Practice Meets Policy

Gifted Isn’t Good

1

Posted on February 4, 2016 by

There, I’ve said it. The startling. The scandalous. Or maybe just the incomprehensible. But gifted isn’t good. It isn’t bad either. “Gifted” isn’t a value statement.

Gifted education is not a privilege or a prize. It is not an elite club.

Believe it or not, “gifted” is not a label to aspire to.

Changing the mindset of the public on this issue is difficult. I worked in a district years ago where I not only tested students for the gifted program, but I contacted the parents with the results of the testing. At first I followed the district protocol of mailing letters home, but I got so many questioning phone calls and unhappy letters I finally decided it was more efficient just to call every parent to talk them through the results before mailing the official results.

“Mrs. Brown, your daughter’s scores were really great,” I’d say and read the scores to her. “But she didn’t make it into the gifted program.”

“Oh, that’s too bad.” I could feel her disappointment.

“Well, tell me about your daughter. Does she like school?”

“Yes.”

“Does she get along with her peers? Her teacher? Does she do well? Get good grades?”

“Yes, yes, yes.”

“Then, Mrs. Brown, thank God. You have a bright child. They are so much easier to raise than a gifted child! For a gifted child, very often the answers to those questions is no.”

I don’t notify parents any more, but I still encounter parents who crave the label. The trouble is, if parents’ aspirations exceed their children’s capabilities, it can harm the children academically, according to the American Psychological Association. Encouraging children to do well is helpful, but pushing too hard is counterproductive. It’s a fine balance, and it’s sometimes hard to strike that balance. In conferences, I sometimes need to counsel parents gently that their child is swimming as hard as they can, but they can’t keep their head above the water. A gifted program is not for everyone.

On the other hand, a general education program is not for everyone either.

Imagine observing a swimming program one summer. Some children test into guppies, some into minnows, some into fish. As soon as they master the skills at one level, the students move to the next. They can advance rapidly or take their time moving through classes over the course of the summer.

School is another matter entirely. In September we take five-year-olds and put them in the same classroom, no matter their skill level. And we keep them in the same room all year, no matter how quickly they advance through learning their skills. We have students in classes where most of their classmates are, so to speak, learning to hold their faces under water and blow bubbles while they should be perfecting their strokes as they swim laps—in the deep pool. Some of them should be diving and thinking of training for the Olympics!

I have an obligation to go diving regularly with my students. Last week’s fifth grade Time for Kids suggested debating whether or not sugary drinks should be taxed. Instead my students debated life-extensionism. Some thought the search for immortality a great idea, but one boy demurred. “Every day of your life now has value because it’s a fraction of your whole life. But if your whole life is forever, then each day is a fraction of that, and its value is nothing.” I’m not sure they’re considering that argument at MIT!

One thing I really appreciate about the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is that it talks about identifying “students with specific learning needs, particularly

  • children with disabilities,
  • English learners,
  • students who are gifted and talented, and
  • students with low literacy levels” (page 328, bullets mine).

Notice how the ESSA considers gifted students to be “students with specific learning needs” and it groups gifted students with children with disabilities, children who are learning English, and children who are having difficulty learning to read. In another section it again lists gifted students with children with disabilities and English learners (page 336, lines 6-12).

I am so pleased with this level of understanding on the part of the legislators who wrote this law. Gifted students are one group among many with “specific learning needs”—different educational needs.

I would love it if I could help people shift their mental construct. No more imagining a vertical framework with gifted education being at the top or the best or only for the elite. Instead picture a horizontal framework. Ask yourself, how far are students from the center, from the middle, from the norm? The students at both extremes are exceptional students who need a qualitatively different education.

So gifted students aren’t good/better/best. They’re needy/needier/neediest. And for those who do need it, gifted education is a necessity—a necessity designed to meet the unique educational needs of an outlier group.

Washington State’s Cursive Bill

3

Posted on January 31, 2016 by

roachSenator Pam Roach introduced a bill last week in Olympia that would require schools to teach cursive writing. According to her, reading and writing in cursive is “part of being an American.” I don’t know about that, but as a third and fourth grade teacher with over thirty years’ experience, I do know a lot about cursive writing.

