Monthly Archives: February 2015

Innovation Everywhere, But Never the Change We Seek

Without vigorous national leadership to improve education, states and local school systems simply cannot overcome the obstacles to making the big changes necessary to significantly improve our nation’s K-12 schools.

A Stagnant Nation: Why American Students are still at Risk. Strong American Schools, April 2009

This is the first blog post in a series that will examine some of the more popular reform movements, and their potential to transform education systems and raise student achievement. The list of education reforms that have been enacted during my career is long. A few have been successful, but the ingredients for their success were not scalable. More often these innovations have not been able to raise student achievement or close the achievement gap.

For more than a decade I have written and spoken about my concerns over the obsession with standardization, accountability, and compliance as a means to drive the changes we seek. This obsession began with A Nation at Risk, Ronald Regan’s commissioned report published in 1983 that investigated the state of American education. More than 30 years later I still have the same question I had when I first read the report early in my teaching career: Will standardization and accountability improve student achievement?

In the early 80s most states didn’t have defined content standards. Shortly after A Nation at Risk became public, however, state departments of education and national education organizations went on standards creating frenzy. Over the next 3 decades we created iteration after iteration of standards for everything under the sun. In Michigan I was personally involved in the development of Michigan’s fine arts standards, the state’s teacher preparation standards, a second iteration of the fine arts standards, and the school accountability standards called Education, Yes!

The result of this immense amount of time and effort is that educators now have state and national standards in every content area, standards for teaching, standards for learning, standards for principals, standards for assessment, standards for professional development, standards for technology, and standards for virtually every other imaginable aspect of our profession. Did this herculean effort yield the results we were looking for?  No. The achievement levels in America have remained relatively flat since the 1970s. Some may say that achievement has actually declined, but that is not true. What has changed is our achievement level competitiveness, which has declined as nations around the globe began to see increases in their student achievement.

The response over the past two decades to the lack of improvement has been pretty straight forward. Initially the standards were blamed. They just weren’t rigorous enough, so we raised the bar. Then they weren’t equally rigorous in each state, so we embarked on a variety of national standards movements. Again, has continuing down the standardization and rigor path result in higher student achievement? No.

Accountability systems to measure whether everyone was meeting all of these standards accompanied each new iteration. With No Child Left Behind, districts were required to test every student in 3rd grade through 12th grade every year. Teachers in every state now have new evaluation systems set up to judge their effectiveness against teaching standards, and their students’ ability to meet all of the content standards. Principals are also starting to be evaluated against their leadership standards, as well as their teachers’ ability to meet the teaching standards, and the students’ ability to meet all of the learning standards.  Then in an effort to measure student progress in several different ways many districts go beyond the state and federally mandated testing, and run their students through a host of other standardized tests, quarterly benchmark tests, end of unit tests, along with all of the other quizzes and tests teachers require in each of their classes.  It starts to make you wonder when there is time for learning. Has all of this accountability and testing lead to higher academic achievement.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Many students do meet the standards, but many do not. Many schools perform well, and many do not. The high performing schools can usually be identified by zip code, as all states continue to post unacceptable gaps in achievement between the “haves” and the ‘have nots.” Some people still believe that content standards can raise achievement levels if we only have the right standards. Some still say they need to be more rigorous, and that they also need to include a focus on “21st century skills.” Just in the past two years we have squandered unbelievable amounts of energy and money creating Common Core Standards. These national standards were immediately rebuked by conservatives, so their states have spent more energy and money to create recycled versions of the Common Core that they can brand as their own home grown state standards.

Other people have realized that standards may lay an important foundation for learning, but believe the problem lies in the implementation of the standards. If we could only find a way to make sure teachers are teaching these standards, then we will finally see improved student achievement.   Therefore, if we hold teachers accountable, students will finally be taught what they need to be successful, and we can get rid of all the bad teachers in the process.

Every state now has now enacted new, more rigorous accountability measures for teachers, and in some states, for principals as well. The framework for most of these evaluations is built on the professional growth models of Robert Marzano or Charlotte Danielson. These models focus on learning, instruction, and instructional leadership, and if taken at face value, could actually lead to improved practice, with higher student achievement as a by-product. These professional growth models, however, tend to only be a small piece of the accountability measures. Teachers in many states will not be judged by the quality of their practices, but by their ability to raise student achievement for every student, and close the achievement gap at the same time. They are being told that if they are not able to do so in one to two years that their salaries could be cut or they could lose their job. Principals are also being told in some states that if their teachers are not successful in raising student achievement and closing the achievement gap that their building could be closed, they will lose their job, and a new teaching and administrative staff will be hired.

Hardliners might say “so what.” Why should we keep ineffective schools, principals and teachers? I’m not suggesting we should accept failing schools, poor leadership, or ineffective teachers. What I do know from watching these types of accountability measures play out is that they don’t bring about positive change, and in many cases they inhibit the behaviors needed to transform. When principals and teachers fear for their livelihood, and the security of their families is being threatened they will not be innovative, and risk having the failures that are necessary for real learning and growth.

