School finance, student outcomes, and teacher effectiveness are inextricably linked. Unfortunately, the state of the art in data is woefully inadequate in each area. We cannot fund the mission of education, validate teacher effectiveness, or ensure desired student outcomes for an efficient and efficacious public education system without better information. And we certainly should not attempt to reinvent the system while remaining uninformed.
Consider that current policy rhetoric in public education would suggest that we…
- Cut education spending, switch to block grant funding, and/or increase spending equitably instead of funding competitive performance-based grants.
- Economize via ageism to cut older, higher-paid veteran educators from staff saving on salaries and breaking pension promises, increase salaries of effective teachers to $150,000 a year, and/or create compensation based on salary and merit pay for performance.
- Fund enhanced services for gifted students and others who “want to learn,” provide combined education and social services for whole-child care, and/or shift money out of troubled districts and into charter schools or private alternatives…all while creating equity.
- Improve teacher prep by hamstringing traditional programs with even more regulations, exempting fly-by-night schools and boot camps to keep them fleet-footed. And so on…
The absence of cognitive dissonance among policy makers is worrisome, given the logical inconsistencies among strategies, often within the same camp. Even more troubling is that we cannot reasonably assess any of these options given the current state of the art in real information. Regardless of one’s policy position, there is no clear path to valid analysis.
We currently fund bureaucracies with oblique formulas and regionally variable equity. There is no uniform chart of accounts that allows comparative analysis of long or short-term investments in educational programs from a financial perspective. Nor do we gain much insight into success or failure. For instance, we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on Special Education, yet we account for eligibility for services, not results. We may choose to highlight STEM education, but there is no data that captures comparative STEM spending or outcomes.
Technological change has created opportunities from simple paper reduction to virtual instruction. And, unlike incompatible policy-making, we actually can standardize and individualize our services to students at the same time. Beyond pedagogy, our information support for operational effectiveness is within reach with updated business systems. However, transitions with technology are costly. Again, we need a way to look at the people and the money.
Data standards and analytical tools need to be built into our new systems that allow us to be informed as we make choices to invest in productive capacity for learning as well as making sound decisions to subsidize whole child support in special cases.
To get kids ready for college, we need to expose them to rigorous courses in high school. Advanced placement (AP) courses are designed to offer college-level material to highly proficient students. But we also need to introduce intellectually challenging content to many students in a non-threatening way. These can be divergent goals. So, how do we address these needs…in the same class?
It’s always a little bittersweet when AP Calculus teachers boast that all of their students scored a 4 or 5 on the AP exam. Congratulations are in order, of course. The teacher’s students have delivered great results under his or her guidance. The concern I have, however, is that admission to that course must have been extremely selective. And that we may be missing part of the goal of college preparation.
We rush to make sure the kids who are strongest in math have access to calculus in high school. But we allow the rest of the kids – weaker in math skills by definition – to wait and face the topic for the first time in college, in the midst of one of the most tumultuous transitions of their lives. The latter group of students would benefit from early introduction to calculus…while they are still in high school. They may drag the average AP exam scores down a bit, but does that matter?
The conflict between college placement and college readiness is somewhat moot – all students will need to be diligent in their college studies. In the final year or two of high school, however, we need to take care of the students who, at 16 or 17, are intellectually ready to grasp complex concepts faster than even above average students bound for college at 18 or 19. This is not a tracking issue – which is controversial when it begins as early as middle school – but more of an exit strategy for students whose variations in ability suggest a dichotomy between advanced placement and early introduction.
As we design new programs for high schools that encourage students to pursue STEM careers, more students will need to be ready for calculus in college. There will be analogous situations in science, technology, and engineering as well. In fact, one could argue for reconsidering our objectives in most AP subject areas. As public school children achieve better outcomes in education, an increasing number of students will qualify for accelerated college courses, but many more will benefit from access to advanced content in a sheltered environment.
Mission-driven, goal-oriented behavior in education would seem like an obvious winner. But it doesn’t come naturally. And intuitive solutions to make it happen probably won’t work. The missing link is that a child-centered world is always going to be driven by the overarching goal of growing up and proving…“You’re not the boss of me!”
