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One Cage-Buster's Approach to Fixing Education

Note: Maddie Fennell, a literacy coach for the Omaha Public Schools, is guest posting this week.

As a proud NEA member and a US Department of Education Fellow, the most difficult part of my summer was watching my colleagues vent their serious frustrations at both the Secretary of Education AND their own NEA leadership.

While much has been written about the motion that passed calling for the resignation of Secretary Duncan, delegates also passed motions calling for greater national visibility for NEA officers and transparency in the process of engaging with corporate sponsors. Basically, there was just this feeling of "everyone is against us and we need a LOUDER defense."

So much of what teachers are feeling today didn't have to happen. I know the NEA leaders and Secretary Duncan pretty well; I have great respect for all of them, and neither side is the "bad guy" as both are depicted (depending on the lens through which you view education). But both sides have been wrong at some points and need to come together and be willing to change things based on common ground.

So, where do we start? I think that we need a 2-year moratorium on all the high stakes consequences associated with testing.

But holding our own "cease fire" will do nothing if we don't get ALL stakeholders to calm their fiery rhetoric, come to the table, and begin discussing the RIGHT way to build a system that provides a common road map to student success. For that to happen, it's going to take humility from all parties to admit where they have gone wrong.

As someone who has been a union leader, let me start with my NEA family first. The NEA has to operate from a student centered lens. I didn't become a teacher to join the NEA; I joined the NEA to become a better teacher. The NEA needs to put as many resources into building our profession as it does into the "bread and butter" union issues.

We built a state of the art defense system against Neanderthal evaluation systems. Instead of fixing evaluation, too often we just defended every member, regardless of the effect upon kids. Not every teacher is great (and when everyone is great, aren't we devaluing those who really do rise above?); we need to be able to admit that and find both evaluation and compensation systems that acknowledge those differences. The NEA has begun to promote peer evaluation and review systems, and that is a step in the right direction. 

The NEA also needs to begin to offer better solutions to the problems of testing and accountability. It's OK to say "we're against testing" if we're willing to come to the table and offer reasonable solutions for how we will be accountable to the trust the public has placed in us. We need to offer concrete examples when we talk about "multiple measures;" we need to showcase research that indicates how to measure the "non-cognitive" skills that we know are so crucial to students' success beyond the classroom. 

The Department of ED also needs to admit where they have contributed to the problem. It's a trifecta of mistakes:

1) Common Core: Both the NEA and ED leadership believe in the Common Core standards (and so do I), but faulty implementation has seriously derailed a good thing. Too much too fast! It's like a fish drinking from a fire hose. And the states that are throwing out the Common Core are creating an even greater conundrum for colleagues who aren't sure which standards they are expected to teach to or if they are even using tests that correlate to the standards. 

2) Testing and Evaluation: First of all, let's lay the blame on testing where it first belongs - in Congress.  The fact that they cannot revise NCLB shows how politics fight against the common good. 

I don't fault the Department of ED for trying to help with their waiver program, but they made some serious missteps. I addressed the evaluation pieces on Monday, but they also need to take another look at testing AND its high stakes consequences. ED can't say, "we only require 2 tests a year," tie high stakes to those tests, and then be shocked when states and districts add all kinds of formative assessments, test prep days, and their own layers of testing on top - all to try to prevent consequences that haven't even been proven to have an effect. 

Teachers have always been for assessment - when it gives us great feedback on how a student is doing and tells us what we need to re-teach so that a student achieves mastery. Most of us don't even mind an occasional standardized assessment that gives us a comparison standard for how kids are doing against a normed group. What we mind is layer upon layer upon layer of testing that takes away actual teaching time and usually provides poor - and poorly timed - feedback. 

3) Political Expediency: Offering money was a great carrot for states to jump on board for Race to the Top, but it only offered extrinsic motivation to create change. Now that the money is used up and folks are exhausted but not at the finish line, there's a lagging internal motivation to continue. The expediency needed for political timelines was incongruent with the time needed to bring about real CULTURE change. It would have been better to implement Common Core deeply and let it take hold before piling on testing and tying evaluations systems to tests that were NEVER designed for judging teacher effectiveness.

Let me offer one closing suggestion: It's easier to solve a problem if you have a common vision. Each fall, the Secretary of Education goes on a back to school tour. What if the presidents of the NEA and the AFT went on a tour with the Secretary of Education, each showing the best of what they are trying to create and honestly analyzing how it came to be? Maybe this could be a springboard to a common vision of success.

With school starting and fall around the corner, my Husker heart knows that football is near. A successful season takes a united team; to successfully educate our children, we will also need a strong, united team of policy makers and practitioners to build a sustainable system that will help our students build successful futures.

--Maddie Fennell

Disclaimer: Because Maddie works in many roles, she needs to say that her comments are not the official statements of anyone; they are her personal opinions that she may change with the right amount of convincing!

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