I don’t want you to misunderstand my position. I think standards are a good thing. It is how they are implemented and the punitive consequences of not meeting the standards that concern me. The problem is not with standards, or even accountability systems. The problem is that we are not addressing the levers that will lead to continuous improvement and ultimately higher academic achievement.

I have been seeing the sad effects of the nation’s compliance model in our work with teachers and principals. Most teachers are not willing to take the risk of implementing new ideas for fear of the consequences of their failures, or their minute-by-minute activities have been so mandated that they are not allowed to innovate. Likewise, principals are also not willing to innovate because they don’t want to put their job and their staff in jeopardy. One-to-One Institute soon will be rolling out our new personalized learning leadership model in an effort to help school leaders we are working with begin moving aware from their traditional compliance model, toward a cognitive growth model, while balancing the mandates of their standards and accountability systems.

So here are a few things that we do know. Real and continuous improvement takes collaboration, communication, experimentation, failure, flexibility, personalization, and yes, standards, data and accountability. I just hope it doesn’t take another 30 years to realize the current standards and accountability path that we have been on for more than 3 decades will not provide the improvements we all seek, and that we will begin to look to the organic learning and leadership models that will lead to continuous improvement, and ultimately higher academic achievement.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.
Chief Operating Officer
One-to-One Institute

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System Shift Required

Many have been drinking the 1:1 kool-aid for a while. We have learned that regardless the geography, ethnicity, political leanings or student profiles – the challenges and success navigation strategies are the same. We have a common, working vocabulary for both philosophical and tactical foundations.

The mere mention of 1:1 doesn’t capture the authentic education transformation that is at the heart of the work. The core work is moving from the industrialized, adult-centered school model to that of a hyper-connected information-age, student-centered personalized one. This, where students are ‘partners’ with their teachers, have agency and ownership of their learning and progress. The teacher’s role is pivotal – becoming one of the learners in this partnership-activating learning and all that means in a new ecosystem. As Ron Canuel, Executive Director of CEA aptly states, “Educators didn’t sign on to this work with a goal to remain comfortable, secure and safe as an adult into later life; they signed on to serve students, care about their achievement and ultimately make communities and the world a better place.”

Thomas Friedman, in his December 8, 2013, New York Times article, noted that today’s youth will face three necessary adjustments in the near future: 1) the ability to constantly grow and develop new skills; 2) to be self-motivated to know what skills are needed and how to develop them; and 3) to engage a highly imaginative landscape for developing new ideas and endeavors for personal develop and to fuel more jobs. Friedman quotes futurist, Marina Gorbis who says that the digital divide will dry up and be replaced with a ‘motivational’ divide. She predicts that those with ‘grit’, self-motivation and perseverance will access the world of technology and collaborative tools to create, grow, learn, succeed and contribute. Today’s schools must be incubators for these major educational goal shifts.

Andreas Schleicher, Program for International Student Assessment’s (PISA’s) manager, points out that one of the reasons for other countries’ advancement of student achievement is due to students’ sense of ‘ownership’ of learning. Schleicher reports that in all high performing PISA schools students believe they can personally make a difference in their education, parents hold high expectations for their children, and in general have an ‘ownership’ culture. Teachers have a high degree of autonomy, contribute to the development of standards and have substantial time for professional growth. They also hold one another accountable for high standards of professionalism.

It is daunting if not impossible to create such a culture in today’s traditional schools. Thomas Arnett nails it when he says, “The reality is that our traditional education system was designed to utilize teachers as lesson planners, graders, and managers of whole-group instruction, but today we also expect them to be counselors, mentors and individual learning specialists. It is unreasonable to give teachers these additional roles without changing the structure of their work.” (See more at:

http://www.christenseninstitute.org/why-teachers-cant-deliver-real-personalized-learning-in-todays-schools/).

Arnett provides examples of blended learning systems where teachers can develop the key relationships needed for each learner to flourish. As Ron Canuel noted, teachers came into the profession because they care and are passionate about serving young people and helping them achieve. In systems where learning is student-directed and individually defined, teachers have the time to nurture and serve the unique nature of each student. They ‘know’ them. Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey provide a quality template for creating a personalized learning plan (PLP) for each student (http://www.personalizelearning.com/p/home.html).

The 1:1 authentic implementation can move the US needle forward in each of the areas noted above. The overarching education leaders must ensure the professional growth opportunities for teachers to contribute to the system and support, guide and hold one another accountable for the vision.

There are many around the world creating a body of wisdom and practice that will get us where we need to go in this transformation. Learning from one another is key to the process. Focusing on real personalization based on research, practice and ‘changing’ how we do school business is the work.

Leslie Wilson

CEO-One-to-One Institute

Co-author: Project RED