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Our Nation May STILL Be 'At Risk'

Today's guest blog is written by Michael Hynes, Ed.D. Michael is the Superintendent of the Patchogue-Medford School District in New York.

As a school superintendent in New York, I am fortunate to work with children, parents, teachers, administrators, staff and community members. I believe in our public school system and have seen it work very well for thousands of students. Like all systems, it can and should be improved. When the best organizations seek to do this, they look to continuously improve their system and those who work in it.

As a school system seeks to progress one should often ask, "Is this best for kids?" I believe this question was never asked by the U.S. Department of Education or the New York State Education Department. They are paving a road as "we" drive on it. As this road is paved, we have little to no say as to the road conditions that we see ahead of us, how fast we are going and where our destination is.

I believe this is true at both the state and national level in relation to public education. Over the years I have seen many things come and go. It's the perpetual pendulum of mandates, ideas, movements, etc. There are some things that are still around that I wish were gone, and some things are gone but I wish were still here. I won't mention which things because it really is a matter of perspective. My perspective, my opinion. However; I believe it is a fact that public education is under assault and "we" are driving on a road that will lead to it crashing and crashing hard.

When it does, what will happen to our children?

I wanted to gain a deeper understanding as to how we ended up on this slippery road. When I say "this road" I'm talking about the New York State Regents Reform Agenda which I believe is really the U.S. Department of Education Reform Agenda for public schools. As a superintendent it is imperative that I am accountable (for myself and others) as well as building up other people's capacities to reach their potential. If an employee is not the right fit in my district, it is my job to find someone else who is. Every aspect of the Regents Reform Agenda has very little to do with child development and everything to do with the wrong drivers for improving schools.

My question is, how are they accountable? 

To gain a deeper understanding as to where we came from, I decided to reread the original report A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. As I was read I thought, "If our nation was at risk thirty plus years ago, are we in a better place now? Did we use any of the recommendations and incorporate the suggestions from this report? Did Secretary of Education Duncan or our New York State soon to be ex-Commissioner of Education ever read it?

The original report was published in April 1983 by The National Commission on Excellence in Education.  At the time it was released it sent shock waves across the Nation.  To my surprise, when I finished and compared the reports' recommendations to our current reality in New York and in the United States...it actually seems like a much better road to drive on... or at least from my perspective it does.

This document made recommendations to focus on curricula and learning from other advanced countries. What I found most interesting was that the report doesn't mention anything about how schools should run and rarely makes any remarks about testing. I was surprised and found that extremely refreshing.

I think you may find the National Commission's charge thirty plus years ago very familiar to our current reality in education:

  • Assessing the quality of teaching and learning in our Nation's public and private schools, colleges and universities;
  • Comparing American schools and colleges with those of other advanced nations;
  • Studying the relationship between college admissions requirements and student achievement in high school;
  • Identifying educational programs which result in notable student success in college;
  • Assessing the degree to which major social and educational change in the last quarter century have affected student achievement; and
  • Defining problems which must be faced and overcome if we are successfully to pursue the course of excellence in education.

The Commission made the following recommendations to the nation in 1983:

  • To review and synthesize the data and scholarly literature on the quality of learning and teaching in the nation's schools, colleges, and universities, both public and private, with special concern for the educational experience of teenage youth;
  • To examine and to compare and contrast curricula, standards, and expectations of the educational systems of several advanced countries with those of the United States;
  • To study a representative sampling of university and college admission standards and lower division requirements with particular reference to the impact upon the enhancement of quality and the promotion of excellence such standards may have on high school curricula and on expected levels of high school achievement;
  • To review and to describe educational programs that are recognized as preparing students who consistently attain higher average scores in college entrance examinations and who meet with uncommon success the demands placed on them by the nation's colleges and universities;
  • To review the major changes that have occurred in American education as well as events in society during the past quarter century that have significantly affected educational achievement;
  • To hold hearings and to receive testimony and expert advice on efforts that could and should be taken to foster higher levels of quality and academic excellence in the nation's schools, colleges, and universities;
  • To do all other things needed to define the problems and the barriers to attaining greater levels of excellence in American education; and
  • To report and to make practical recommendations for action to be taken by educators, public officials, governing boards, parents, and others having a vital interest in American education and a capacity to influence it for the better.

