Monday, March 22, 2010

Blueprints for Change

As a school principal, I read everything about education with an eye towards how it would affect my school and my kids. So it is with the recently released ‘blueprint’ from the Administration on changes in NCLB.

I have approached the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) with cautious optimism. During the last campaign season I heard lots of talk about ending the over-reliance upon standardized tests, supporting teachers, and equalizing educational opportunities. I hoped this would mean my school, our teachers and kids, would have something to look forward to.

Not wanting to wait for Congress to get around to coming up with what we should be doing, the team of educators that I work with at The Forum is releasing our own blueprint for ESEA next week. So I read the Administration’s blueprint while thinking about both what The Forum will propose and what my kids need. Here is a short comparison of key points:

First, I am pleased that the Administration has finally realized that the key role of the federal government in public education is insuring equal opportunity for all kids. In several places the blueprint calls for equalizing funding across schools, requiring states to address resource disparities, and holding states accountable for providing teachers and principals with the supports they need.

But the Administration’s blueprint does not go far enough. In fact, by making more Title 1 funds based on competition rather than going to support the schools with the highest numbers of low-income students, the Administration’s plan may increase rather than decrease the inequity about which they are concerned.

In the case of my school, the funding disparities are not between schools in the district—we are the district’s only middle and high school. Rather, the issue is the continued disparity in our state where some schools spend over three times more per student than we do. This is the case in state after state as schools that serve the poorest children in the most challenged neighborhoods have fewer resources to help students than those schools in wealthy community. That is why The Forum will be calling for the federal government to use its appropriate powers to allot funding to states based on the state’s movement towards resource equity for every child.

Second, I was happy to see the focus on teachers through out the Administration’s plan. NCLB avoided any serious support of teachers, leaving it to the endless filling out of form and taking of courses to determine if highly qualified teachers were teaching students.

The Administration needs to be bold in the proposals they roll out to support teachers. In my school we have lost several great teachers because they could not make enough money to pay off student loans. Our teacher support programs, built around teacher leadership, professional development on site and consistent with school mission, and common planning times for teachers who share students, are done with little or no support from the feds or the state. This is why The Forum will call for a radical overhaul of teacher preparation, including mentoring of all new teachers, financial support for teachers that work in hard to staff schools, and funds to provide high quality professional development and support activities in each every school.

The biggest disappointment for me in the Administration’s blueprint is that they do not address the over-reliance upon high-stakes standardized tests for federal accountability. It is hopeful to see the Administration at least acknowledge that improved assessments that focus more on actual student performance should be developed. But what happens in the meantime? It appears that the plan is just to keep on testing, using the same tests that Secretary Duncan has acknowledged are inadequate, and then ratchet up the punishments for schools that do poorly and provide cash prizes for schools that do well.

This will do little to turn back the culture of testing that has overtaken all of our schools. Even at my school we engage in test preparation activities, not because we think our kids are not learning, but because the higher order intellectual skills on which we focus are not on the type of test they take. Desperate to avoid being labeled as the worst schools—which could lead to mass firings—and anxious to earn the few extra dollars on the table, schools will continue to engage in test-prep agendas, pep rallies, and all sorts of student accounting tricks to get test scores up. All the while little will change in terms of daily teaching and learning practices; in fact the focus on test scores will further calcify school practices that are focused on memory and rote rather than thinking and logic. Ending Annual Yearly Progress, which is not mentioned in the blueprint but has been spoken about in hearings, is a good start. But not enough.

The Forum will call for rethinking assessment across the board, including performance assessments, school visitation teams, and information about school climate when looking at educational success. Further, it is time to end the radical experiment that judges our children and our schools by answers bubbled in on a machine-scored test. We will recommend a wide selection of measures that will serve to inform teaching and learning; and let each community know clearly what and how their children are learning.

Fourth, it does look like the Administration values innovation, providing funds for new promising practices. Good, my school’s middle name is innovation. We have advisories, integrated curriculum, internships, portfolios, projects, school wide writing rubrics, and we have eliminated tracking and ability grouping. Often these are done in spite of rather than with the support of federal policy. But we are not a charter school—thus, we are eligible for only slightly more than half the pool of federal money for innovation. Out of $900 million set aside for innovation, $400 million is designated for charter schools. Charters educate around 5% of the kids in our county, why the largess? The Forum will call for innovation funds as well, but we want everyone to have equal access to them.

For my school we need more change than what the Administration blueprint seems to be calling for. We need a greater emphasis on equity that guarantees my students educational opportunities will not be based upon their zip codes; we need teachers that are not only well-prepared and well-supported to teach in ways that are engaging and challenging but who also do not have to sacrifice their financial well-being to work with our kids; we need to stop the culture of testing so we can focus on a community of learning; and we need a fair and equal shot at all federal funds for innovation, even if we are just a plain-old public school.

After a decade of tinkering around the edges and making it harder for successful schools like mine (we graduate over 95% of our kids, with the vast majority going on to college and succeeding there—this in a community with an average family income of around $22,000) to do our best work, it is time for a bold change in federal educational policy. While the administration’s blueprint offers some good first steps, I hope the actual legislation rolled out focuses even more attention on equity, teaching, and innovation and less on punishment and sanctions.

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