And what I know tells me that this bill is doomed. At least I hope it is. (more…)

ESSA and Gifted Education

3

Posted on January 26, 2016 by

For my entire career in education—and I started teaching in 1977—the federal government limited its involvement in gifted education to Javits grants, investing millions of dollars over the decades in scientifically-based research into gifted education.

Javits grants have not gone away. But the federal government has finally moved beyond Javits grants in addressing the needs of gifted students in America. I am thrilled that directives regarding gifted and talented students are peppered throughout the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The overarching goal of the ESSA is “to ensure that all children receive a high-quality education.” The law requires that “each local educational agency will monitor students’ progress in meeting the challenging State academic standards by … developing and implementing a well-rounded program of instruction to meet the academic needs of all students” (page 134, lines 10-22, emphasis mine).

In the past, states and districts reported data for students performing at the proficient level and below. Now they must also provide data for students performing at advanced levels. That PLC question 4 might look a lot more important to school and district administrators when the high scores are disaggregated out!

The feds know their requirements are going to cost money, so for the first time they say districts (“local educational agencies”) may use Title I funds to “assist schools in identifying and serving gifted and talented students” (page 138, lines 17-18, emphasis mine). One huge impact that funding could have is allowing districts to employ universal screening for gifted and talented programs, which we do at my district in second grade and which can help overcome the “gifted gap” among racial groups (see article).

Districts applying for Title II professional development funds must supply “a description of how the State educational agency will improve the skills of teachers, principals, or other school leaders in order to enable them

  • to identify students with specific learning needs, particularly children with disabilities, English learners, students who are gifted and talented, and students with low literacy levels, and
  • provide instruction based on the needs of such students” (page 328, lines 9-17, bullets mine).

In that professional development, districts are to provide “training to support the identification of students who are gifted and talented, including high-ability students who have not been formally identified for gifted education services, and implementing instructional practices that support the education of such students, such as:

  • early entrance to kindergarten;
  • enrichment, acceleration, and curriculum compacting activities; and
  • dual or concurrent enrollment programs in secondary school and postsecondary education” (page 343, lines 1-13).

Let’s look at the kinds of practices the feds recommend, starting with early entrance. At a Washington Association of Educators of Talented and Gifted (WAETAG) conference years ago, I met a parent who came to get advice about her four-year-old son. He was auditing courses at the university where her husband was a professor. She said she didn’t want to enroll him and make him a media sensation, but those classes were the only places where he got his intellectual needs met.

I asked where they lived and told her they might want to consider moving since there were about five schools in the country with elementary programs for the severely and profoundly gifted. She said if those schools existed, then moving made sense. “After all, his little brother? He’s even smarter.”

Some students need to start school before five years old.

When you think of enrichment activities, don’t be limited by suggestions in trade books. Gifted students crave novelty—they find learning brand new information and skills exciting. My lesson comparing causes of World Wars 1 and 2 went well over an hour, and when I finally put a stop to it, my students objected vehemently. “No!” they howled. “Don’t stop! Keep going!” Why? Depth and richness of information. The students were building connections. I was helping them make sense of the world.

There is more research in the literature supporting acceleration than any other intervention for gifted. My student who is currently triple-accelerated in math (my fourth grader in seventh grade math) is one of the best students in his math group. He could probably move up another grade level, but then he’d be working on his own, and his mom and I decided we’d keep him in this group this year. He’s happy there.

Curriculum compacting has been around for decades. My high school teachers did it in the 1960s. My sophomore year advanced placement English teacher gave our class the end-of-the-year exam at the beginning of the year. After he graded it, he told us, “You know most of the stuff on the test except you are shaky on punctuation, and you really don’t understand commas.” So we spent a month learning punctuation. Three weeks of that was commas. At the end of September we took the test again and did fine. Then we had the rest of the year to do the actual work of the class—learning public speaking. It’s a time-tested idea, which is probably why it’s on the list of recommended practices.

As for dual or concurrent enrollment programs, we do well. In Washington we have both AP and Running Start. But, in my humble opinion, we ought to be open, in a similar way, to students taking a three-year middle school program in two years. Or taking middle school and high school classes at the same time. Those options would certainly be allowed, and I think encouraged, under the ESSA.

