Assessment Opinion

Lessons Learned from 40 School Years

By Tom Segal — November 27, 2013 24 min read
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Guest post by Tim Kaine, senator and former governor of Virginia.

Tom’s note: Inarguably, there is no single sector of the economy that influences the rest quite as directly and profoundly as K-12 education. This is the sector that prepares our future generations of leaders, innovators, producers, consumers, mothers, fathers, and citizens. As taxpayers, we all play a role in financing the K-12 education system, but a select few possess the power to heavily influence where those funds are allocated and how that system is constructed. As such, I thought it might be a valuable exercise to give these folks at the top of the public policy food chain a place to voice their education-related opinions (edpinions?), a place to recall their own observations of the K-12 education system, so that you, the loyal reader, might better understand the experiences and beliefs that are at the core of our national (and global) progress.

Amazingly, somebody with legitimate influence agreed with me. With that, allow me to present the following words from Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) on the things he has learned as a parent, consumer, and participant within the K-12 education system. Many thanks to Sen. Kaine and his team for facilitating this blog post. Sen. Kaine, the floor is yours:

My wife Anne and I are now empty-nesters. Our daughter just left home for college, joining two older brothers out in the wide world. We are experiencing many emotions--pride in our three kids, hope that we’ve given them the character skills to negotiate life’s ups and downs, melancholia over the passage of time, and curiosity about how we’ll manage the shift to a kid-free house after 23 years.

Earlier this summer, it also dawned on me that Anne and I are done with our journey through American public education. Our kids all went to Richmond Public Schools (RPS). They attended neighborhood elementary schools, neighborhood and magnet middle schools, and magnet high schools. My youngest even spent a year in our state’s recently initiated Pre-K program. They’ve spent a combined total of 40 years in public pre-K/12 classrooms.

I’ve worked hard as a public official on educational issues like early childhood programs, career and technical education, and curricular reform. When I was Richmond’s mayor, I visited a city school every Tuesday morning. When I was lieutenant governor and governor, I visited at least one school in every one of Virginia’s 134 cities and counties. And my wife Anne has interacted intimately with kids and the school system during her career as a juvenile court judge and foster care reform advocate. And yet, despite our professional involvement, our real knowledge of public education comes from back-to-school nights, parent-teacher conferences, helping with homework, pulling crumpled notes to parents out of backpacks, attending plays, band concerts, dance recitals, sporting events, and the countless other interactions that involved parents have with their kids’ schools.

So, what have we learned?

Let’s start with the most important thing: we’re enormously grateful to the teachers and administrators who have shepherded our children. RPS is a challenged urban system in many ways. More than 75 percent of students are on free and reduced lunch. Eighty-five percent of the students are racial minorities. State and local funding has been stressed during the recession. There are many schools with marginal student performance, at least as measured on standardized tests. The schools are often in the news more for political squabbles among the school board than for student achievement. But for all the challenges, a kid with engaged parents can get a wonderful academic and life-rounding education from dedicated teachers in our city. Parental engagement in their child’s education is critical to a child being successful in school.

I’ve been reflecting on other lessons as well--lessons for policy-makers. We know education is key to both individual success and to the economic success of our nation. And we all read the stories about American slippage, whether in international test score rankings or higher education attainment. We know we have to be stronger, but much of the policy debate seems stale to me. Is better high-stakes testing, or charter schools, or more dollars invested the best we can do in terms of educational innovation? With those questions in mind, I’ve decided to summarize seven changes I’d like to see in American public education based on lessons learned--not through 17 years in elected office--but through 40 school years of accompanying our three kids through American public education.

1) It’s About the Individual!

While the most debated current reform trends have been the accountability movement (emphasizing curricular standards and high stakes testing) and charter schools, I have come to believe that the future of education has been right under our nose for nearly 40 years. The 1975 passage of the federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which served as the basis for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1990, is an example of how one-size testing for all does not meet the needs of every child, but instead shows us that it is about individualized education.

Before 1975, only one in five kids with disabilities were accommodated in our nation’s public schools. The massive loss in life happiness and productivity because so many children were kept out of school due to disability, or not treated in a way to maximize their success, was tragic and incalculable. But the 1975 Act ushered in a new era, where children with identified disabilities are entitled to individualized education plans that tailor instruction to their own particular condition. And the gains that our young people have experienced as a result have been great.

