Monday, September 22, 2014

America was not built on fear...

America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand. - Harry S. Truman

According to state and federal policy makers, our schools are failing and continue to fail. Rather than reevaluate the failed policies under which educators’ labor, those responsible for the development of the policies by which educators are governed have essentially doubled down. With the election of President Obama in 2008, educators felt hopeful of change. Those hopes were crushed, however, as rather than roll back the failed policies of the No Child Left Behind legislation, his administration pushed those mandates even further with Race to the Top. Federal policies advocating an even greater reliance on test scores, accountability, national standards and flawed valued added measures to tie test scores to teacher evaluations have further polarized the educational debate and alienated many educational professionals. 

As humans we are often governed by our emotions and the primary motivation in the public school system today is fear. Essentially, I posit that one of the greatest obstacles confronting meaningful change in education is that schools are afraid to fail. Fear is the primary motivation that is currently driving public education in our country. Ever since the release of the Nation at Risk report in 1983, we have been creating policy at an increasingly frantic pace driven by fear. "Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. Policy makers fear falling behind other countries and losing our competitive edge on the global stage." (A Nation At Risk - April 1983). 

REACT! REACT! REACT! Our national preeminence and even the security of our nation is at risk. If there is a problem with education, then it must be our teachers who are to blame. They must be held accountable. This report has driven the development of educational policy in this country for the last 40 years. However, the very policies created to address this perceived problem are merely adding to it, as they have a chilling effect on the creative, innovative and radical ideas that have led our country to that very preeminence that is now being questioned. On the surface these policies seem to make sense, yet standardization in education is the siren’s call leading us to destruction on the rocks of mediocrity. Our children are not standardized, our educational system should not be either.

After 10 years of this type of thinking policy makers have a new fear to add to the fear of America's perceived loss of status; they fear admitting that they were wrong. Even in the face of a growing body of research evidence to the contrary and growing public sentiment in opposition to this accountability standardized test driven reform effort they continue to place more and more measures in place to devalue educators and treat them as technicians rather than professionals.

Fear pervades the public education system in this country today. The consequences from the state for any decline in scores are so great that administrators and teachers are afraid to be truly innovative, because when you push the boundaries you risk failure. Principals and teachers fired, schools taken over by the state and given to companies to run, greater and greater intrusions by state regulatory agencies into the way that teachers teach and buildings are run. We must break this cycle.

We have resources available to us that the educators of prior generations only dreamed about, but it takes time and training for teachers to effectively incorporate those resources into their practice.  The problem is that professional development in schools today often consists of teachers learning how to fill out the appropriate forms to prove what they are already doing rather than learning how to do something new.     

So where does that leave us? It leaves us analyzing page after page of data so that we can assess what we are doing. Major changes in the way we practice involve risk and our system does not reward risk. The consequences for failure are too great. We cannot truly reform the educational system in this country unless we break ourselves free of the bonds tying us to the past and try new, creative and innovative ways to educate our students. It is the teacher’s job to guide students down a new path, however we must grant them the freedom to explore along the way.

I have and will continue to encourage my teachers to push the pedagogical envelope and challenge themselves and their students. We may fail from time to time and our test scores may rise and fall year to year, but test scores are only part of the picture. It is our duty to prepare students to succeed in the world in which they will live, not merely to meet success on a test. My favorite quote on education is from John Dewey “If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow.” The world has changed and education must change with it or we will truly leave our children behind. If we are going to change as a system, it must start with our teachers. Will it be you? I AM DONE BEING AFRAID.

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