The Javits grants studied gifted students for generations and decided that gifted students can be identified, they have educational needs, and that those needs can be met through several well-documented strategies. Now the ESSA is saying, “Go meet those needs. Here are some excellent ways to do it. And you can use federal money to help!” If your district needs help finding Highly Capable professional development specialists, go to the WAETAG site.

classroom-470680_960_720

Classroom Management and the Teacher Shortage

5

Posted on January 23, 2016 by

Of the lessons I learned about classroom behavior management over the years, the one that has had the greatest payoff is my realization that the behavior a student presents is less important to address than the conditions which precipitate that behavior.

In other words, if Johnny is acting out in class all the time, I could perpetually redirect him, eventually punish him, and finally succeed in getting him to be quiet. A better approach, however, would be to deeply consider what conditions are causing Johnny to act out all the time, and then address those conditions, or help Johnny be better at coping with those conditions.

Treating the action has the potential to shut Johnny down (which in the moment, may appear to be the goal). Treating the conditions helps create the new conditions wherein Johnny might succeed.

When I read recently that during a work session our legislature had been briefed on the growing teacher shortage state- and nation-wide, which included discussion about promising practices in recruiting and training new teachers, I immediately thought of classroom management.

Disturbingly, this discussion referenced ways to “make it easier” for people to get on the pathway toward becoming a teacher. (Seriously, it is not that hard to become a teacher when we think of “become” as “get a job as.” It’s just that no one in their right mind wants to do it anymore. Let’s pause and think about the consequences of easier paths to teaching for a second: If we draw a pool of applicants who make their decision to become teachers because it was easy to become a teacher, what will happen when they face the incredibly hard work of actual teaching?)

Making it easier for people to become teachers doesn’t solve the problem.

Providing alternative pathways to certification doesn’t solve the problem.

Districts actively recruiting undergrads or setting up university partnerships doesn’t solve the problem.

We need to directly and boldly address the conditions that have created turnover and the teacher shortage. If we do not, the problem will not go away: Instead, we will perpetually rotate through failed solutions, always blaming the solution for being the wrong answer when in reality we’re answering the wrong question.

Here is what I believe has created the teacher turnover and teacher shortage problem. Unless these get fixed, it won’t matter how we recruit, how easy we make it to get a teaching license, or what partnerships schools and universities try to cultivate.

Our real problems: (more…)

13955191_265c6c0bf3_b

Questioning “CCR”

3

Posted on January 17, 2016 by

About the time my middle son (now 8) graduates from high school, my wife and I will still be a few years shy of paying off our student loan debt. We both have Masters Degrees in our respective fields, and finished our undergraduate studies in 2001.

Absolutely, we did this to ourselves. MATs, MSWs, and undergraduate degrees in English Literature and Sociology aren’t fast-track degrees toward high pay and easy loan payoff. We also added other debt and expenses to ourselves by buying a house and having three kids. Choices, and of course we could have made different ones. We live modestly, are natural homebodies, and weigh every expenditure carefully with a more secure future in mind. In reality, we’re doing better than fine.

I have a lot to be grateful for, but nonetheless have spent a great deal of the last twenty years pretty frustrated with the way things all turned out. Growing up, I heard again and again how hard work and doing well in school would offer some sort of guarantee (the “American Dream,” of course). I went to a small, poor, rural high school that had exactly zero honors or AP offerings; I grew up on a farm and took four years of Ag instead, not a bad thing at all (I was heavily involved in FFA, and probably learned more about teaching from my FFA experience than I did anywhere else). However, instead of applying any of the practical skills I learned in Ag, I went to University, since that was heralded as The Right Thing To Do. Meanwhile, a few of my friends chose not to go that route, instead getting jobs or learning skilled trades. Now in their late thirties many own their own businesses, employ others, and earn a solid living for their families in fields such as construction, cosmetology, and plumbing just to name a few. Along the way they found avenues for continued learning, whether it was taking some classes on business management or learning on the job from mentors and peers.

They worked hard to make their lives a success, of course, but hopefully you see my point: they chose the exact route that is so quickly dismissed by our system today.

(more…)

Understanding the Frederich case

3

Posted on January 12, 2016 by

When the Supreme Court agreed to hear Frederich v. California Teachers Association, on appeal from the Ninth Circuit, I knew immediately that teacher’s unions would come under fire by the media and other political pundits who have, so often, found disdain for the role of public sector unions in the workplace.  The Court heard arguments in the case yesterday and we can expect the Court to provide its decision by the end of June, when it ends its annual session.  