One of our children needed an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for one year--focused attention during that year solved a speech deficit. Many children have the same experience of getting a diagnosis, obtaining treatment for a short period of time and then moving away from specialized assistance to success in the mainstream setting. Numerous children who qualify for early intervention services due to a diagnosed disability are able to overcome deficits while three and four years of age and then enter kindergarten without any special assistance. And the parents and children who have benefited from a long-term IEP throughout their schooling are generally great witnesses to the success of the program.

There are various criticisms of the IDEA and the IEP model, including the unfulfilled promise by the federal government to fund 40 percent of the national average per pupil expenditure; currently the federal contribution is about 17 to 20 percent. For schools, the special education laws are expensive to administer. For teachers, the paperwork surrounding creation and implementation of an IEP can be cumbersome. For parents, there can be tense negotiation with financially strapped schools over the level of service required. And some critics believe that there is an over-diagnosis of disability among minority students.

But all the criticisms of the program ends up being about how to improve it. Unlike No Child Left Behind, which still has critics who want to abolish it, there is no active effort to undo the basic model for educating students with disabilities.

So, the natural question is, why don’t we personalize learning for every student? Shouldn’t we strive for an educational model that involves individualized education for all?

We don’t live in a “one size fits all” world and our education system should reflect that. And with new technology tools, we have a much greater ability to have students self-pace with the assistance of teachers who are able to recognize when students achieve mastery of material sufficient to move on to higher levels. As we approach discussions about the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, a focus on individualized education should be paramount.

I had a very modest experience with this kind of learning when I was principal of a small vocational school in El Progreso, Honduras from 1980 to 1981. Jesuit missionaries had started the school to help teenage boys learn basic carpentry skills. When I arrived, a fine carpenter was teaching the boys, but he was a good craftsman and not a trained teacher. He would give students projects that were too easy or too hard; the students were not developed in a strategic way. I watched him for a few weeks, then made a list of about 60 projects students might be asked to do, did technical drawings for the projects, arranged them from easiest to hardest, and gave the project book to the carpenter. With a simple project book, he could start all students on the first project and allow them to move on to the next project only when they had completed it to his satisfaction. Within a few months, the kids were all working on different projects, but developing at their own pace in a way that was simple for a single teacher to administer. This is a simple example of how individualized learning can work. The advent of computerized learning programs gives today’s tech-savvy teachers even greater ability to help students develop in this way.

I think a focus on individualized education also picks up an important insight from the special education world. Just as a child might have a specific identified disability, it is also the case that children have specific abilities different from the kids sitting across the aisle. The curricular world of standardized tests, where excellence is measured in a few limited spheres that a state educational apparatus chooses to test, can overlook specific areas where a student is likely to be a high performer, and thus more fulfilled in school and beyond.

I like the fact that an individualized focus can break down some of the stereotyping that always follows from looking just at subgroup performance. No Child Left Behind’s attention to performance of racial minorities and students with disabilities has been generally positive because we’ve uncovered the tendency of averages to mask educational disparities. But students shouldn’t just be treated as part of some meta-group. The variations within demographic groups are huge, based on income, region, family status or other factors. More focus on the individual is more likely to lead to success for the individual and the whole.

2) Early Childhood Education Works

Virginia started a modest early childhood education program after my two sons had already entered elementary school. My daughter, however, was just the right age to experience the program. And while my boys did have a good experience with high quality private child care programs, the value of my daughter’s comprehensive pre-K year, with a curriculum coordinated to accelerate K-12 success, made me a believer.

The research on the effect of high-quality early childhood education is powerful. My favorite writer on the topic is an economist, Nobel laureate James Heckman, who calculates how public investments accelerate economic growth. He concludes that investments in early childhood education have one of the greatest returns of any public investment. Many states, including Virginia, have used this data to dramatically expand early childhood programs.

Early childhood programs take advantage of brain research showing that 90 percent of brain development is complete before age five. Thus, an earlier start helps brain development at the time when the effects are most likely to be significant. And research shows that the value of the program is most powerful for children who might otherwise have learning barriers like developmental disabilities, lack of access to books or other learning material, a home where English isn’t the primary language. Part of this benefit comes from getting parents more engaged in learning so they can supplement their child’s educational experience at home. Early diagnosis and educational intervention helps many students who would otherwise be in special education classes to thrive in mainstream classrooms. And there is a demonstrable link between early childhood education and the reduced chance of having to repeat a grade later in school.