Remember Malcolm in the Middle? The TV sitcom about a dysfunctional family featuring a tough-loving mom, her unified team of offspring who lived to undermine her, and her spouse who had learned to be non-committal until he knew which side was winning. The sage of the story was a gifted adolescent who was both a player and an observer. Experience had taught him how the family rolled, that their antics were unstoppable, and that the only way to bring them all together was to introduce a common enemy.
Psychologists have studied the adolescent household and found it to be functional…up to a point. Its foundation is the natural struggle between the child and the adults as the child matures and seeks autonomy. The child is driven to test boundaries, preferably in a secure environment, and parental requests increasingly turn into opportunities to question authority. The adults begin as natural leaders whose authority prevails, but the balance of power shifts with the intellectual and social development of the kid. As roles get blurred, the adults tend to regress toward a state of arrested adolescence. For the sake of all, however, home must be preserved as the ultimate safe harbor against a hostile outside world.
So how does this apply to school leadership? Perhaps the most important lesson is to look at some of the ways that educators offer the best and worst of what arrested adolescence has to offer. At their best, teachers and administrators keep a creative, fleet-footed approach in a volatile world that is centered on children. At their worst, they band together in solidarity and send a clear message to interlopers, “You’re not the boss of me.”
In the wake of NCLB, too many novice administrators have turned into Lois, the scary mom, whose efforts to kick butt and make changes have only increased the solidarity among her charges. Performance has not improved, and acrimony between school leaders and teachers has only melted into a spirit of collegiality when external forces have threatened the school with closure. The regulators, armed with their legal mandates from NCLB, have become the enemy.
The culture of passive resistance to authority poses a tough challenge for leaders especially if they have been promoted from within education with little or no general management training. Trying to unify the staff around the mission of educating children often has become a trite plea to, “Think about the children.”
Contrary to popular belief, just about everyone in the picture has been thinking of and with the children constantly. They’ve just gone a little too far in thinking LIKE the children. Issues have become binary, with options simplified as good vs. evil. Strategies of distributed leadership and collaboration may have looked good, but they have become two-edged swords that could support adoption and dissemination of school improvements or turn into group think and intensified obstruction of turnaround efforts.
So how do we release the inner child in every educator and turn him or her into that model student who is yearning to learn more and to try new ways to make the world a better place? Hard to say with this analogy. Even Malcolm fell down to the lowest common denominator each week. And he was the hero.
Testing for compliance with NCLB is meant to reassure regulators that we are delivering on 14th amendment rights of our students for that personal property that is education. Period. We owe it to the students. Hiding the evidence that some of the kids are not given that which is due them is a cover-up. And part of what is hidden under that cloak is a secret belief among educators that all children are not equal in their most basic potential.
Educators who rally against achievement tests probably to not think they are obstructing justice. In fact, they may be wonderful teachers of social justice, environmental justice, or economic justice. But their efforts to obscure this measure of educational justice are out of synch. Kids who cannot pass the tests have been cheated out of some piece of their property rights for an equitable education.
Achievement tests set lower limits for adequacy of education in terms of literacy and mathematical ability. We still need to work harder to prove to ourselves and to the children that they have the intellectual ability to match their peers in the classroom and in life. Those who are afraid the children cannot pass the test guarantee that those same children are less likely to find out how great their accomplishments in life might be.
Hiding the evidence does not negate the charges levied against us…nor does it save the children from paying the price for life.
All children should be prepared to pursue lifelong learning with a solid foundation of knowledge and understanding. They also benefit from a strong sense of their own potential for high achievement. These are highly interdependent constructs. Future accomplishments rely on prior knowledge. They are never mutually exclusive options for educators.
Any performance measure, such as an NCLB proficiency test, that begins with, “All students must…” sets a MINIMUM standard by definition. It is not meant to measure how high student achievement can go. It merely sets a standard for documenting baseline skills that are prerequisites to advancing to the next level of education. Students will vary in their accomplishments; however, none of them can be expected to advance without proficiency in the basics.