 

At stake is the ability for a union to prevent the free rider problem.  The free rider problem occurs when non union members, who do not pay membership fees/dues, receive the same benefits/incentives as union members.  Because teacher’s unions work to improve working conditions for all teachers, not just their members, it is plausible that teachers in Washington would seek to change their status as union members to agency fee payers.  Being an agency fee payer means that the teacher pays a fee to the local union for the union to negotiate the local collective bargaining agreement (CBA) from which the agency fee payer, a non member, also benefits.  If the Court strikes down the right of a union to collect agency fees for the work that the union does for the benefit of all of teachers, not just members, non members are able to “ride for free” on the coattails of union members.  Frederich asserts that all union work is political and that her union advocates for issues/areas that she disagrees with, asserting that the union leverages increased salaries against classroom size (see the article from NPR on January 11, 2016).   Although the state of California has come down on the side of the California Teachers Association, recognizing them as a bargaining agent for the 325,000 certificated employees in the state, the role of public sector unions is now in the balance if the Supreme Court sides with Frederich.

 

I’ve been the co-president of my local association for the past nine years.  I’ve bargained three contracts, soon to bargain my fourth, and I’ve had the pleasure of working to improve the conditions for the teachers in my district.  Over the past three contracts, our teachers have earned access to fifteen days of extra pay for the work that they do outside of contract hours.  Our teachers have seen increased dollars allocated towards skyrocketing health care costs and more money placed into their professional development, so that they may seek further education that benefits their students.  Because of our union’s work, our school district pays all of the fees associated with National Board Certification and has worked with our district to establish an OSPI approved cohort.  We have worked to advocate for smaller classroom sizes, increased stipends, and more paraeducators for our students and our teachers.  All teachers, regardless of whether they are members or agency fee payers benefit.  Most of the work that I do as co-president benefits all teachers, not just our members.  In addition, our union benefits our school community.  We provide three scholarships to graduating high school students, regardless of whether the student’s parent is an affiliated member with the union.  For our members, we provide three scholarships to teachers who want to further their education.  We work to be good stewards of fees, returning them to our members in the form of classroom grants for supplies and materials that go directly in the hands of the students.  If Frederich wins, fewer teachers will likely join the union and since the union cannot collect agency fees, fewer funds will be available to support the work of the union. Teachers who have been outliers to union activity will not have to support the work of the union to negotiate the contract and advocate for student and teacher needs.
I am proud of the union work that I do and of my union here in Washington.  We work hard to advocate for student needs which includes providing them with the best quality education possible.  I shudder to think what the state legislature, which has just recently come back into session, thinks is the best quality education.  Frederich has serious ramifications nationwide but let us not look past the potential consequences in our state.  With our legislature in contempt of the Supreme Court, now is the time for more advocacy at the state level, not less.  Teachers need their union to serve as one united voice to speak for our practice.  Our union advocates for our students by supporting reduced class sizes, reducing testing mandates, and bringing awareness to the social justice issues that our students face.  The Court’s decision will surely impact the work of our local and state union to do the advocacy work that our students and teachers need them to do.

There’s Always Hope

8

Posted on December 26, 2015 by

esperanzaBy Tom White

I was sitting around the other morning thinking about former students. And when I do that, my thoughts invariably turn to Vincent. Because Vincent was memorable.

Eighteen years ago, on the first day of third grade, when I had my class “write something about themselves,” he just sat there. So I took him outside to see what was wrong. “You can write about something else; anything you want,” I offered, “just write something.” He turned to me and screamed, “I can’t write!” and threw his pencil farther than I would have thought possible.

That pretty much set the tone for what was to be a long year.

Vincent was tough and angry. He acted out. He threw things: pencils, books, foul language, a chair. He refused to work. He refused to be quiet. He refused to sit down. But what made him legendary was the passion with which he did and didn’t do those things. To get an idea of how hostile Vincent was, picture your most challenging student ever and multiply that image by the number of years you’ve been teaching. That was Vincent.

So I was sitting around, wondering (and fearing) what he was up to. With time on my hands, I Googled him and looked him up on Facebook and before long I found him. And after exchanging a few texts we agreed to meet for a few beers.