We should do all we can to continue the expansion of high quality early childhood programs, with clear standards, mandated teacher training, and coordination with K-12 curricula. And it’s not just about spending more money. We have to better coordinate the money we already spend for early childhood programs. When I was governor, I did spend more money, expanding our statewide pre-K placements by 40 percent even in the midst of a deep recession. But I also found that the state spent money for some early childhood programs, including pre-kindergarten and special education placements, through our Department of Education. Meanwhile other programs, including Head Start and child care placements funded as part of Welfare to Work, were funded separately through our Department of Social Services. Often, the placements funded through Social Services were not required to offer the same educationally-enriching experience as those funded through the state’s education agency. And this silo approach to funding was driven by federal policy. I put one leader in charge of the allocation of all the funds, and she mandated greater educational accountability in all settings regardless of where the dollars were coming from. We need to undertake a similar coordination of the educational investment at the federal level.

Someday soon, a governor will decide to lead a salutary change by adjusting K-12 education downward to begin at age 4, finishing at age 17, instead of the current 5 to 18 age norm that was set before we fully understood patterns of brain development. There is no question that there is a higher public return on investing in education for a student from age 4 to 5 than from age 17 to 18. I predict that we will eventually move to an earlier start to public education and experience great educational improvements as a result.

3) Elementary Education: Teach Less, Learn More

I once visited a Virginia elementary school that had just received notice of its performance on annual state tests. The students had knocked it out of the park. Walking into a meeting with teachers, I assumed they would be elated and began my remarks with a hearty congratulations for their performance. My comments provoked a 45-minute discussion with the teachers about the foolishness of “test culture” as applied to elementary school students. Clearly, even in a successful school, I had hit a nerve.

My children have all attended schools subject to high-stakes tests pursuant to the Virginia Standards of Learning that were adopted in the 1990s as a forerunner of the federal No Child Left Behind law. I have many thoughts about these tests. Unlike some who dismiss the idea of tests out of hand, or shake their fists at federal involvement, I see value in having standards and having periodic assessments to see whether students are meeting standards. And while I hear complaints about how standards and testing rob teachers of the ability to be creative, I have seen many teachers who are able to convey uniform material in fun and creative ways.

But there are serious problems. The current accountability regime focuses its effort on making sure all students clear a minimum performance standard, without the proper focus on helping students achieve excellence. Minimal performance isn’t enough in today’s world, yet most state high stakes test regimes make that the benchmark.

Another serious problem with our testing regime is the tendency to test too much too early. Stealing a phrase from a recent era of education reform in Singapore, I think we should “teach less and learn more” in elementary school by simplifying standards.

Most agree that ability to read on grade level and attain basic skills in math should be the hallmark of a solid elementary education. But while math and language fluency are key building blocks for later success in all areas, we foolishly load elementary school kids up with additional curricular requirements. This has the effect of diluting early focus on language and math literacy that is key to later educational success in all areas.

I would summarize elementary education to be simply about attaining math and language literacy. Social studies texts and projects should be used to help students attain more reading fluency; basic science problems should be used to help students with math. But making young kids memorize historical facts and figures or struggle with science concepts so that they can pass subject matter tests in those areas is counterproductive. Science and social studies in the elementary curriculum is fine, but mandated state testing of elementary school kids should be limited to math and language fluency.

This point about elementary school also has an application to all public education. I often wonder whether testing is really about kids or about the testing companies’ bottom lines. A Virginia public school student today--in addition to the tests and quizzes that are always part of the classroom experience--has to take over 30 state exams between 3rd and 11th grades in order to be on track to graduate from high school. When my kids started in school, they were given state tests in the 3rd, 5th and 8th grades to make sure that they were progressing in a way to predict high school success. Now, the mandated tests occur every year, and there are often multiple tests each year. But as our student performance on nationally and internationally normed tests (like NAEP and PISA) show, the fixation over repetitive state testing is not producing better results.