Proponents of various approaches to pedagogy often set up a false dichotomy, seeking to show that their methods far outshine those of “teaching to the test,” some going as far as demanding elimination of standardized tests. They incorrectly presume that accountability testing limits the scope of their practice. In reality, if their collective practices are working, over time their students will happily join the ranks of proficient children who just take the test and move on. No sweat.
Our children need access to a broad range of instructional techniques to meet their diverse learning styles. Bring them on! Tell us about your methods and hold onto those lofty goals. Show us how to use them, and help us to know who benefits the most from them. But please…check the teaching-to-the-test straw man at the door. It’s irrelevant.
What could be better for conservatives than creating non-government jobs that drive up government spending through private mismanagement that you can blame on progressives until you can dream up your next flax-spinning scheme? Um…how about investing our nation’s savings in factors of real economic development? No…alchemy makes better campaign rhetoric, and it’s all about getting re-elected in the midterms.
I took a couple of weeks off Twitter only to return the same old…with a new spin. Deregulation of private charters – when the numbers don’t look good; getting rid of the tests – when educators get caught cheating on them; and direct funding of students – only if they go to private schools. This future vision plays right into the hands of an opportunistic and amoral conservative political bloc.
Privatization of government services has emerged again as the perennial antidote to deficit spending. Whenever our nation’s economy seems hopelessly mired in the trough of a business cycle, conservative politicians seem to turn a blind eye to economic development, their alleged forte. They choose, instead, to look for opportunities to appear to create private-sector jobs by churning pre-existing government jobs into their own.
The key to privatization is that it sounds like it might be a good idea. First, you demonize union workers. Then you cite the evils of government spending. Finally, you turn to technological innovation as the new magic pill. Who better to turn this situation around than an entrepreneur from the private sector?
The flaw in the plan? It calls for investing private money that only sustains profit growth through excessive government spending. There is no real end game for investors. It is a short-term fix for the appearance of economic growth. And it has a real economic opportunity cost. If our “job creators” can’t do any better than this, things might just be worse than we thought…and that’s no April Fool.
Flexible data platforms to build robust student portfolios over time? YES! Data mining by outsiders? NO! Need-to-know cannot be extended to outside entities that offer to provide analytical support to schools while covertly sharing content with others. In fact, the data architecture must not follow the social networking model. Rather it must be designed to shield the data from ready transfer and exploitation.
A couple of weeks ago, I shared this comment with GatesEd concerning their $6 million contest for education applications:
Great idea…but I am worried that we do not have a platform to receive these innovations. Education needs a systems integration project to reinvent the standard for information technology. School systems need an integrated financial, student outcomes, and educator effectiveness system…and it needs to be able to upload activities and download stats with technology-based pedagogy apps. We are being creative, but the process must stop generating incompatibilities eventually. Would love to open a dialogue on this, beginning with http://schoolsretooled.com/201…
It was posted briefly on ImpatientOptimists.org and then deleted…I think I understand why. Platforms for student portfolios and learning apps have already been invented that marry cloud-based educational resources with externally focused profiling of the students via social networks. As commercial ventures they are attracting good buzz and ready money among venture capitalists. Unfortunately, they also are opening the door for exploitation of children.
This gets us into the conflict between a public good and private enterprise. As business men or women, we may be in awe of any database that uses object design to build a flexible platform for student data, especially one that promises to comprise a wide range of episodic data over time as well as provide access to a content cloud for pedagogy. And it is becoming populated with data quickly because it’s free?!? We also know that’s too good to be true.
Clearly, these new student databases can only turn a profit through data mining and selling to paying clients. As adults we can chose to flagrantly ignore our own privacy rights as we connect with others in the ether. However, as parents or educators we cannot expose our children. The details of their growth and development, their evolving intellects and identities, their hopes and dreams…are not for sale.
It would be naïve to think that opportunists would not enter the market by simply exploiting existing technology. Next time around, however, we must develop decision architecture that is fundamentally different for student applications. My analogy would be a database that implodes rather than explodes in terms of availability. It has to be an insider’s club with “need-to-know” rules that rival those of GooglePlex or Microsoft employees. If you can’t shout it out on the school bus…don’t advertise it on a social network.