And he told me his story.

Although he couldn’t articulate it at the time, Vincent knew he was smart, but he also knew he couldn’t do what the other kids could do. He had to move around and talk in order to process information. Sitting still, listening and reading, didn’t work for him. He described school as a plunge into a dark cylinder; the more he tried to engage on his terms, the more we forced him to engage on our terms and the angrier he got. And the angrier he got, the more trouble he got into and the farther he plunged into that darkness.

In other words, we failed him.

But he wouldn’t let me tell him that. He takes full responsibility for his behavior; then and now. He remembers feeling terrible for acting out. Day after day. And now he feels embarrassed, and worries that some of us quit our jobs after a year with him.

That surprised me. Because the familiar narrative when it comes to kids like Vincent is that they’re angry about something; they take it out on the world and they hold the world responsible for the consequences.

This narrative also has one of us turning Vincent around. Setting him straight. But none of us did that for him. There was no Annie Sullivan; no Jaime Escalante. Not that we didn’t try. I remember countless conversations, trying to figure him out. I remember trying to connect with him, going to his Little League games. Nothing.

It was Vincent who turned Vincent around, along with a junkie house painter that he worked with after stumbling through high school. This guy apparently scared him straight; talked him into going to community college, holding himself up as the eventual alternative.

The strung-out painter was the catalyst, but it was Vincent who enrolled in classes and got straight A’s for two years. And it was Vincent who got accepted into ten different universities, including Stanford and UW. And it was Vincent who received a full ride to Purdue, where he graduated two years later. And it was all Vincent who landed a great job at a major tech firm, where he’s been promoted several times.

Most of us are pretty realistic. We know that every Quinton Tarantino movie has a villain and every Warren Zevon song has a hero. And we know those characters are based on real people; people who plowed through the public education system, leaving terrified teachers in their wake. And we know what usually happens to those people.

But sometimes there’s a happy ending, and I was privileged to spend an evening with one.

Vincent is relaxed, funny and centered. He’s completely different from the feral nightmare I knew 18 years ago. I couldn’t be happier for Vincent, his wife and their two-week old son; a kid who has no idea how lucky he is.

And for me, the message is as simple as it was powerful: there’s always hope.

 

Home for the Holidays

2

Posted on December 22, 2015 by

Winter, particularly the stretch from Thanksgiving to New Years, is especially challenging for many schools located in high poverty rural and urban communities. Teachers wrap up units and collect essays, anticipating days to rest, catch up on grading, and reconnect with their spouses and children. For many of our students, the holidays are not times of joy but rather a reminder of scarcity.

In response to that scarcity, each year my principal pulls a Commissioner Gordon, sending out the bat-signal and asking teachers and community members to collect peanut butter, jelly, and other non-perishables so that we can send home food with our McKinney-Vento students’ families. The McKinney-Vento Act, a federal law, requires that schools provide “educational stability for homeless children and youth.” Like many federal and state mandates, this program is underfunded. McKinney-Vento partially funds “educational needs” such as transportation, school supplies, class fees, and ASB cards (allowing students to participate in clubs, sports, and school activities).

Our McKinney-Vento students aren’t the only ones in need. Many LHS students rely on school breakfast and lunch to give them sustenance for the day. Teenage stomachs are bottomless pits. My students are hungry all the time. It’s difficult to imagine how they survive the winter break when their primary nutritional source is closed. This is why we do what we do at Lincoln—-we pack two weeks worth of easy to prepare groceries in order to offset the driving hunger. In additional to our McKinney-Vento students, my colleagues and I usually identify about forty families who need financial support. It seems that every year our list of families in needs grows longer.

This is why many schools, like my own, desperately rely on strong community involvementtoys.

When we sent out the signal in the beginning of Dec,  we expected some help from our usual supports. We hoped there would be enough to cover the increased number of LHS families in need this year. What we didn’t expect was 3x the aid!