When I read the recommendations, I found the following items absent:

  • Test children into oblivion;
  • Use tests from our children to grade and assess teachers and principals;
  • Develop new standards that have very little input from the educators who will teach the new standards to our children;
  • Do not trust teachers, principals, superintendents and school boards to make informed decisions about what is best for their children in relation to assessments, curricula and best practices at the local level;
  • Ensure that state and federal government (Governor and President) has significant influence over teacher accountability systems and assessments. They should decide what is best for children in public education (even if their children don't attend public school);
  • Guarantee corporations will make billions of dollars in the age of compliance and testing

The recommendations from the Commission were meant for us consider, discuss and possibly act upon.  I found the following extremely enlightening:

  • Focus on scholarly literature on the quality of learning and teaching. In my opinion, best practices dictate that teachers need time to collaborate with each other and students need to be inspired by their teachers and encouraged to take risks. It is almost impossible in this climate.
  • Examining, comparing, contrasting curricula, standards and expectations of several advanced countries. In my opinion, the New York and the US Department of Education clearly did not listen to this recommendation. If you look at top performing countries such as Finland, Canada and Singapore...you won't find an over reliance on standardizing and the over-testing of everything. They don't use the wrong drivers of reducing people by ranking and sorting. In fact, it's the complete opposite. These countries hold educators and children in very high regard.
  • To review the major changes that have occurred in American education as well as events in society during the past quarter century that have significantly affected educational achievement. In my opinion, I think it is safe to say that the federal decrees of Goals 2000, NCLB and now the era of testing everything to death is not working. It never has and it never will. The fact is, if poverty was reduced it would solve many of society's problems, including the achievement gap.
  • To hold hearings and to receive testimony and expert advice on efforts that could and should be taken to foster higher levels of quality and academic excellence in the nation's schools, colleges, and universities. In my opinion, I don't recall hearing anything about testimonies from experts when the Common Core Standards or tests were developed. I think Bill Gates, the Koch brothers and Pearson were contacted however. This is one of the biggest travesties. Big business prevailed.

Our current state of affairs in education is not only detrimental to our children, but I find our public school system under siege now more than when A Nation at Risk was released three decades ago. To make matters worse, we are using the wrong drivers to change education and we are going at light speed down a road of possibly ensuring that students only know how to bubble in test sheets, become proficient test takers and graduate into standardized widgets.

We can learn from A Nation at Risk. As Diane Ravitch stated in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, "Far from being a revolutionary document, the report was an impassioned plea to make our schools function better."

She also noted that,

"It did not refer to market-based competition and choice among schools; it did not suggest restructuring schools or school systems. It said nothing about closing schools, privatization, state takeover of districts, or other heavy handed forms of accountability. It addressed problems that were intrinsic to schooling, such as curriculum, graduation requirements, teacher preparation, and the quality of textbooks."

So what is the alternative?

Some of us believe in trusting the local control of our school systems. I believe in the capacity building of our teachers individually and collectively. It's about climate control within our schools and trying to work with the command and control mentality outside of them. State Education Departments should be working with school districts, not against them. This door is open to a better way of educating our children. The question is... will people go through it?

I believe the underpinnings of the New York Regents Reform Agenda have never been proven to work successfully AND longitudinally in any school district. If you did by chance find a school or district that you thought was successful, how would you define their success? State Test scores? Did you just use test scores as your measuring stick? It is one piece of a multi-dimensional pie.  Unfortunately, that's what many newspapers and politicians use. I prefer to appreciate how well rounded our students are (academics, the arts, social and emotional growth, sports, etc.). This will lead to their success in life.

If you look to where success leaves clues, you will find that we should be heading in the opposite direction both at the state and national level. There are successful school systems in Canada, Finland, and New York State that our nation should be looking to glean from.

As Alfie Kohn stated, "The goal beyond testing is about building a thriving democracy. It is about helping each child reach his/her potential as a human being and learner." Strip away the over-testing of students, tying student scores to teachers and principal evaluations, using the new poorly designed standards and the command and control mentality from our state and national education departments.

Let's focus on school districts collaborating together, teachers taking risks in the classroom, principal's focusing on a meaningful capacity building observation process and professional development for teachers and staff members.  Most important, we need to allow our children to thrive in a place where "one size fits all" does not exist....then I believe we are on the way to being A Nation at Risk no more. 

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