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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Education: How Do We Get There From Here?

By Peter DeWitt — June 08, 2012 4 min read
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Sometimes it’s easier to deal with failure when we are the ones responsible, rather than deal with the failure that others seem to be controlling.

Recently I interviewed Gregory Maguire, the bestselling author of Wicked and many other great books. He has such an interesting story about growing up in a family that many would think is strict. He was only allowed to watch television for thirty minutes a week because his parents wanted him to spend his time on other ventures like reading, writing and drawing.

We all talk about how society has changed or that kids are different and we do not necessarily mean for the better. Kids have access to 24/7 entertainment and some of the shows they watch are completely inappropriate for their age and development. Parents do not always have the savvy to keep track of what is coming at their children and children are much more computer literate than their parents, so they can hide what they do.

Gregory grew up in a time when there was not a lot of money for education. Supplies were at a minimum and teachers had huge classes of students to educate. So how did those students grow up to be contributing members of society? How did those students grow up to invent the very tools we use presently? As much as there were crowded classroom and those classrooms were short on supplies they still had creativity. What they lacked was high stakes testing and the accountability on steroids that we face in our nation’s schools.

Over the past decade many educators have seen education, the very thing they are passionate about, change from a place of creativity and freedom to an institution built on testing and accountability. In an effort to show that we can out educate the rest of the world, we are quickly becoming the very thing not to do in education. If educators and some parents can so clearly see that, why can’t the people in power who are making these devastating changes see it as well?

Conflict Resolution
As school-based departments and administrators meet to figure out how to restructure their programs because there have been serious cuts in funding, people who spend the day together in the same building are arguing back and forth. All of these cuts and accountability are creating arguments and blame within buildings and districts.

The reality is that these changes have been forced upon us, and in some districts the cuts have been so bad that the best think tanks within districts can no longer proactively figure out how to make the best decisions for kids. Many schools across the country are in crisis mode and they deal with the cuts and then figure out the best program delivery after that.

This vicious cycle is affecting the relationships among principals and staff all at a time when new teacher and administrator evaluations are changing to a new standard that most of us have never seen. At a time when staff in schools should be collaborating, many staff are nervous about working with others because they do not want what they cannot control.

Carol Burris, education writer and an award winning high school principal in the Rockville Centre School District, wrote a guest blog for the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet about parent opinion on testing (Answer Sheet). Parents stated that they have seen an increase in anxiety with their children because they do not want to take the high stakes tests that are forced upon schools.

Testing is not new to education but the accountability and stress that comes with high stakes testing is different than any tests we have ever seen. The pressure to do well on high stakes tests is equivalent to what high school seniors feel when they take college entrance exams. High stakes tests are the elementary and middle school version of the SAT’s.

However, as Carol states in her blog, New York State Education Commissioner John King says that the “adults need to set a positive tone for students around assessment as a natural part [of education].” Educators understand that assessment is a natural part of education but so is creativity and academic freedom. High stakes testing is less about assessing students and more about assessing teachers.

In the End
As a school administrator, I agree with Commissioner King’s comment that we have to set a positive tone. However, it would be easier to do if we didn’t have so much thrown at us at the same time. It would also be easier to set a positive tone if the things that were thrown at us were actually helpful, rather than harmful, for kids.

School was a place where students received an authentic education and could focus on their future. School is now a place that only reminds them that they are a struggling student. It is a place that labels them as a 1, 2, 3 or 4. It has become a place that forces them to take tests that have very big implications, some of which have absolutely nothing to do with them. It would be beneficial to all to find a balance between making sure all schools are doing their job and authentic learning experiences for students. I’m not sure we can get there from here...

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.