  • Team Backpack gifted 102 backpacks bursting with PJs, toiletries, and a new jacket for each homeless student.
  • A church donated toothpaste, shampoo, feminine products, and other desperately needed toiletries.
  • Someone brought in 40 blankets.
  • The Iron Workers Union supported 70 families with gifts under the tree.
  • Absher Construction supported 74 families with Christmas dinners that included a huge
    turkey.
  • Compassionate individuals organized their workplaces to collect donations to purchase Christmas dinners for more Lincoln families.
  • Businesses like Tacoma’s Best Grooming sponsored specific families on our list.
  • Life Center, East Side Community Church, Soma, and other faith communities sponsored families dinners, and gave generous donations so we could purchase the items we needed to fill boxes to the brim with groceries for over 90 families AND send kids home with gift cards so they could have a Christmas!
  • Ken, a friend from church, connected us with God’s Portion who brought in an hundreds of boxes of Kettle chips & popcorn. There was so much that my ASB students stood outside the entrances to our school handing out bags of chips to each student!
  • Many others–names I don’t know– donated their time to organize, sort, and lovingly pack bags and boxes. You know who you are. Thank you.

I conservatively guess that 200-ish families will have a more joyful holiday because of the kindness of “strangers”. We are grateful for every last dollar or item donated.

We all know schools are grossly under-funded in Washington state. Although economic indicators tell us otherwise, many communities are yet to recover from the Great Recession of 2008. School and community programs that support families are essential, and finding sustainable school funding is critical especially for the most vulnerable children in our society.

ESSA: A New Direction? (Part Two)

1

Posted on December 20, 2015 by

Last Friday I shared some of my evolving thinking around the No Child Left Behind replacement act, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Certainly there are valid criticisms of the law as written, but that doesn’t change this first key fact:

When Our State Shifts Policy, Teacher Voice Will Be Key
Believe it or not, Washington state has done an increasingly better job of working with real, live, practicing teachers for designing and implementing broad education policy. I know because as a practicing teacher, I saw it happen and participated in it…and saw how teacher input did actually shape policy decisions. McCleary and that mess is a different can of worms.

While our Washington might stay the course in many ways (we did, after all, hold our ground about not requiring the use of standardized test scores for teacher evaluation, and the feds punished us by revoking our NCLB waiver…and yes, we were the only state to have our waiver revoked), there will certainly be policy decisions for us to consider and ensure teacher voice around:

    • Standards: Let’s not toss babies with bathwater. Many folks in our state have issues with the Common Core, so this may be an opportunity to make revisions to our standards. However, not everything in the Common Core is inherently bad; some of us actually like the standards. The question is then about compromise and agreements about how standards should be used to improve student learning in the state of Washington…and what role teacher autonomy can and should play in this.
    • Testing: I’m all for streamlining an assessment system. We have to always return to this question when it comes to testing and data: What are we going to do with the test data? I love that our evaluation law requires student growth that can be shown using classroom-based and teacher-designed assessments: That policy is keeping “data” close to where it can be used for making decisions about student learning. Since ESSA still requires some form of standardized testing, what will that look like in Washington and how can we guarantee that testing information is used appropriately? Here’s a crazy thought, not a policy proposal, but worth a ponder nonetheless: howsabout we test in September, not to evaluate “how we did,” but to give clarity about “what we need to do”?
    • Accountability: Man I hate that word. The question we need to ask instead is this: How will we know that state policies and district implementation are in concert to positively impact student learning?
    • Intervention: This is where I am (perhaps naively) the most optimistic. I am fundamentally opposed to the premise that struggling schools deserve sanctions, punishment, and re-organization. More than anything else, struggling schools deserve more resources, more stability, and more support. How can we create a system where, when a school ends up performing at the “bottom,” the prospect of state intervention is a welcome relief, not a source of fear?

And Teacher Leadership?
Title II of the law, which existed previously to support teacher, preparation, training and recruitment, now more explicitly opens the door for funding related to teacher leadership roles and positions. Thus, states and districts seem to have a bit more room to fund teacher leadership (compensate teachers in teacher-leadership roles) under Title II grants. I’m very much a policy novice, so I don’t know what sorts of changes in practice this language change will precipitate. However, given the Department of Education’s Teach To Lead initiative and the nationwide conversation around teacher leadership, it seems to be one more positive step toward providing resources to support engaging teachers in leadership and systems influence.

Overall, ESSA is certainly a better policy than NCLB. True, it’d be hard to craft something worse. Will ESSA be the magic wand that fixes everything by next September? No, of course not, but sadly this expectation will certainly lead some, as soon as next September, to proclaim it a failure.

