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Education Opinion

Response: Policymakers Need to Know There Are No ‘Easy Fixes’ in Education

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 09, 2017 20 min read
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(This the third post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What do you think are the most important things that many policy-makers don’t understand about teachers, students, and schools?

In Part One, Jennie Magiera, Dr. Sanée Bell, Amanda Koonlaba, Matthew A. Kraft, and Douglas Reeves shared their responses. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Jennie, Sanée, and Amanda on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Barnett Berry, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, Kate Sacco, Cathy Seeley, and Pia Lindquist Wong contributed their answers.

Today’s responses come from Donna Wilson, Marcus Conyers, Jen Schwanke, Dr. Rachael Gabriel, Dr. Sarah Woulfin, Karen Gross, and Brian Moore.

Response From Donna Wilson & Marcus Conyers

Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers, founders of BrainSMART, are international education consultants and authors of over 20 books. To learn more, see Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education Research to Classroom Practice (Teachers College Press, 2013) and Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains: Metacognitive Strategies, Activities, and Lesson Ideas (ASCD, 2016):

We have a great opportunity to make use of current research findings that can revolutionize teaching and student learning. Across the United States, the mission statements of many districts repeat a common statement: All students can succeed. However, many policymakers are not equipped to follow through on this promise, because they have not had a chance to learn and apply the scientific understanding that every student who walks through the schoolhouse door really can succeed. If policymakers were armed with this scientifically based belief, perhaps they would adopt as a priority creating policy to support the use of practical high-yield strategies such as having high expectations for the success of all students, using formative assessment and reading comprehension programs, and not labeling students as limited in their learning potential.

Unfortunately, many who make policy lack the necessary scientific expertise to realize that misperceptions about learning permeate government and the public and thus pervade policy. For example, one persistent misconception that hampers education is that ability is mostly inborn—that brains are fixed at birth rather than changeable with the proper conditions for learning. Extending this assumption yields the unfortunate view that poor initial reading performance means that students lack the potential to learn to read on grade level. These prevailing misunderstandings contribute to practices that focus on the sorting and tracking of students rather than supporting teaching and learning for all.

Fortunately, the field of neuroscience now shows that the brain is malleable, makes new cellular connections, and changes in structure and function as learning and new experiences transpire. It may well be that the most important scientific insight for education is that the brain is extremely adaptive, a property called plasticity. An understanding of human potential grounded in this scientific knowledge and current understandings about plasticity can provide a foundation for policymakers and educational stakeholders to better plan for the development of all children and youth. As just a few examples that take this research to practice:

More reliance on formative assessment to develop reading skills. Because literacy development is guided by experience rather than just brain maturation, teaching and learning should involve ongoing formative assessment to guide gradual developmental progression of reading abilities.

Emphasis on learning pathways in math. When teachers assess the problem-solving processes students are using—not just whether answers are correct—they gain a clearer picture of how well students understand lesson content and whether those lessons need to be retaught.

Reliance on multiple learning strategies. In both reading and math, the brain employs different neural pathways for learning, so multiple means should be employed to convey concepts and offer practice to develop deeper understanding for all students.

More reasons to abandon tracking. Assigning students to basic vs. advanced math classes based on initial test scores runs counter to neuroscience findings that different mathematical skills may be processed in different areas of the brain. Thus, students who have a hard time with some math concepts may excel in other areas. Again, varied strategies and formative assessment to identify the need for additional instruction and practice can harness the power of brain plasticity for all students.

Early foreign language instruction. Because it is easier to learn grammar and master an accent at a younger age, it makes sense for foreign language instruction to begin in early elementary grades, even preschool. New instructional materials need to be developed with younger children in mind.

Imagine what our country and world might look like if policymakers embraced the idea that all students can flourish if the conditions are present for academic success. By adopting such an approach, new policies could be established to foster these conditions. Perhaps we would then have less emphasis on labels, tracking, testing, and evaluation and more support for effective teaching and learning to make the most of our true national treasure, our children!

