Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Runaway Train

As the end of the school year draws near, the education reform rhetoric is heating up.  This means states like New Jersey and New York are closer to implementing new teacher evaluation systems as a result of Race to the Top, NCLB waivers, and other mandates adopted through recent legislation.  It seems like we are now at a crossroads between what the reformers think is best for elevating education in our country and the opinions of actual educators who work with students day in and day out.   One thing is for certain, it is going to be extremely difficult to initiate meaningful change as the divide between these stakeholder groups continues to widen.

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I am all for meaningful change that will benefit our students, but I continue to scratch my head as I watch what is happening in the state I live in (NY) and the one where I work (NJ).  The last time I checked both states have consistently been at the top in terms of student achievement and graduation rates.  In both cases, the respective Department of Education is moving at a feverish pace to implement the Common Core State Standards, new teacher evaluation systems, and adopt standardized tests produced by PARCC.  Can we do better?  Of course we can, but the solution is not testing the living daylights out of children thereby destroying their love for learning, demoralizing teachers, or evaluating principals on how well they implement new teacher evaluation systems instead of actual leadership.  

I live and work by one simple rule, do one thing exceptionally well as opposed the many things average.  Unfortunately common sense has not, at the moment, prevailed in this case.  What I see is a mad rush to the finish line and for what?  To appease politicians and others so disconnected from classrooms and learning that reform deadlines are met no matter how ridiculous they appear to be?   We are moving much too fast with all these initiatives and it has nothing to do with providing the best education for students.  Instead, it seems like it has everything to do with money and lining the pockets of companies in the areas of testing, teacher evaluation, and Common Core alignment.  If this runaway train is not stopped, I fear that the consequences will have a devastating impact on our education system for years to come.

The key to reform is not directives, mandates, and threats.  It is consensually figuring out the best course of action to improve education by making what we do better.   What I have learned during my tenure in education is that forcing people to do something builds resentment and animosity, especially if a body of research and valid field-testing does not back it.  I often ask myself how we have gotten to this point in time.  Education as a profession used to be revered; now no one in his or her right mind wants to pursue this career.  This is what happens when success is reduced to a hollow standardized test score or rating that is influenced by so many factors beyond the control of teachers and administrators.  Only people who have worked, or are working, in schools get this.

It is apparent that we have lost our way, but I would like to think that there is still hope.  To begin, we must slow down this runaway train before it is too late and make sure that what is being implemented is actually better that what is to be replaced.  If so, then we might be on to something.  Instead of pumping money into testing and evaluation systems why not use those funds to elevate the profession by attracting the best and brightest?  Another common sense approach in my book is that we must remove all of the red tape that prevents schools from easily removing ineffective teachers and administrators, not some algorithm that makes no sense or can’t be explained.  Finally, we must look to the past in order to plan for the future. Our country’s education system has led the world in producing some of the greatest creative minds ever known yet we are still made to think and feel like we are failures.  My hope is that we can slow down this train before it is too late.


  1. Eric, I'm reading The 4 Disciplines of Execution, and it resonates with your point of the need for time for assimilation and action.

  2. Great post Eric. I am considered as well with how the impact that PARCC will have on educator's ability to teach without available technology. To implement effectively, 100s of computers will be taken out of classrooms and placed in make shift testing sites. This will will happen two times a year at twenty days a clip for a total of 40 days. This is a major issue and solutions are needed. I agree that we need immediate feedback from assessments in order to meet the needs of our learners, but there has to be a better way.

  3. Huge concern with expecting third graders to sit for extended times and use a QWERTY keyboard compose. Are they developmentally ready for this? Not to mention your concern with lack of computers on which to we even want to ask this of 9-year-olds?

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    1. It is incredibly difficult to stay positive as an educator when all that we know that our students can achieve is marginalized. Can we keep doing what we know is best for our students, who are people by the way, not numbers or empty vessels, and disregard the limitations set forth by governing policies? Do we disregard the habits of mind and responsibilities that we instill in our students each and every day, because our government seems to dismiss the importance of these vital dispositions? How do we fight, the teachers and students who are in the know because we are there, in the midst of learning in a time when all that we know as right and good is being challenged. Disregard and apathy won't work to slow down this train. We need to fight the good fight, for our children, who deserve to be empowered through learning.

  5. Yes, Eric, you are correct. Common sense is not prevailing. I often tell my neighbors, most of whom are not educators, that “generally in education we know what works.” There has been enough research over the years to tease out some critical components that will further academic “achievement” across differing populations of students and it’s not more testing. The problem? Much of what works is politically untenable because it would require us to confront some difficult truths about our society, require more money in some form or another, and make politically distasteful changes to the educational system. For instance, we know that deprivation in all its forms – nutritional, sleep, opportunity, literacy – during early childhood impacts the ability of many students to thrive educationally. Forget remedying that. It’s politically impossible to even have the local public conversation about the problem let alone what could be done to mitigate the condition. I see reform in its present state as an attempt to simply distract the public from the real problems and real solutions required to maximize educational opportunity for all.