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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

What Would You Do If You Were U.S. Secretary of Education?

By Peter DeWitt — February 22, 2013 6 min read
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“Schools should be places where kids learn to master the tests of life rather than being a life of tests.” Mo Elias

Have you ever wondered what you would do if you were the Secretary of Education? Most educators have woken up, thought about plowing through another day of accountability and test prep and screamed, “I would do things differently if I was Secretary Duncan!!!” Of course, we don’t have the pressures of working directly with the President, policymakers, politicians and lobbyists. But still...we have great ideas! After all, we ACTUALLY work with children.

The reality is that year after year it seems as though a high quality education is getting further away from educators and in an effort to make education better, policymakers and politicians are really just making it worse. Somehow, they strongly believe that testing is the way to see if a child is learning and quite frankly, they’re just streamlining education to one type of learner. But considering the fiscal cliff debacle is it really surprising that they can’t think outside the box?

In addition to that, they seem to be sending the public mixed messages.

Recently, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo stated in his State of the State Address that Pre-K programs should be mandatory and the school day should be longer. Unfortunately, he’s laying out this plan at the same time when education funding has been cut and schools aren’t sure they can maintain kindergarten programs. Shouldn’t we make sure that kindergarten is secure, along with lower class sizes, before we add another mandatory program? How will schools pay for one when they can hardly afford the other?

Sometimes...or most times, listening to politicians talk about education is one of those things that makes you go hmm. It’s almost as if they always want the opposite of what educators want. Perhaps they don’t trust educators as much as educators don’t trust politicians. Educators get frustrated and ask “Who will write politicians to tell them what we want?” However, politicians already know what schools want, they just aren’t listening. But, just in case they are, what would you do if you were the Secretary of Education?

If We Were the Secretary of Education
First and foremost we will take a moratorium on testing. In a recent Mindshift blog by Jennie Rose, Daniel Pink says, “Why do we have standardized testing? Because it’s unbelievably cheap. If you want to give real evaluations to kids, they have to be personalized, tailored to the kids, at the unit of one. Standardized testing: totally easy, totally cheap, and scales. Convenient for politicians and taxpayers.

Montgomery County Superintendent Joshua Starr, along with thousands of other teachers and principals already asked for this so I feel we can put it at the top of the list. This one step would help alleviate a great deal of stress for students, teachers, principals and parents. It would allow educators to think creatively and would single-handedly change our system for the better (Silver Bullet in Education).

Secondly, with the moratorium, we should strongly engage in other ways to assess how schools are doing and take high stakes testing out of the conversation where APPR is concerned. Perhaps we can focus on continuing education dialogue through the use of Danielson Goal setting and also delve into teacher portfolios. In addition, we could look at student engagement through the use of graduation rates and school attendance. We would take the money used for high stakes testing and put it toward providing resources (i.e. Technology, books, basic supplies, etc.) for schools that are in need. Simplistic yes, but it’s a better reality than what is happening now.

Since so much money is spent on testing (NY State has a 5 year $32 million contract with Pearson. Over 1.7 billion nationally although not all with Pearson) we could provide high quality professional development to teachers. I’m not talking about one-shot deals where a consultant enters a school district and tells them everything they need to do differently and then leaves. I’m talking about outside consultants or in-district employees (Data coaches, literacy coaches, etc.) who will help guide teachers over time.

In addition, I’d like to see Edcamps in schools because the teachers within the districts are the true experts and this format will allow for more collegiality. And since we are so focused on professional development we, as Secretary of Education, have already required all schools to have common planning time so teachers can work with colleagues.

We need to focus on high quality pre-k programs, increase teacher salaries, create smaller class sizes in kindergarten programs (as well as 1st - 3rd grades), remodel schools to get rid of desks and acquire tables to ensure cooperative learning opportunities and use the professional development to find better methods of formative assessment to properly assess those cooperative learning opportunities. This will also provide the opportunity to effectively use data to help drive instruction.

Recess and a healthy lunch would be mandatory. In these days of privatizing everything we are at risk of having companies come in to take over lunch programs and not keep the promises they made in order to get into the district in the first place. Lunch programs need to be healthy. Too many students are eating food that their bodies will never be able to process effectively. In addition, they must get outside for recess for 30 minutes a day. Schools that are taking away recess in order to provide more academic time are doing a disservice to students.

Additionally, we need to allow teachers and students to have teachable moments. Many teachers feel as though they have to follow a book. Although this has always happened with some teachers who felt as though their textbook led every lesson, we are at risk of this happening even more. The Common Core State Standards offers us a real opportunity to build upon some great lessons and those great lessons include teachable moments. Teachers are feeling less creative because they don’t always feel as though they can have those teachable moments and that is stifling. Our kids are suffering because of it.

Lastly, we need to have a structure in place where state education departments are listening to school districts. All stakeholders deserve to have a choice in the educational process. Not just those educators hand picked from around the state who are going to tell state leaders everything they want to hear. Actually, schools can learn a valuable lesson from that as well. Stakeholders within schools include those people who say the opposite of what we want to hear. If we want to be heard by our state officials, we should understand that those constituents want the same thing.

Why aren’t those in power listening?
Politicians and policymakers aren’t listening because lobbyists and textbook companies are talking louder than educators can and they have more money to spend in order to make more money. It’s a vicious cycle that needs to end. As leaders it’s hard to make the tough decisions and go against the grain but as the Secretary of Education we know that our students are more important than textbook companies every will be.

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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.