Response From Jen Schwanke

Jen Schwanke has been a language arts educator and school administrator for 20 years, currently serving as an elementary school principal in Dublin, Ohio. She is a graduate instructor in educational leadership and has written frequently for literacy and educational leadership publications. She is the author of the ASCD book, You’re the Principal! Now What? Strategies and Solutions for New School Leaders:

When policy-makers come together to establish mandates and expectations for schools, they (understandably) think through the lens of grown-ups—the kind of people who are educated, employed, and in charge of making decisions. Entrenched there, they design rules without regard for how very, very young students really are. And I’m not just talking about the preschoolers and the students in primary grades. I’m talking about the very grown-up expectations we are putting on children of all ages.

As an example, in our state, students are required to spend an inordinate amount of time taking state-mandated tests. The tests are for all kinds of things, such as determining student progress; measuring student achievement; evaluating teacher value; determining reading proficiency; qualifying for gifted services; and monitoring interventions. It’s mind-boggling, really, all the data we’re trying to collect. But when these expectations were being established, it seems no one stopped to think about what they were asking young people to do. No one said, “Wait, wait, wait. If they’re taking a test, they’re not learning, right?” No one thought, “Should we make a comprehensive list so we really know how many tests we have mandated?” And, most frustrating of all, no one raised a hand and said, “Maybe we should call a teacher who is currently in the classroom, doing this work, who understands the social and cognitive and emotional stamina of students this age, and see what that teacher would say?”

Because they are not educators, policy-makers easily forget this truth: It is not natural for a person who is 7 or 8 years old to sit down and take a timed computer test. More importantly, it is not natural to define that child—in any way—by that slot of time. Middle school students in my district spend more time taking assessments—in one sitting!—than many people spend taking college level or employee-mandated exams. A 2nd grader in my school spends more time—in one sitting!—than I was asked to spend on the MAT—a test to get into a doctoral program.

And there’s one more thing. When policymakers think like the wise, mature, grown-up adults that they are, rather than thinking like the kids they were long ago, they forget to consider an unintended aftermath this over-testing. While some students come to school anxious to please their teachers or parents, intent on being model students, many others find motivation by asking and understanding why a test is important. And to most students, there is no “why” to all these assessments. So what happens? They stop caring. Instead of trying to do their best, they see testing as a necessary ordeal to endure. When it’s time to take the test, they fidget and shift and turn until it’s over, when they can go on to lunch or recess or whatever else might be even marginally more interesting.

If we could get policymakers to think like young people, I believe they would make much better decisions for our teachers, our students, their parents, and our education system as a whole. Unfortunately, though, as long as they stay entrenched in their adult worlds, we will continue to have a vast disconnect between what schools should be doing for kids—and what we are mandated to do for kids.

Response From Dr. Rachael Gabriel & Dr. Sarah Woulfin

Drs. Gabriel and Woulfin authored Making Teacher Evaluation Work, a guide for literacy teachers and leaders (Heinemann).

Dr. Rachael Gabriel is an associate professor of literacy education at UConn’s Neag School of Education. Her teaching and research focus on: teacher preparation, development and evaluation, as well as literacy instruction, interventions, and related policies.

Dr. Sarah Woulfin is an assistant professor of educational leadership at UConn’s Neag School of Education. Her scholarship uses organizational theory to understand the role of district and school leaders in instructional reform:

Many states have rolled-back aspects of Race To The Top-era teacher evaluation systems, amid emerging evidence that they are not boosting educational outcomes in substantive ways. However, many states linked teacher evaluation efforts to vital systems, like teacher professional development, and curricular changes. Even if evaluation systems shift into the background, their outsized presence in educators’ daily routines and in decisions about professional learning opportunities and school-wide initiatives requires continued investment. Just as evaluation systems can be used to “measure and sort” teachers based on “effectiveness,” they can also be used to “support and develop” good teaching by focusing educators on classroom interactions.

The dual goals of evaluation—to measure and sort and to support and develop—are inherently in competition because strategies differ for each goal. For example, if the main goal of evaluation was to support and develop teaching, a strategic teacher would select the weakest aspect of their performance to present during observations in order to use the opportunity to improve. But if the main goal of evaluation was to measure and sort teachers, a strategic teacher would show only their strengths during an observation. We discuss this in “Making Teacher Evaluation Work,” highlighting that, when teachers and evaluators hold different purposes in mind, the time and resources invested in enacting evaluation systems are wasted.