Even though teachers have the busy day-to-day work of supporting students, it is incumbent upon us to keep our ears up, and speak up, as the discussion about ESSA continues. Here in our state, I am confident that we will be offered opportunities to shape the direction we go with our new apparent autonomy: we need to be ready to respond to that call.

changes-road-sign

ESSA: A New Direction? (Part One)

2

Posted on December 18, 2015 by

Maybe, maybe not.

I’ve been reading quite a few very divergent opinion pieces and policy summaries about the No Child Left Behind replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act. I’ll be the first to admit that my first impressions were overwhelmingly positive, perhaps because I am easily influenced by syntactical shifts such as moving from the presumption of deficiency (We are leaving kids behind!) to the presumption of potential (All student can succeed!). I’m an advertiser’s dream.

Critics of ESSA are starting to emerge, of course, with argument ranging from the concern that Common Core is merely ‘not required’ as opposed to ‘forbidden, dismantled, and burned in effigy,’ to the reality that the amount of federally required testing hasn’t actually changed, despite all the hoopla. (One source points out that while states are given more autonomy and control under ESSA, the over-testing was actually the result of state and local policies, not federal policies.)

One of the most convincing critiques of ESSA has less to do with its content and more to do with its use as a political and rhetorical tool. Both Democrats and Republicans stand to benefit from playing this up as a “bipartisan” agreement. Some of the language is essentially moot: In the cases of at least 40 states, NCLB waivers granted states the same supposed autonomy as they will gain under ESSA; Similarly, Obama’s call for a cap on testing (that it take up no more than 2% of instructional time) sounded great in theory, but data suggests that most schools are already under that 2% cap based on time required for SBAC and PARCC assessments.

The shift of power to states is also receiving criticism, with one point being that states still must submit plans to the federal government for review and approval. I get the concern behind this, but the law also guarantees a hearing for states whose plans are denied. It’s imperfect, but in an accountability-addicted system like we have had for the last twelve years, this is a reasonable “stepping down” of dosage.

How States Can Really Screw This Up:
First and foremost, for states who have been wrestling for more autonomy and freedom from the burdensome yoke of Common Core Standards, I hope the baby doesn’t go out with the bathwater when it comes to standards. Standards in and of themselves are not evil, and like I’ve said many times, I’m not married to Common Core: I taught to standards before under a different name, and should CCSS be tossed, there’d be some sort of system of standards that would replace it. As a high school English teacher, the Common Core didn’t rock my world in the way it apparently did at other levels where concerns about developmental appropriateness do deserve rational examination and discourse. ESSA opens the door for revision at the state level, if nothing else.

What I’d hate to see is an unnecessary investment in inventing another wheel: New standards just so we can avoid calling them Common Core and escape the political public-relations nightmare whose symptoms include asinine Facebook posts about Common Core Sex Ed.

Another way to screw this up is for states to make the same mistakes so central to No Child Left Behind: Falling into the trap of designing the standards or assessment system that seems “easiest to administer” rather than the system that actually improves student learning. This should be the greatest lesson for states from the failure of NCLB: Differentiation is key. From a broad systems perspective, differentiation is hard (heck, it’s hard in the classroom), and for “accountability” purposes, differentiation is difficult to administer. Which leads me to my next thought:

This: Let Us Abolish the Cult of Accountability
I’m not saying schools or teachers shouldn’t be “held accountable,” but a system focused on accountability tends to oversimplify large and complex problems. (Take a read about “Accountabalism” and how it destroys the very systems it attempts to fix.)

I’d love a six-year moratorium on all use of the word “accountability.” Instead, let’s get clearer on what we’re actually talking about. Are we talking about improving test scores? Then let’s talk about that, not “accountability.” Are we talking about measuring teacher impact on student learning? Then there’s our language, not “accountability.” Accountability has come to imply the assumption of imminent failure if accountability controls are not in place. That schools are failing is an assumption we need to stop permitting in dialogue around public education.

In a couple of days, I’ll be posting Part Two of my thinking: What this all means for teacher voice and teacher leadership…particularly since teacher leadership is explicitly called out in the text of the law.

 

1 2 3 4 5 86 87