Standards Opinion

Life After This Scarlet-Letter Week

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 11, 2013 5 min read
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The results of New York State’s testing of their 3-8 students have been published. Our colleagues Diane Ravitch and Peter DeWitt have spoken out in angry righteousness. Everyone knew scores would decline. It was set up to happen. We were set up for it to happen to us. How do we follow those who led us into failure? How do we follow those who have ignored our alarm sounding, when we can see the horizon at the level of a child’s eyes? So much for the lofty view. Can policy be good if children get hurt?

No one is surprised at the decline in proficiency. In preparation for these results, Arne Duncan spoke outWe should absolutely not be alarmed if test scores drop as a result of these more rigorous expectations and higher standards. That’s because these new assessments and standards are now aligned to mark and measure what it truly takes to adequately prepare students for the real world.” We have all heard the same message from New York State Commissioner King and Chancellor Tisch of the Board of Regents. It is not a single state phenomenon. All of us who are Racing to the Top know the truth here. We all saw this coming from the beginning. You cannot place a test in front of children who have not been taught the skills that are being tested. In New York State, samples of the curriculum examples, called modules, trickled out during the school year. So, if adapted or adopted at all, they were only done in part, and not with a high level of skill. Learning takes time, even for adults. This year, teachers, principals and superintendents were buried in new Common Core Standards, new evaluation systems, and diminished resources. No time to learn...just to do. So, no, we are not surprised.

Neither are those articulate, visionary political and educational leaders who kept pushing onward while acknowledging that his day would arrive. They act as if they did not create this situation. Are these their students who didn’t measure up to their standards or are they our students, our teachers and our school leaders who didn’t measure up. Shame on those who feel no pain today when they place children, parents, principals and teachers in the public stockade, wearing a badge of failure? It seems those old Puritanical forms of punishment and humiliations are now tools of public policy reform. Can’t we do better than this? It is the 21st century, isn’t it?

If it isn’t even right, to expect professionals to learn a new way of thinking and teaching without a progressive and supportive system of implementation, why do this to the children? Diane Ravitch ended her blog post about this by saying, “The kids didn’t fail. The State Education Department failed. The New York State Board of Regents failed. They are in charge of education in New York. They decide on curriculum, instruction, standards, teacher qualifications, and allocation of resources. They have failed, not the students. They should be held accountable.” Who can disagree?

Yes, we need our fighters, those who see the injustices and stand on the rooftops and shout at the top of their lungs, “This is wrong!” While we have those who are fighting outside of our schools for what is right, the rest of us must lead from within.

We cannot allow ourselves to be diminished by outsiders. We cannot give integrity or will or soul to the arms of the mighty. We are still free and talented and powerful leaders. Herein lays our challenge. To begin, part of the problem we have to own.

The fact remains that we have still not figured out how to improve the academic performance of our minority students, our special education students, or our students from poverty (read Superintendent Lori Caplan’s piece on poverty.) We still have not figured out how to do a better job preparing all of our students for careers and college. But it is also true that we are not educational psychics. No one can say what will work, but we must try. Otherwise, in good conscience, those policy makers who want us gone because we are archaic and unable are right. We need to push back and prove them wrong. The intention of our political leaders seems good enough. They want us to do a better job of preparing our students. We don’t know if what they are asking us to do will produce their intended result. We do not agree that the way to create a better educational experience is to place the Scarlet Letter “F” on the chests of our children. The best teaching will not remove the shame and burden of being marked by failure at the beginning of the process. The baseline our political leaders sought is acquired on the backs of children. Yet, we can’t help but wonder. Is this outrage and resistance arising from the fact that now everyone can do poorly when in the past this designation of failure was reserved for those in schools where children were poor? If so, then much has been learned this year about the equity of failure as a systemic motivator. This is where we must step in and do our best work.

Here is our leadership moment. We can choose to lament or we can choose to step away from the moment, come together in the spirit of community and continue to move forward. We have been tossed a flawed process. We cannot allow it to demoralize our good work in our schools. We must not allow it to diminish the energy, morale, and good work of our teachers and principals. Simultaneously, we cannot allow repeated failure to occur. This year’s results belong to the state; from now on, the results will be ours.

We need to place all these numbers in context. Rather than framing the numbers into failure and passing, say what they are...simply a baseline. Superintendents need to help Boards of Education and communities understand this. Principals need to help teachers and parents understand this. Teachers and parents need to help students understand this. Regardless of what swirls around us, this does not need to be a failure moment for our students and our schools. This is a time for us to take hold of the message and make it clear and motivational.

Schools have webpages, use social media, have meetings, newsletters - all are vehicles for communicating this message. Within our school walls, encouragement and support need to be bountiful. Yet, we must be intentional to leverage this moment. It is true that we want to open doors and minds to ways of improving teaching and learning. Preparing to face the disappointment and scarlet letters is important. Helping the system transcend disappointment and shame is the leaders’ work. We have no choice. Our passion and dedication must not be extinguished. This change is at our doorstep. We must invite it in on our own terms. Our teachers must remain motivated and our students engaged and excited to learn. We will not back away from these being our schools. We will actively influence how it feels to live and learn within our walls. We will rise up with heads high from this moment. Higher scores and happy, healthy children will be the result of our work. This is our leadership moment and we are ready to seize it.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.