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Education Reform: Why Don’t We Begin with the End in Mind?

By Anthony Cody — June 25, 2008 4 min read

In his famous Letter From a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote passionately urging his fellow pastors to leave behind indecision and take a stand for justice. He wrote, “Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.” Now as then, we find ourselves at a crossroads, and once again, we must enter dialogue to find our way. That is the goal of my blog, and I begin with the following post.

I believe we are now witnessing the demise of a poorly conceived and badly implemented educational reform effort. A year from now, No Child Left Behind will be buried, and few in my profession will mourn its passing. Its impending death leaves us in a quandary. Do we resume our familiar battle stations and continue attacking one another? Or do we step back and see if there is a way to actually come together and find some solutions?

The rules for this game were established when George Bush launched NCLB with his rhetoric about the cause of student failure being “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” His administration has sought to vilify teachers and their representatives. Four years ago his Secretary of Education went so far as to call the largest teachers’ union in the nation a “terrorist organization.” And our unions fulfilled their role as our defenders: no kind words were wasted on the President or his appointees.

Those of us who have been partisans have become accustomed to our roles and the scripts that go along with them. Critics of teachers will assert that we must be held accountable for student learning outcomes, that unions should allow ineffective teachers to be judged by how well their students do and not stand in the way of the termination of the ineffective ones. Teachers will respond that the schools are just one part of the puzzle, and we cannot be held accountable for the many variables beyond our control which have profound effects on student learning. Teachers will complain that the schools are starved for funding, and we do not have the support we need to produce the results being demanded of them. This battle is a stalemate and nobody is winning.

But there is a new breeze blowing towards Washington—and a chance the rules will be changing soon.

Many schools use a strategy called backwards planning. Teachers begin with the student learning outcomes we want, and then plan our instruction to reach those results. What if we were to shortcut the recriminations and instead focus on the outcomes we would like to see for our schools? What do powerful schools look like? What are the practices and cultures associated with effective schools? I have a feeling we might be able to reach some degree of consensus here, and perhaps that could allow us to begin pulling in the same direction.

To get the conversation rolling, here are some outcomes I’d like to see:

• Practices within a school that honor teacher leadership and empower teachers to make important decisions about instruction and assessment. That means there is time for teachers to collaborate, to create common formative assessments, to review results and share instructional strategies. This is done in an atmosphere of trust, where the assumption is made that we are all here to do our best, and all willing to make changes in our teaching in the interest of our students.

• Expanded roles for teacher leaders, including opportunities to build nurturing induction and apprenticeship programs so we bring novice teachers into communities of skilled practice, allowing them to integrate those practices into their classrooms.

• A broader culture beyond the school walls that recognizes teachers cannot do this alone. In many schools that will mean opening a new dialogue with parents, challenging those who drop their students off at school and say ‘he is your headache now.’ We need a community culture that honors the work of students, that elevates their achievements, and not merely on standardized tests. We need a sense of active engagement between schools and our communities, so that the schools have concrete connections with the community. That means community members involved as tutors and mentors, teachers involved in their communities, and students involved in school-to-work partnerships and community service. And we need school funding that is stable and adequate to the task, with additional support for the most challenging schools.

• We need to act on our agreement that standardized tests are just one of many measures we should use to judge the effectiveness of a school. We should be looking at more authentic assessments that grow out of students’ performance on more rich and challenging assignments. We should look at our students and our schools in the rich context in which they live, set goals for growth that are realistic and meaningful, and broaden our assessment of schools to include measurements of how well they honor and serve the whole child.

• Lastly, there needs to be a recognition that if we agree that the teacher is the single most powerful variable in the educational equation, teachers need to be involved in the crafting of educational policies at every level. Policies will succeed only if they are rooted in the wisdom of the classroom.

We may not immediately reach consensus on every detail here. This is a starting point, from my own perspective as an educator in an urban district.

But the situation we have now is a game of finger-pointing and blaming, and we are getting nowhere fast. To move forward we must begin to pull in the same direction, instead of attacking each other. So instead of focusing on who is to blame, how about we shift the subject to how we would like things to be, and work on our plan to get there? What does your map of a good school include?

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.