Failure…is not the data’s fault (Part 1 of 2)

July 13, 2012 at 1:07 PM Leave a comment

When students do well in a school system, the system tends to work well; when students fail, the system breaks down. While there is a chicken-and-egg thing going on here, there also is a game of dodge ball that undermines problem-solving efforts. Dumping an unhealthy dose of blame on the schools with disappointing test results only intensifies that dysfunctional behavior. But making the data go away is not the solution; rather, we need a safe harbor for teachers even as they rush to learn to play by new rules.

Test obsession would seem to be the root of all evil. Results-orientation and accountability have not been nurtured in education historically; in fact, rigid standards have been declared antithetical to a milieu with safe harbors for children. However, it is the grown-ups in the education system who go more than a little batty when there is bad news, and the test data would seem to be the messenger. Get rid of it, and we can all go back to behaving like the professionals we know we are. Huh?

This logic has obvious flaws but seems to play well in a school culture that traditionally has rewarded success and offered excuses for failure. When the children were successful, the adults had their ego needs met and could go about the process of nurturing one another in an exemplary fashion. When the children failed, the scene looked more like the end of Casablanca: the usual suspects were rounded up, there was an inquiry, and the victims remained dead. Terminations happened, but the insiders to the culture developed an invisible hand that could deliver a failed teacher on an “as needed” basis. This latter case was part of failure cycle that tolerated passive aggressive leadership and cemented unofficial hierarchies among teachers.

NCLB challenged that culture, eliminating the protective cloak of the cognoscenti in troubled schools, who could no longer shield more than half the staff, and introducing the notion that successful schools could no longer get away with marginalizing their less successful populations. That alone was enough to wreak havoc on the social systems within schools; however, the legends of bad teachers became one of the hottest topics in politics and popular culture. Throngs of political leaders, parents, and education reformers organized around various themes of vigilante justice on behalf of the children. They were going to find those bad teachers and get rid of them.

School leadership programs changed in response to the new world order, reducing the emphasis on administration and focusing on instructional leadership. Using a distributed leadership model, new principals were trained to focus on data-driven instruction and use of a team of lead teachers to share in the administration of content areas and dissemination of best practices. Unfortunately, this approach was not terribly successful in driving structural change or accelerating student achievement. Perhaps, the new approach was too close to the existing informal leadership model, essentially formalizing some of the unofficial roles and even empowering the old-school bullies in some cases. Teachers walked around with targets on their backs, and relationships with students, parents, and colleagues became strained.

Outside of the system, charter schools were created to compete with traditional public schools and serve as incubators for new ideas. Outsourcing of teachers happened through alternative recruitment and boot-camp prep programs. Technology was brought into play to supplement and/or replace direct instruction. Each approach has contributed to the body of knowledge in education. However, none offered a rapid, scalable and resilient solution to reform within the existing public school system.

What a mess…all caused by those darned test results. Enter the defenders…new vigilantes going after the testing advocates, the test makers, and even the tests themselves.

To be continued…

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Entry filed under: ESEA-NCLB, School Leadership, Student Outcomes, Teacher Effectiveness.

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