This crossing of purposes for evaluation has likely contributed to the failure of new evaluation systems to adequately sort, measure, support, or develop teachers. However, new revisions make room for conversations about how each school aims to accomplish each goal. Moreover, revisions that roll back the high stakes of evaluation ratings enable greater focus on teacher support and development.

Policymakers need to know what we don’t know about measuring the quality of teachers, teaching, and schools in order to improve teacher evaluation systems. We currently lack a complete understanding of how to judge instructional quality either quantitatively or qualitatively. Our existing tools and routines for assessing the vitality (and ills) of teaching are relatively crude. Although many districts expend considerable effort towards calibrating observers’ ratings on rubrics, the rubrics themselves emphasize classroom management and broad, generic teaching activities as opposed to content-specific pedagogical moves. In addition, school administrators are under pressure to carry out a prescribed number of observation within a tight timeframe, contributing to rushed, compliance-oriented observations. As a result, many educators have little faith in the utility of evaluation routines, and even less faith that the kind of instruction they promote (high performance on a set of generic indicators, high test scores) is the kind of instruction children benefit from.

Policymakers also need to know what we do know about professional learning and organizational change: it takes time, includes trial and error, and hinges on communication and relationships. Each school is steeped in a social and historical context—with the ideas and activities of generations of leaders, practitioners, and stakeholders shaping the arc of reform. Thus, rather than viewing the first years under a new evaluation system as evidence that the investment in teacher evaluation was misguided, it would be beneficial for policymakers to consider how it layered on and collided with previous leadership and teaching norms and practices. This could create a culture of improvement that is open to multiple ways of framing and enacting evaluation.

Response From Karen Gross

Karen Gross, a former college president in New England who also served as Senior Policy Advisor to the U.S. Department of Education under the Obama administration, is currently Senior Counsel to Finn Partners and Senior Fellow at College Promise, both based in D.C. She is the author of adult and children’s books; her most recent book, Breakaway Learners: Strategies for Post-Secondary Success with At Risk Students, is published by Teachers College Press:

Here are four of the most significant items that many policy-makers misunderstand about teachers, students, and schools as well as some solutions to alleviate these debilitating misunderstandings.

(1) The students that are in our schools today are not the same as the students who attended schools when current policy-makers were young.

More specifically, there is vastly greater diversity of the student population across the educational landscape now; there is the remarkable advancement of technology that impacts learning and teaching; many students have, as examined in depth in the newly released book Breakaway Learners, high ACE scores (Adverse Childhood Experience) and there is a change in the teacher corps and level of teacher turnover.

To address this changed landscape, start with mandated continuing professional education. In addition to existing programs, we should create teacher and faculty development that crosses age ranges. In this way, for example, professors of college math can learn from kindergarten teachers how their students are using iPads to solve math problems. We can and should also consider using virtual reality scenarios so teachers and higher education faculty can actually experience the lives of today’s students, especially those who have experienced toxic stress and trauma. We can also provide readings and subsequent discussions that allow educators to reflect on real student experiences at the psycho-social level; The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace would be a good starting point.

(2) Some policy makers homogenize institutions and the students these institutions serve, leading to policies that often have unintended consequences because the audiences reached are not identical to those targeted by policy-makers.

Stated most simply, all students and all institutions are not the same; geography, demographics, local culture, state funding, history all impact outcomes and approaches. That is why policies that target “elite” colleges miss their mark because at these institutions, there is an absence of minority, low- income students. We need legislation or policies or programs aimed at getting more minority students into and through all of America’s colleges, not just its elite colleges; otherwise the growing equity and achievement gaps will not be narrowed, let alone closed. This means legislation that targets funding not only to students in need but institutions that serve these very students such as HBCUs, MSIs and HSIs.

(3) Some educational policy-makers have often not worked in or served as leaders of educational institutions.Their experiences stem from their own education (often completed decades ago) and that of their own children and perhaps grandchildren. The problem is that they assume that those experiences translate into understanding of educational institutions today whereas in the trenches contemporary experience is at once a necessity and invaluable.

