Replacing No Child Left Behind an inadequate step in right direction

We have a long way to go to rid schools of the toxic testing culture

                 It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge

                 –Albert Einstein

DURING MY PROFESSIONAL career in education, I spent a short time (a year and a half) as an elementary school principal, and one of the things I was fascinated by was the joy and enthusiasm with which those children approach learning. Somewhere along their educational journey our system quenches or at least diminishes that light for many of our students.

Our current system rewards compliance and a standardized education for all students, ensuring and even requiring that all students learn the same things while following the same or very similar paths. Topics and areas that the students themselves care and are passionate about are relegated to secondary roles, if addressed at all, and consequently many students become disenfranchised by the experience. Students are left feeling like what they are learning in school has little application in their lives. Educators recognize the importance of creativity and student engagement, but at each step remain constrained by the system in which we labor.

President Obama recently signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), replacing No Child Left Behind as the latest version of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. However, once again there is little to awaken joy in creative expression contained in that legislation. I admit that some of the changes scale down some of the most egregious elements of NCLB and Race to the Top, providing more flexibility to states for judging school performance and even give a passing nod to the importance of music and the arts. However, again we have a law that does not change our educational system to one responsive to the needs of our information-age society and its children. It merely tweaks aspects of our outdated industrial model of education.

It is interesting to note that the 1965 version of this federal law was 32 pages, whereas the ESSA is almost 400 pages long. The original legislation provided guidance and support to the states, whereas this newest version continues its mission of striving to dictate much of the process. Legislators are patting each other on the back and lauding the bipartisanship with which this newest iteration of that 1965 law was accomplished. However, it is time to stop tinkering and begin the difficult process and hard work of truly reforming our educational system.

For almost 15 years, failed policies have driven “reform” legislation, regulations, and initiatives. Rather than assess the performance of those polices and ask educational professionals for their opinions on how to improve the system, policy makers continue to put forth more of the same. Charter schools, privatization, competition-driven funding, standardized testing, and accountability metrics rather than working to stimulate improvement have generated flat performance. Instead of recognizing that these market-driven type reform policies themselves were flawed, policy makers blame schools and teachers for the lack of success. When educators express our concerns, those concerns are labeled as “counter-productive grumbling,” implying, or sometimes even directly stating, that if we just tried harder these reforms would be successful.

However, current educational policy initiatives (I refuse to call them reforms), such as ESSA, continue to miss the bigger picture. What is happening in public education is merely a reflection of what is happening in our society at large. As our society experiences a cultural shift, from industrial society to information based and from a nation-focused to a global-focused world view, the tensions created by that dynamic are straining our ideals, clouding our vision and having the effect of polarizing those responsible for making decisions. Just look at the current presidential campaign for a prominent example of how this is playing out on the national stage. Given that fact, I don’t know whether to be concerned or grateful that presidential candidates, Republican and Democrat, have had little if anything to say about their vision for public education.

Quite frankly, we’ve lost our way. Although assessment data is essential for making effective and appropriate educational decisions both for schools and individual students, overreliance on data is stripping the soul from our schools.  Catchphrases and clichés such as “increasing rigor” and “accountability” are getting in the way of deep thought and hard discussions about necessary change.

It should be simple or at least straightforward. Teachers are professionals with years of training behind them. They know their craft and are continuously working to refine and improve their practices. Students come to school to learn, some more willingly than others, and teachers strive to impart upon them the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in life. We need to begin the hard work of building a new system that individualizes instruction and assessment for each student, leveraging their interests and passions for real learning rather than relegating them to a secondary role. Our country requires an educational system that encourages creativity and engages students in meaningful lessons utilizing authentic assessment strategies to determine growth and achievement.

We know what to do and the work has already begun. Around the country, consortia of schools and districts are forming (New Hampshire and California provide two notable examples), with educators working together to develop new ways to assess students’ progress that are responsive to the needs of today’s schools and provide greater richness and depth of information than what we get from a standardized state test. We need to include higher education professionals in the discussion so that the teachers of tomorrow bring with them the skills necessary to keep the momentum of change going, adding their own stamp to the system in the process. We must provide schools with the resources to offer teachers meaningful professional development to stimulate and prepare for this change.

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I conclude with optimism. Public pressure and grass-roots lobbying efforts are slowly opening doors once closed and meaningful, substantive change is possible. The public must to continue to apply the pressure so that educators are afforded the flexibility to begin implementing innovative methods for both delivery of instruction and assessment of progress. Today it is in fashion to use fear to motivate the American people. It is time that rather than give in to those who would motivate us by fear, we listen to a message that encourages us to hope.

Now is the time to dream big and aspire to change our educational system, providing our children with the tools necessary to serve both themselves and our society.

 Todd Gazda is superintendent of the Ludlow public schools.