Education Opinion

Doug Christensen: He Fought the Law...

By Anthony Cody — August 04, 2008 8 min read
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For the past six years, Nebraska educators, led by Commissioner Doug Christensen, have waged a lonely battle to preserve the integrity of assessment in their schools. Their system survived challenge after challenge, but now, even as NCLB may be on the ropes, Nebraska is implementing standardized tests. As a result, Christensen has resigned his post as state Commissioner of Education. He recently responded to a series of questions I posed to him, and as you will see, he has some potent lessons for us as we weigh the alternatives facing us related to teacher empowerment, the Federal role in education and No Child Left Behind.

Question: What were the important accomplishments of the STAR system (Student-based Teacher-led Assessment and Reporting System) in Nebraska?

STARS created a system of education where the classroom was the center of the system not the bottom of a hierarchy. It centered the work of the system on what happens in the classroom and clarified that the work of the system was teaching and learning. It placed students at the center of what schools do and placed the work of teachers in a leadership role.

Under STARS, teachers became instructional leaders, principals became leaders of learning, superintendents became “chief education officers,” and local boards became policy leaders. All of the roles are leadership roles and all designed to support the work of teaching and learning and the classroom.

STARS put the tools in place to cause instruction and teaching to improve and put the responsibility for making changes in instruction and teaching in the hands of teachers and their principals. It put the data in the hands of teachers and principals so that changes could be made as learning occurred, or did not occur, rather than waiting until the results from an end of the year test are returned and students have moved on in the curriculum.

Question: What difference does it make what role teachers play in designing assessments?

Without a system like STARS, the sequence of strategies is something like standards---assessment----curriculum----accountability. A STARS-like system requires that assessment comes out of instruction that is aligned to standards (but not limited by the standards) and the only professionals that can bring assessment out of instruction and teaching are the teachers. Without every teacher having a role in designing assessments for their own classroom, teachers really cannot effectively teach. They need to have a clear notion of what the learning they are after looks like and that means what they are going to assess and how they are going to assess it.

And, without leadership and control over assessment, teachers will never be regarded as professionals. Professionals, in every field including education, are those workers who have control over the “metrics of determining good practice” and control over the “metrics of what determines successful work.” Imagine for a moment, auditors, lawyers, medical professionals and even morticians allowing someone other that those that are “trained” in the field to determine what is good practice and to decide what will be used as the measure of the work.

Question: How did the STARS system impact student learning?

Using our state writing assessment as a benchmark, our proficiencies in reading, mathematics and writing were all an average of 86% for grades 4, 8, and 11. Using ACT scores as a benchmark, STARS supported the continuing increases in our statewide averages for ACT scores. Using our standardized test scores as a benchmark, STARS supported the increase in the statewide averages.

Question: What do you think the appropriate role is for standardized tests?

I do not think there is any appropriate role for standardized tests. We used them as benchmarks only because we had to have something that people could look to to make sense of the proficiencies and determine if our STARS scores were “for real.” In a perfect world, the only way to build an assessment system for measuring student achievement and having additional measures to validate the results is to begin building the assessments from the classroom up with the assessments given in the classroom to be the major assessments and the comprehensive assessments which are then “validated” with assessments at the school/district and state levels that are samples of the assessments given at the level below.

Question: How do you respond when people suggest the schools and teachers are dodging accountability if they do not embrace standardized test scores as a valid measurement of their success?

How can one be dodging accountability when standardized measures do not align to standards? When they do not align to intellectual skills like problem solving, thinking skills, application skills, .........creativity, analysis, synthesis.......?

Standardized tests are based on metrics of getting the same score if given over and over again. The only way to get such reliability scores is to test the lowest levels of knowledge for which there is one and only one right answer. Is the knowledge that we value most the kind for which there is only one response? Is the selection of a response from a list of responses a representation of learning the content of the question, being able to read, being able to discriminate, guessing, all of the above, none of the above?

Question: What do you think of the idea that the problem with NCLB was that there were not national standards, so we lacked a “level playing field”?

National standards are not the answer to anything. If national standards are the answer, as is being proposed by many, what is the real question? If the real question is “what do we want our students to know and be able to do,” let us realize once and for all that there is no universal answer to this question. The only answer is the one that considers each student, each context, each set of goals and aptitudes.....

Because national standards will “standardize” the system when assessments are tied to them, we will reduce what is taught and what students learn to what can be captured in the statements of the standards and what can be measured in the design of the assessments. What we need is more variation in the ways schools are run and variation in the ways teachers teach, not making the process “teacher proof.”

If the question is “can we trust teachers/educators to do the right things and to push students to the highest levels of learning” and if the answer to the question is “no,” then national standards and standardized assessments is the answer. However, I do not accept that this is the right question and I certainly do not accept that the answer is that educators can not be trusted. We should try a system that trusts educators before we decide that we cannot (trust them).

Questions: How do you see the landscape shifting as we anticipate a change in administration?

I see the landscape shifting in ways that will open doors to other kinds of assessments. I hope the landscape will change so that we articulate the issues and questions more clearly so that whatever we construct addresses a common understanding of our issues, our goals, and the work to be done. I hope the landscape embraces a “theory of action” that is more focused on local leadership, building capacity at the local level, finding “common” measures of learning (not same measures), builds accountability from the inside out not the outside in and builds the accountability on improvement in results, not status, and I hope that we begin to describe what we want in terms of results from schools to be more than academic achievement such as engagement, meaningful relationships, etc.

Nothing new in NCLB will happen until we recognize that we need to re-build not re-authorize. Nothing will happen to change federal education policy until there is a “space” for conversation and engagement and a change in administration could create the “space” needed to engage a national conversation about education, about education policy and practice and about accountability.

Question: What has brought about your decision to leave your position as Commissioner of Education for the state of Nebraska?

I had notified the State Board over a year ago that I was nearing the time that I would step down and was given the opportunity by the Board of setting my own timetable and afforded the opportunity to stay as long as I wanted to stay. In January, I indicated to the Board that I felt that the end of this calendar year would be the time for me to (1) move on to the next phase of my life, (2) give time back to my family that they sacrificed for me to do this work, (3) write the book that I believe is in me, (4) spoil my grandchildren and (5) teach students who are entering the leadership dimension of their careers, e.g. principals and superintendents.

Then, in April, the Legislature passed legislation that called for transition to a state test in 09-10. My values of what I believe is right for students and for teachers will not allow me to lead our state into a state test. I believe that state testing is wrong and is not in the best interests of students, teachers and other educators, and schools. I cannot uphold the constitutional responsibility of being a Commissioner who is to uphold the “law of the land” and put in place something that I believe is so dreadfully wrong as education policy and so destructive as public policy about education.

So readers, what do you think about what Doug Christensen has shared? Should we seek variation rather than standardization? Can teachers be trusted in the ways Christensen suggests?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.