This assumption accounts for why some policy makers fail to see the day-to-day deleterious effects of changes they propose to institutions like increased regulations and reporting requirements and reports. These added requirements often require added personnel (hence added dollars in a fiscally constrained environment). More important than cost alone, these new burdens (even those in the name of improving outcomes) take time away from the real job of educators—which is educating.

To this end, we need legislative initiatives that de-regulate and focus on efficiencies and collaboration—rewarding institutions in a myriad of ways that make efforts to resolve the challenges confronting the costs of education; such rewards could include grants, research dollars, added and funded support systems.

(4) Some policy-makers want to find “easy” fixes, ones that can be understood in media sound bites and produce meaningful change in a short time span. And, the fixes are often proffered as global when they are, in fact, local.

Unfortunately, what ails the educational landscape is not a quick fix; it requires change—often wrenching change—and that is neither fast nor easy. Take, for example, the presence of silos in and across education and the need to ventilate them.

Legislative mandates for dual enrollment will not solve the problem although it sounds good: more high school students will take college level courses. But, dual enrollment alone will not change the capacity of students to succeed as they transition from a local high school to a college far from home.

As developed in the book Breakaway Learners, student success in today’s world requires culture change in all participating institutions, moving away from a student deficit model to one that looks at how students can be better served by the institutions where they are enrolled. And, for the record, cultural transformation is among the hardest kinds of changes to both make and sustain over time.

Response From Brian Moore

Brian Moore is the Supervisor of Public Safety and Alternative Education Programs for the Red Clay School District and author of Practical Incident Management in K-12 Schools: How Leaders Prepare for, Respond to, and Recover from Challenges (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). Although Brian is an expert in emergency planning, his work on supporting at risk students in his community has benefited countless students over the years:

I believe that the single largest deficit that policy makers have regarding education revolves around perspective. I have been involved in a great many task forces designed to provide guidance to policy makers and inevitably each ended with the government officials who organized the group taking a stand on why they support a certain policy decision rather than listening to determine what their position really should be. They decide first and find information to defend rather than listening first and then finding a position.

In our district years ago we implemented a program for introducing our educators to the students and families that they serve by touring their feeder community—actually getting in a bus and going to see where our students come from. In speaking with those faculty members, they were often surprised to see the nature of the community that they serve. This is a simple introduction to what their students bring into the classroom.

Now, before someone says that elected officials come from those communities and are well versed in the nature of issues, I argue that they are aware of issues, but from their own perspective and from constituents, not from the eyes of the children of those constituents. Children see what we all see as the problems of a community, but are not offered a voice to share that impact.

What policy makers currently lack is the ability to view those community issues from the point of view of a child. We all know that employment is an issue in the adult community; families thrive when one or more parent is adequately employed. Now change that perspective to that of a child and employment takes on a whole other context. If a parent has been failing to find a way to support their family, the child sees this as a form of hopelessness and fear. A parent’s stress, which could be situational and only temporary, has a sense of permanence to a child who does not have the life experience to understand temporary unemployment. How can they learn if they fear being homeless perhaps that very day?

We strive to educate adults in social programs, but rarely focus on the family structure as a whole and finding ways to help parents to serve their child during these normal adult concerns. Policy makers should see that community issues have a different context and perspective when they involve the students that they serve every day. Nearly every aspect of public policy impacts education, from social services and health care to public safety and crime.

We tend to compartmentalize policy making, looking at committee-driven governing and legislative creation. Sometimes we need to step back and realize that education is not something that has its own easily defined “pocket” and look at how any form of legislation and public policy can have an impact on kids, either good or bad.

Years ago it became standard to associate a “fiscal note” on most government-based initiatives. I encourage policy makers to think the same way about education. When you drill down a piece of legislation, think about how kids are impacted. Teachers and schools deal with what they are given: a child. That child comes from the same environment and quality of life as any adult, but their view and the impact of those things is quite different. Don’t just tour a city or neighborhood, but step back and look at it from the perspective of a child.

Thanks to Donna, Marcus, Jen, Rachael, Sarah, Karen, and Brian for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts

Classroom Management Advice

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Implementing The Common Core

Best Ways To Begin The School Year

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Look for Part Four in a few days..

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.