administrators enrolled in the Spokane program, which is directed by Gene Sharratt.
I shared my concerns about education with these folks, who must deal with reduced state funding for K-12 education. Their school districts face staff reductions, larger class sizes, reduced personal attention to student learning needs, and diminished support for professional development and materials to the classroom. I shared some personal history, as well as my ideas about the importance of collaboration and respect for educators. I received several gifts, including this Cougar portrait, signed by all the students in the program’s 2009-2011 cohort. I’ll display it proudly in my office, so please come by and see it.
By the way, I plan to get away from Pullman to visit our other campuses at least four times a year. Before heading to Spokane last week, I spent Thursday meeting with Vancouver faculty and with a friend of the college, Dan Harmon, a member of the Board of Governors of the WSU Foundation, at his office in Portland. Dan’s daughter is graduating from WSU in a few weeks in English Education (summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa), so it was great to connect with him. As a Governor, Dan is intimately involved and knowledgable about many aspects of the university, and I gained a great deal hearing his insights into the importance of good teaching.
In March, the Obama administration announced its plans to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The last time the act was reauthorized, in 2001, it was called No Child Left Behind and became the cornerstone of the Bush administration’s education efforts. NCLB brought with it an increased focus upon testing and accountability in schools.
What have we learned from the act during the past decade? What changes would improve it? In my own search for answers, I asked faculty members from various education specialties for their views, which I share here.
Right now Secretary Duncan talks about NCLB as being too punitive and prescriptive because of its accountability measures. Why do we have accountability? Because we don’t trust people to do their jobs.
Surveys show that most people think their own children’s teachers are quite good, but that teachers in general are not. This says a great deal about the kind of negative messaging people receive in this country about teachers, and the political harm this has been doing to teachers for the past decades. The basis of any reauthorization needs to assume one thing: Teachers are professionals deserving of trust and respect. The many teachers whom I visit on a regular basis are some of the hardest working people I know. And certainly some of the most caring.
Under the NCLB, science education has not received the same attention that reading and mathematics have, because the law did not require yearly science assessments.
Though not necessarily advocating for yearly assessments, science educators would like to see students taking more science courses and being exposed to the reality of science in their science courses. There also needs to be an ongoing conversation about which important scientific knowledge and skills our students should be exposed to so that they become scientifically literate citizens. We need to open their eyes to the development, meaning, value, and limitations of scientific knowledge. As students engage in more authentic science in their K-12 science courses, they will be exposed to the creativity and innovation that science involves, strengthening their passion and causing them to consider careers in science.
If higher standards and more assessments can produce more opportunities for students to receive quality science instruction, then these certainly should be a part of the ESEA revisions involving science education.
There is much about No Child Left Behind that I personally support—most important to me is that it requires schools to examine data, including student achievement data, high school graduation rates, and the qualifications of teachers as to teaching assignments. These areas of examination have “shined a light” on important areas that all too often prior to NCLB were not well examined.
I believe most teachers and principals today are intentional in their efforts to address the learning needs of all students and to improve high school graduation rates. Many teachers have changed how they work together and many innovative programs have emerged to provide the needed support to students. The role of principals also has changed from one of manager to leader—an instructional leader focused on assisting teachers with their classroom practice and student needs.
The downsides of NCLB are the heavy reliance on standardized tests data to determine how well a school is doing and the use of test results to punish teachers and principals as a means of motivating them. It is my hope that a reauthorized NCLB will focus on targeted support for teachers and principals.
The public and policy makers have every right to expect high performance from their schools and every right to hold teachers and principals accountable, but should be realistic about the challenges schools face and recognize that schools need authentic support in their efforts to improve. Only after such efforts should punitive measures be taken.
I greet reauthorization of the act with mixed feelings. The intentions of actually meeting the educational needs of all children were noble, and the federal funding provided the opportunity for extensive professional development work my colleagues and I do that seems to be making a difference for teachers and students. However, the means of accountability and implementation of NCLB seemed misguided.
Most teachers and administrators with whom I have worked have felt that this legislation forced them to take steps that seemed educationally bizarre and the opposite of the legislation’s intent. They learned to focus their efforts on those students whose scores were just below passing, cutting back attention for lower or higher students. Schools reduced or eliminated time for science, social studies, the arts, and physical education — all areas of study that engage students who may be less interested or successful in mathematics or literacy learning. Teachers’ emotional energy became so focused on meeting Adequate Yearly Progress that they were less aware or considerate of their impact on students. I learned of students who couldn’t sleep the night before the high-stakes tests because their teachers had told them they were responsible for the school’s score and future. Some principals couldn’t be bothered with improving grade 11-12 students’ preparation for college success because yearly progress was focused on grade 10 scores.
The attention given to achievement testing will not wane with reauthorization. It will only increase as common standards are applied to schools nationwide. First, there is the challenge of producing high quality assessments. The timeline and budget may not be sufficient to ensure proper development and implementation of tests.
Second, the magnitude of the common core project is almost overwhelming to the states and organizations charged with implementing the assessment system. For example, changing from paper-and-pencil tests to computer adaptive assessments sounds simple. However, having enough adequate working computers is a major barrier to implementation. Plus, there is a heavy bet being placed on technology for success for this system–technology that may not yet exist.
Third, achievement tests are designed for measuring individual student progress. However, the scores are put to many other uses (such as promotion, grades, teacher effectiveness, program accountability) with no assurance that they are valid measurements for those purposes.
Fourth, teachers will be asked, if not required, to make use of assessment scores to modify instruction, see and understand individual student mistakes, and convey student progress to parents. The challenge is to ensure they are prepared to do so.
Those first two films deal with mostly low-income students in sub-standard public schools who are looking for a way out. Their goal is admission to successful charter schools. “Race to Nowhere” deals with the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum, where parents and students are frustrated with education for other reasons.
These families live in places where, by any measure, there are excellent public schools. Lafayette, California, where the “The Race to Nowhere” was mostly filmed, is an affluent East Bay suburb where the median family income is $150,000 and the average home price is $1.2M. The film’s director/producer drives a Lexus SUV. These students aim for elite selective colleges and universities. They work constantly at homework, squeezing it in with other activities deemed necessary to success. They are pressured to the point of illness or desperation by the high expectations of their parents and the community.
As an admissions officer for a selective college early in my career, I was aware of the kinds of pressures that students endured in order to be admitted to a selective institution. I also have worked for less selective institutions where many students get an excellent education and have never worried to the point of insomnia or anorexia about their life choices. I think the anxiety over college and career choices portrayed in this film may be lost on many families. As blogger Jay Mathews points out in the Washington Post, a bigger problem for students may be the low expectations of parents and schools.
The pressure that most college-bound families and students do feel is financial, especially if they want to attend state-supported institutions where programs are being cut and tuition raised. They may worry that they are being pushed aside in favor of out-of-state students who are willing to pay higher tuition. They may be faced with taking out large loans to complete their degrees.
“Race to Nowhere” might have a selective message, but I think it will inspire some important conversation about social pressure to succeed and what’s most important about life and school. I’ll be there to watch the film, and moderate a panel discussion afterward. If you’re in Pullman next Thursday, please join us for the free presentation at 6 p.m. in the Compton Union Building auditorium.