Op-Ed: Connecticut education needs clearer vision, better objectives

The following commentary represents the views of 12 Connecticut superintendents of schools. They are Thomas Scarice, Madison Public Schools; Jody Goeler, Hamden Public Schools; Jan Peruccio, Old Saybrook Public Schools; Kathy Veronesi, Region 13 Public Schools; Jack Cross, Clinton Public Schools; Jerry Belair, Waterford Public Schools; Patricia Ciccone, Westbrook Public Schools; Paul Freeman, Guilford Public Schools; Howard Thiery, Region 17 Public Schools; Ruth Levy, Region 4 Public Schools; Kevin Smith, Wilton; and Diane Dugas, East Hampton Public Schools.

The journey of education reform, which has at times moved in a deliberate direction and at other times wandered in many directions, is currently at a very important and, potentially exciting, crossroads. At this moment, a narrow window of opportunity has presented itself.

As the federal government debates renewing the failed No Child Left Behind Law (NCLB), our state is set to submit our latest plans to be held harmless from the sanctions of NCLB through a federal waiver, last done in 2012, and due for renewal on March 31, 2015.

Op-ed submit bugAny effective system is best served by knowing when an important juncture presents itself and identifying, at that precise moment, the changes necessary to travel down the road of continuous improvement.

Our public school landscape is littered with initiatives, while the vision for learning in Connecticut lacks clarity and coherence.  In this “vision void” our measures (i.e. test scores) have become our goals, confounding the purpose of schooling and perpetuating yet another round of piecemeal initiatives.

The path we should avoid taking is the one that implements the NCLB waiver plan as the de facto vision for the education of Connecticut’s children. Instead we should identify a clear and compelling vision for education in our state and employ all of our resources to achieve it. Staying the course of current reform efforts without a deep analysis of the effects in actual classrooms across the state will further cement the system of compliance and “one size fits all” that grips our very diverse school districts like a vise.

One way to clarify the vision is to answer the direct and simple questions:

  • What are the most worthy outcomes of our public education system?
  • Are we preparing our students for the world they will enter when they graduate?
  • Is our public education system positioned for continuous improvement, as opposed to ranking, sorting and punishing?
  • To what extent do our laws increase conformity at the expense of innovation?

The answers to these questions imply the need to foster the cognitive, social/emotional and interpersonal student capacities for work, citizenship and life.  Additionally, they demand a deep analysis of the systemic efforts to continuously improve.  Confronting these questions, and others, will require:

  • A redefinition of the role of testing,
  • An accountability model (mandatory in the NCLB waiver) matched to a clarified vision for 21st Century learning in Connecticut
  • Statewide systems that incentivize innovation and a broad sharing of innovative programs

The following steps can be taken immediately and considered prior to submitting our NCLB waiver, particularly in the absence of a compelling vision for learning in Connecticut.

  1. Take action to redefine the role of testing in our schools.

Standardized tests play a critical role in validating local assessments and giving a broad view of the limited range of student outcomes they intend to measure.  They do not measure our highest aspirations for our students.  They do not measure the quality of a school or the performance of an individual teacher, and are corrupted when misused for these purposes.  They can disrupt authentic learning for long periods of time.  Yet, some districts have oriented their practice and curriculum around these tests.  Some immediate steps to take include:

  • Reducing or eliminating the use of standardized test scores in the evaluation of individual teachers,
  • Adjusting the role these tests play in a school/district accountability model,
  • Broadening the “student learning objectives” (SLO) component of the state mandated teacher evaluation plans to encourage districts to creatively incorporate local measures of worthy student outcomes, thereby returning some measure of local discretion to individual districts and the communities they serve, and
  • Incentivizing districts to develop local formative and summative measures in collaboration with other districts, vetted by the Connecticut State Department of Education, similar to the longstanding exemplary “New York Performance Standards Consortium”, which was founded in 1997 on the premise that high stakes standardized tests do not measure what matters most.
  1. Develop an accountability model designed to drive continuous improvement, in contrast to the current model of ranking/sorting/sanctioning.

The current school/district accountability model relies heavily on standardized test scores to inform communities about the performance of their schools. This misuse of data is a disservice to each community and to the entire state because it fails to capture the many ways in which schools generate student success.  A transparent balanced scorecard designed to drive continuous improvement is imperative.  Some alternatives include:

  • Broadening the definition of student success and aligning indicators of success with a clear and compelling vision for 21st Century learning in Connecticut,
  • Leaving space for districts to incorporate local indicators of student growth specific to their communities in order to foster intrinsic motivation and ownership at the classroom teacher level,
  • Significantly minimizing the role of any single standardized test to its appropriate role as one data point in a series of overall performance criteria,
  • Focusing on the “opportunity gap”: the extent to which districts provide equitable access for all students to a rich curricular and extra-curricular educational program,
  • Incorporating a strong measure of student voice about their levels of authentic engagement in their learning experiences (genuine student engagement is not a “thing”, it is the only thing),
  • Integrating local, “real world” performance assessments designed by classroom teachers, scored at the local level and juried by a quality assurance program across all districts,
  • Surveying alumni to determine the extent to which they felt prepared for college, work, and life,
  • Assess funding patterns to determine if resource allocation targets are being met by federal, state, and local entities, and
  • Employing an external “peer review”/”school quality review” process administered by current classroom practitioners and administrators in which districts engage in a deep analysis of quantitative and qualitative data, in order to benchmark district performance, to diagnose problems of practice, and to commit to improvement strategies (accreditation models, such as that of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, could serve as ideal partners in developing a school quality review process with the state) in place of current accountability measures

 

  1. Create systems to incentivize innovation.

Districts and teachers are suffocating from a “one size fits all”, compliance-based approach to schooling.  One size does not fit all in education, no more than it does in medicine, social work or any other endeavor in which human beings are at the core of the enterprise. In an era that rewards and requires innovative thinking to solve complex problems, public schools have endured a stifling of professional autonomy through increased standardization and homogenization.  As a result, energy is drained, a passion for teaching and learning evaporates, and many teachers and leaders question the lack of purpose to their work.    Some ways to foster innovation include:

  • Creating a “Districts of Innovation” program through which the State Department of Education would administer a rigorous process identifying various district approaches to current challenges faced by schools, such as, reducing bullying, improving school climate, evaluating the performance of individual teachers and administrators, etc. These districts would apply for a waiver or modification from state requirements in order to innovate their practices, while analyzing the impact.  These districts could be required to partner with a university, commit to sharing their results, and, if successful, serve as a provider of professional development for other districts.  The incubation of fresh, innovative ideas, by classroom teachers and administrators would exponentially grow the capacity of educators in the state.
  • Working with Regional Education Service Centers (RESC) to develop an “expert in residence” program with area districts. Districts could grant a yearlong sabbatical to individual teachers to share their innovative work and provide professional development to schools across the state.
  • Pairing schools to work across different districts to collaboratively confront professional challenges. These partnerships could foster such promising practices as “lesson study”, peer to peer observations, and collaborative analysis of student work.

The window of opportunity is closing.  As in 2012, the waiver for NCLB dictates the overly prescriptive education laws that compromise innovation and promote a compliance-based malaise among Connecticut’s best educators.

Some states have foregone the NCLB waiver (e.g. Vermont, Washington), choosing instead to absorb the draconian NCLB consequences in order to spare their opportunity to chart their own course through a compelling vision for learning in their states.

The opportunity for Connecticut to establish a dynamic vision for its 21st Century public schools is now.

 

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