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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