Editor’s note: This post was submitted by Ted Hershberg, a professor of public policy and history and director of the Center for greater Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania. He spoke at the Tuesday, March 22 “What Matters and What Counts in Education” breakfast.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned recently that upwards of 80 percent of the nation’s schools this year will fail to meet adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind. When the law was passed in 2002, a bipartisan consensus assumed that educators would figure out how to get all students to proficiency by 2014.
What was not realized at the time is that the goal they set was impossible to achieve if pursued within the confines of the status quo public education system.
The deep flaw in NCLB was not that the nation had set an unprecedentedly challenging goal – educating all children to standards – but that it had done so without at the same time aligning the incentives for adults with the new goal for students.
Indeed, Race to the Top, and the related reforms being introduced by the Obama administration, are an attempt to remedy this situation, and it is the subject of our recent book, Theodore Hershberg and Claire Robertson-Kraft, eds., A Grand Bargain for Education Reform: New Rewards and Supports for New Accountability (Harvard Education Press, 2009).
We argued that success can come only when public education’s rewards (how teachers and administrators are evaluated, compensated, remediated and dismissed) and supports (how to provide our educators with expanded and enhanced professional development) are aligned with the new goal of all students achieving at high levels, and our volume presents a comprehensive framework for school reform describing how this can be done.
The new reforms unavoidably require the introduction of a new way to measure how much students learn other than achievement, which cannot be used because it is highly influenced by family income. Fortunately, a new metric based on growth (academic progress made by individual students over a school year) has emerged as a promising and much fairer alternative. But because it is both new and cannot yet be applied to all subjects and educators, it has generated considerable criticism: The curriculum is being narrowed to a few tested subjects, there is too much testing and too much teaching to the test.
Many people, with limited knowledge of our nation’s education history, have fallen into the trap of believing that once there was a golden age of public schooling and that NCLB has “ruined” our schools. They need to be reminded that before NCLB there was neither mandatory state standards nor accountability at the school level (let alone at the level of individual educators), that American students fared even worse in international assessments of skills and knowledge than they do today and that very few of our schools were providing students with the critical thinking and problem-solving skills required in a highly competitive and technologically advanced global economy.
When viewed from a vantage point a decade in the future, these initial reforms will be seen as crude, but necessary first steps in overhauling our school systems. New rigorous national standards and internationally benchmarked assessments adopted voluntarily by the states that address higher-order thinking will vastly improve our testing and reverse the “race-to-the-bottom” inadvertently set in motion by NCLB.
Our systems of educator evaluation will be more nuanced and sophisticated, but still steadfastly focused on student learning outcomes rather than solely on educator inputs.
We don’t just need stronger accountability, we also need to provide educators with requisite supports to improve their instruction. Our session in Denver this morning included a brief overview of our school reform framework, with special emphasis on an important and very timely component (chapter 9 in A Grand Bargain) that will turn the unavoidable shift to larger class sizes driven by fiscal austerity into an opportunity to boost student learning and raise educator morale.
Developed by Joel Giffin, a long-time principal in Tennessee, now retired, we explained how his Maryville Middle School became by far the most successful in the state in promoting student growth.
When students are grouped homogeneously by achievement levels, large classes are much easier to teach because instruction does not have to be differentiated. When these larger classes are taught by teachers assigned based on their effectiveness with different groups of students (previously low-, average- or high achieving), the result is significant increases in student growth. We described how new software developed by John Schacter, working with Giffin, helps principals build layered curricula and student IEPs.
Finally, we addressed the importance of helping educators understand how to use data – both formative and summative – to improve their instruction and enable students to become more active agents in their own process of learning and how to establish and sustain professional learning communities where on a regular basis educators can interact with each other as adults and reflect on the efficacy of the application of theory and practice in their classrooms.
The recent study of bonus pay in Nashville – that found little positive impact of pay-for-performance – made clear that teachers have not been withholding their expertise waiting for more money. The best reform efforts, ours included, are designed to align new rewards and supports with our nation’s goal of all students achieving at high levels, to provide a fairer way to evaluate and compensate teachers, to attract and retain more of the best and the brightest and to provide all educators with the necessary knowledge and skills required to help our students meet the education challenges of the 21st century.
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