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On the Atlanta Testing Scandal and Coaching

Heartbreaking. Heartbreaking and unnecessary.

These have been the phrases most consistently running through my mind as I've read the news about the Atlanta testing scandal. It doesn't have to be this way, I keep thinking.
(If you want to catch up, here's a place to start. This one from the New Yorker is brilliant.)

I've nudged myself to understand: to put myself in the shoes of the classroom teacher who erased incorrect test scores, in the shoes of the principal who looked the other way or rallied his troops behind a testing goal number, into the shoes of the central office administrators who fired principals who didn't raise test scores, and even into the shoes of the policy makers who crafted No Child Left Behind, one of the demons behind this whole disaster.

Seeking to understand brings a tidal wave of emotions. There's anger at those who created and enforced policies in which data became a slave driver. There's outrage that true justice will not be served--because those who really suffer are children--(and in the case of Atlanta, mostly low income children of color)--who deserve the same experiences and outcomes as their counterparts in the highest performing schools in the U.S.; to be in communities where the adults around them are also cared for and where everyone's social and emotional and learning needs are nurtured; to have their skills and capacities measured in multiple ways; to have access to art, music, gardening, and all the opportunities that kids in the suburbs, in private schools, and in affluent communities enjoy. And there's grief--heartbreaking grief. Because this doesn't need to be this way.

As I read about the verdict and pushed myself to understand the perspectives of the different players, I noticed this: I saw myself in each one of them. I recognized the part of me that might have changed test scores, demanded that teachers "teach to the test," fired principals, and even authored the education policy that contributed to this mess.

I see those seeds in myself.

I see that they are there because of fear--because what if our test scores don't rise and they close our school?

I see that they are there because of a need to be appreciated (or perhaps ego)--because I want my hard work to be recognized; no one ever acknowledges how hard I work and test scores don't reflect that.

I see that they are there because of a commitment to social justice and a desire to see kids get what they need--because there are some really disengaged teachers out there and maybe we can force them to give kids what they deserve.

And I see that they are there because of a lack of knowledge--because what I've done before hasn't worked and I don't know what else to do and so I'll just mandate these policies and punish those who don't reach them.

With a tinge of embarrassment, I see all these seeds in myself. The difference is that I didn't walk down any of the paths that led to the actions that teachers or administrators took in Atlanta (and elsewhere) or that policy makers have taken.

But It Doesn't Have to Be This Way

What I do know is this: There is another way to transform our schools. It doesn't have to be this way. I know this because I've seen transformation. I've seen students do what neither they themselves nor other adults expected they could do. I've seen teachers develop knowledge and skill, cultural competency, and passion that "turned around" a classroom. I've seen principals motivate and shift a staff school culture towards one of "excellence" and outcomes that astounded others. These transformations didn't happen overnight and data wasn't the only tool. They happened as a result of intentional, strategic capacity building, thousands of conversations, and many slow, quiet moments of reflection.

The transformations I've seen have happened as a result of coaching, of transformational coaching. Transformational coaching addresses what someone does in the classroom--planning, delivering lessons, assessment strategies, and management. Transformational coaching also facilitates a teacher's exploration of the beliefs that underlie the actions she takes in the classroom--beliefs about students, their parents, the communities in which they live, beliefs about curriculum and instruction, as well as beliefs about the teacher's own abilities, purpose, and so on. Finally, transformational coaching explores ways of being--how our emotions, methods of communicating, and identities manifest in our work. This model of coaching that I've been developing and sharing in my writing is the kind that I use with clients as well as train others in. It's the kind of coaching that I've seen transform experiences for children.

Transformational coaching is not a panacea and it's not a quick fix, but it offers a process through which we can truly transform schools--one that has nothing to do with threats, external incentives, performance pay, evaluations or test scores. It offers a way to start having conversations about what we really want to be doing in schools.

A skilled transformational coach guides someone into exploring the scary nooks and crannies where the part of the self lives that wants to erase incorrect test scores, fire people, and issue mandates. A transformational coach holds a nonjudgmental space where someone can explore the unintended consequences of walking down one path or another. A transformational coach engages in conversations around race, class, gender, equity, justice, and power.

A transformational coach also holds a space for a broken heart knowing very well that her own heart has been broken, that we can still be whole with a broken heart, and that in fact, if our hearts are not broken, perhaps the "light" can't make its way in.

We Have a Choice

One final thing I know is this: In order for us to see large scale transformation of our schools, we'll eventually have to discuss some excruciating topics--because it's no coincidence that the communities in which children are most struggling, (the "lowest performing schools") are located in low income communities of color. Neither teachers nor school districts nor education policy can fix poverty, and one day, that's what we'll have to talk about. And when we have that conversation, we'll also need to talk about how our government spends money, how income is distributed, how taxes are levied, and eventually, about our history. One day we will need to talk about slavery and reparations and the genocide of Native Americans. We'll have to talk about how to heal the harm that was inflicted upon our ancestors, the ancestors of our neighbors, or the ancestors of those in communities where we never venture to walk.

If we don't eventually have these conversations, we'll continue to talk about testing and data and scandals and pay for performance initiatives and racing to the top and our children won't get what they deserve and hearts will continue to break. We have a choice.

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