I am always encouraged by the insightful discourse that transpires between educators in forums such as this. It is evident that we approach these conversations by prioritizing the needs and interests of our students. Since entering the profession nearly 10 years ago, I have yet to experience a federal education policy that has enabled me to better meet my students’ learning needs. In fact, it has been my general experience that the impacts that eventually trickle down to the classroom usually inhibit my ability to effectively do my job. If improving student outcomes is the primary objective, this would suggest to me that the U.S. Department of Education needs to consider revising its approach to education reform.
Accountability has been the dominant force driving recent federal policies and it has led to an overemphasis on high-stakes standardized testing. NCLB was in its infancy when I began teaching, but the impacts were immediate. Schools were sorted and ranked based on student performance on a single test administered each year. Failing to make adequate yearly progress caused a school to face escalating consequences. As a result, valuable instruction time was hijacked and redirected towards test preparation.
Even now, as schools are seeking relief from ineffective and burdensome NCLB policies, our nation remains fixated on test scores—except now they want to use them to evaluate individual teachers. At first glance, particularly from a perspective outside of the classroom, linking student performance to teacher evaluation seems like a common sense practice that should have been implemented a long time ago. Upon deeper analysis, however, it becomes clear that student learning is inherently complex, and developing a standardized test that can accurately measure a teacher’s contribution to student progress is even more challenging. Unfortunately, schools now find themselves having to devote large portions of their limited and often-shrinking resources towards the testing machine that has emerged out of federal policy.
To make matters more confusing, current reform efforts are sending conflicting messages. While public schools find themselves having to rapidly adjust to new federal and state guidelines, there is a simultaneous push for the expansion of charter schools, which are granted the freedom to operate autonomously. Why can’t all public schools be trusted to make decisions independently to address the needs of their unique student populations?
Even though recent headlines in the news suggest that our U.S. Secretary of Education doesn’t plan to deviate much from the reform tactics administered in his first term, I would like to remain optimistic that the voice of educators will eventually be heard.
Finland is often touted as the exemplar model for public education and I believe that one of the key components contributing to its success is the respect bestowed upon its teachers. As professional experts, teachers there are trusted with the authority to make the instructional decisions necessary to prepare their students for life beyond the classroom. I hope that we consider allowing educators to guide our public schools forward.
Bill Farmer has been teaching biology and chemistry for nine years at Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Ill.
The opinions expressed in Teaching Ahead: A Roundtable 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.