4) Middle School as Career Exploration

The only bad year we experienced as parents of public school kids was during a first year in middle school. There were many challenges, from school leadership to student attitude. But as we wrestled with it, and talked to friends, it slowly dawned on me that the low point for me and most parents was middle school. It’s a tough time for kids. Part of this is just adolescence. But I think part of the middle school blues is an uncertainty about its pedagogical purpose.

Elementary school is about trying to master the basics. High school is about preparing for life and career choices. What is middle school really about?

In keeping with my individualization theme described earlier, I’d re-conceive middle school as fundamentally about career exploration. This is less about a change in curriculum and more about using all pieces of the curriculum to expose students to the wide range of available work and career choices so that, by the time they enter high school, they will be more informed about future paths and what they need to do to pursue them.

Think about this question: what does the average kid know about the world of work? Most know what their parents do and maybe a neighbor or two. But even for kids from advantaged backgrounds, knowledge of the working world tends to be very limited. And if a child is from an impoverished background, their awareness of career possibilities is often very circumscribed.

So fix the pedagogical muddle that is middle school with an intense focus on exposing students to continuous education about career choices. There should be a real focus on helping students explore their own strengths and preferences and how they match up with likely future careers. Do you want to work with people or do you love being in front of a computer? Do you want to do work with your hands or perform mostly mental tasks? Use the three years of middle school to really explore student personality and talents and help them identify areas where they can be happy and productive as adults. There are an increasing number of schools and online resources that engage middle school students in career planning exercises, often with the involvement of teachers, school counselors and, most importantly, their parents or guardians. These efforts are done with a healthy dose of reality. Most middle-schoolers will not really know what they want to do as an adult. But by presenting students with options, and educating them about what it takes to pursue a desired career path, you get them into a planning mode where they think more about the future and about how the work of today connects with later success.

5) High School: Different Paths to Success

In the old days, high schools often assigned kids into separate tracks, normally an academic and vocational track. The tracking was done in a way that made kids feel that vocational fields were second best. But in today’s world, with so many promising technical fields, there should be multiple tracks with students not assigned, but choosing the path most likely to make them happy and successful in later life.

There has been a dramatic re-awakening in career and technical education at the high school level. I saw this all over Virginia when I was governor and tried to accelerate the trend with the creation of governor’s career and technical academies around the state. Some students chose the technical course options to become work ready and pursue health care, technology, mechanical or construction-related careers. But others, feeling bored by a steady diet of the classroom, found that taking one or two technical courses is a great complement to academic subjects.

As governor, I met a student who was attending one of the governor’s academies in Arlington, Va. His mother pushed him to the front of a room and made him tell his story. He was a mid-level student at his comprehensive high school, not overly interested in the classroom subjects because he didn’t see their relevance to life success. His family had the inspired idea to enroll him in an EMT class at the nearby technical center. Suddenly, working with his hands on real life issues, he was engaged and excited. And soon, it started to dawn on him that biology and chemistry were really important and his grades in his traditional classes started to increase as well. I ran into him a few years later and found he was attending a prestigious university and studying to pursue a career in medicine. Now, instead of separate and unequal tracks, technical coursework can enhance academic success and vice versa.

Virginia has embraced the “different paths” ethos in high school by creating different diploma types. Taking the basic academic courses will enable you to receive a “standard” diploma. The basic courses plus a technical concentration earns a student a “technical” diploma. The basic courses plus advanced academic coursework entitles a student to an “advanced” diploma. Add technical coursework to the advanced academic curriculum and you can receive the “advanced technical” diploma.

The great thing about these four different diploma types is that they are not the forced academic tracking of an earlier day. They are choices open to all students who are ideally told about the options in middle school and can then set their course as they see fit. Add to the diploma types the myriad of other choices--Advance Placement courses, dual enrollment in community college courses, passage of industry certification exams--and today’s high school transcript becomes a highly personalized learning resume.

6) Value the Unvalued

The Richmond schools are fiscally challenged and beset with state testing mandates. There’s no real incentive anymore to offer top quality arts or music instruction. The same goes for physical education. But despite all contrary pressures, our kids’ schools held on to arts and music with fierce determination. All three of our children started instrumental music in the 3rd grade and played for at least eight years. One son became impassioned in high school by creative writing, architecture and digital video instructors and is pursuing college studies in filmmaking and photography. Our other son, currently in the military, benefited from musical education by becoming proficient on the trumpet and absorbing important teamwork skills through playing with school bands.

