Assessment Opinion

Building a Decentralized School System Begins With Teaching, Not Testing

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — August 18, 2014 5 min read
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Charles Taylor Kerchner and David Menefee-Libey

Last week’s election in Los Angeles settled—at least for a few months—the question of who is going to be “on the bus” at L.A. Unified. So, as the school district welcomes George McKenna to the horseshoe shaped board table, let’s talk about the process of building a new bus. For the last 30 years, at least, reformers have tried to reinvent public schooling in the City of Angels. None has succeeded, and virtually all their plans have been built around the same four elements. But their implementation has tended to get things backward.

Since the mid-1980s, reformers have sought to decentralize the nation’s second largest school district. They have tried to introduce more variety in the types of education offered and greater choice among those options. They’ve looked for ways to increase grassroots family involvement and voice. And, finally, reformers have sought high standards for all students and a fair way of assessing learning. But they’ve tended to get the necessary order of change backward. Testing was changed before teaching was.

In Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, (Harvard Education Press) our co-authors and we trace reform efforts from the 1989 plan “Children Can No Longer Wait,” followed by the LEARN plan, “For All Our Children,” in the 1990s. The same four elements were present in Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s 2007 “The Schoolhouse.” (The plan was the product of a broad-based political coalition, a strategy he abandoned in favor of his abortive attempt to take over the school district.)

Learning from the Past

Past reform experiments have taught us a lot. There are things we know, mistakes we don’t need to repeat. We know, for example, changing reform agendas frequently courts disaster and cynicism. We know that decentralization is hard. We know that most principals are not well trained in managing budgets or tailoring instruction. We know that teacher workdays are not scheduled to create time for them to develop what educators call “professional learning communities.” We know that trust levels are so low that cooperation between teachers and administrators is often difficult.

We also know that it is a mistake to try to lead education redesign with standards and assessments. That happened in the past, and we are repeating the error. Los Angeles and the rest of California has moved with deliberate speed toward the Common Core of standards that one hopes will evolve into the universal high standards that reformers have sought for so many decades. And schools throughout the state have field-tested assessments of these standards developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which are arguably much better than previous tests. Tests with scores are coming next spring. (Much too fast in our opinion.)

It’s not that standards and assessments are wrong. They are absolutely vital, but the capacity to learn and teach—pedagogy to use the educator word—should be designed first. History tells us that if standards and assessments are put in place before the capacity to learn and teach, school systems inevitably recentralize.

When some schools’ test scores don’t come up to expectations, they are branded as failures and told in no uncertain terms exactly what to teach and how. The cycle of failure and dependency begins anew. The school and its teachers learn to follow orders rather than creatively solve educational problems.

LAUSD—and the state as a whole—has some catching up to do in order to lead change with pedagogy. It’s difficult, particularly in a decentralized organization. A centralized district can adopt a one-size-fits-all scripted curriculum. Teachers can be told to be on page 10 of the blue section on Tuesday. But if instruction is supposed to be tailored to the culture of the school and the learning style of students, a different instructional design is needed.

Past reforms and emerging technologies give us a couple principles that can serve as the basis for building the new bus of public education with instruction at the forefront of the design.

First, get instructional tools directly in the hands of children. Students need open access to things that make them smart if they use them. This requires more than distributing laptops, tablets, and smart phones; it requires engaging content. Indeed, electronic transmission may not be required at all. We have it on good authority that an older technology, called books, can be highly effective. Regardless of technology, reformers need to honor the design principle that students are the essential workers in the education system. Making adults work harder or worry more, doesn’t make students learn. Motivating students does.

Second, create the building blocks of a pedagogy that teachers and principals can assemble locally. Some teachers and schools are going to need a lot more prebuilt instruction than others. All teachers need the ability to choose and tweak lessons. The School of One in New York City provides an example of an experiment in customizing a student’s day, drawing on 5,000 curated math lessons selected from more than 25,000 lessons reviewed by the school’s designers. That capacity needs to be replicated in Los Angeles.

Third, create school designs that allow the evolving professional learning communities to flexibly deliver instructional designs starting at the lesson level. Both contracts and cultures will need to change to do this. As Walt Gardner recently commented in his blog, American teachers spend much less of their workday engaged in professional learning than do teachers in other countries. This won’t change until we come to value what Michael Fullan calls “professional capital.” It won’t happen until schools are explicitly designed to encourage adult conversations, a design principle that is fundamental to the High Tech High schools.

Finally, we need to understand that the new bus of public education is already rolling: it’s being designed as it moves, and the parts are being replaced from the inside. It’s important who is “on the bus,” to borrow a popular management-speak phrase, and George McKenna brings both experience and determination to the job. It’s more important to invest in the capacity for students to learn and teachers to instruct before turning on the new testing machine

(David Menefee-Libey is professor of politics at Pomona College.)

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