I learned the most about the value of arts education from my daughter. In elementary school it was clarinet, school plays and a wonderful in-school dance program sponsored by the Richmond Ballet. In middle school, it was band, her ongoing dance work and classes in painting, stained glass and cartooning at a neighboring visual arts center. When she wanted to go to an arts magnet high school, I was reluctant, thinking that a more traditional academic curriculum would be perfect for her. But I didn’t fully grasp the connection between arts education and important life and career skills. She learned to communicate with confidence, standing repeatedly on a stage before an auditorium full of strangers over the years has given her poise and presence. She learned perseverance through endless practices and teacher critiques. She learned flexibility and problem-solving--the stage manager has to adjust on the fly when a prop breaks mid-act or an actor unexpectedly jumps ahead three pages in the script. And all her work--plays, dance troupes, show choirs--has been done in groups of energetic teenagers who have to harness their own points of view and make them about the group.

Creativity, teamwork, communication--these are real and meaningful skills for life success. Arts and music education promotes these skills. Most organizations hiring employees look for people who can demonstrate these traits. But we don’t really place an academic value on them in the traditional high-stakes testing academic focus.

Here’s another shocker. We all hear stories about how many jobs are available in fields like computer programming and software engineering. Companies have to hire foreign citizens to fill these jobs because we don’t produce enough Americans skilled in these areas. Most states have requirements that high school students take a certain amount of science, but computer science classes generally don’t count as core science classes and are instead offered just as electives. How foolish!

The things that really matter for life success don’t all fit neatly into today’s public school curriculum. Once again, it’s about individualization. But it’s also critical for teachers and parents to see education as a matter of exposure to different opportunities so that students can find their own passion. It may not fit neatly into a mandated curriculum. But, let’s at least create space for this kind of exploration and personal development in our schools.

7) Keeping Good Teachers

Let me finish with the gratitude I expressed at the beginning about teachers. I am in debt to the teachers my kids were blessed to learn from in the Richmond Public Schools. Of course there were some weak teachers, as well as some new teachers who have no doubt gotten better. But most of my children’s teachers were solid, some were spectacular and a few made a life-changing impact on their lives and career choices.

I am amazed at how much good teachers give, in the classroom and out of it. The late hours for theater practices, weekend walking tours for kids around town to see Richmond’s architecture in a new way, travel with the band year-in and year-out to music festivals around the state and beyond. Good teachers go well beyond the classroom to touch kids’ lives.

When I hear policy debate about teachers, it often seems that the fundamental goal is to figure out how to get rid of bad teachers. Evaluation systems get put in place and have no upside, but only the downside of being used to weed out the poor performers. The current trend is to figure out how to link teacher evaluations to individual student performance. Such an effort could make teachers want to avoid serving our neediest kids.

While I am a huge supporter for regular teacher evaluation, and believe these evaluations should be used for all manner of actions, I think the right policy focus for our work with teachers is to pay less attention to “how to get rid of bad teachers” and instead focus on the more important challenge, how to attract and keep good teachers. Low pay, hard challenges, lack of parental support for so many kids, endless rounds of mandated testing crowding out individual opportunities for creativity in the classroom, all take their toll. In my experience, many great prospective teachers choose other options in college and many others cut short their desired careers to pursue other work.

A policy focus on attracting and keeping good teachers would involve our schools of education. I hope some will choose to be the leaders in the kind of individualized learning that has been the main theme of my suggestions. The pay of teachers is another issue that should be the focus of national discussion. Traditionally, this is a matter for states and local governments and not a federal issue. But, at the national level, we should show how teacher compensation practices in this country stack up to the “best in class” education systems worldwide.

A final area is professional development. We want students to be lifelong learners and we should want teachers and other education personnel to be lifelong learners as well. There is a dizzying array of new learning tools and technologies introduced every year and we need our teachers to keep current and redesign their approaches throughout their careers. So we need strong professional development for teachers that will enhance and build on instructional knowledge. Many teachers pursue a rigorous national certification process after they have a few years of classroom experience. The multi-year certification process is a powerful form of professional development. How about a federal commitment to provide a salary enhancement for teachers who achieve this distinction?

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The opinions expressed in Reimagining K-12 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.