President Obama’s pronouncements on testing were a welcome relief. They were also, perhaps, too little too late. A lot of damage has been done in the name of accountability and it’s an open question as to when our schools will fully recover. It took years to turn them into test-prep factories; turning them back into places of wonder and learning may take longer.
The fact that Obama felt obligated to say anything at all is not due to an epiphany regarding the true goals of education. Rather, it’s entirely due to the swelling tide of angry parents leading the opt-out movement. For perhaps the first time in our history there’s a growing consensus that education policy is not working as it should for either the common or individual good. Parents are skeptical regarding what is being measured, how it is being measured and how the data is being used. And teachers are increasingly resentful at having their own performance measured in terms of student outcomes.
Despite the extremes to which data-driven obsession over academic “outcomes” have driven us, I don’t think any of us in the charter school world would deny the usefulness of standardized tests as a diagnostic tool or argue for their elimination. I, for one, have more than a grudging respect for the good work that goes into statistical analysis. So let’s not say that the quants’ work was all in vain. Let us, however, try to repossess the car keys.
This turn of events is of real consequence to those of us working in the independent charter sector. First of all, our schools exist, to a great measure, as a result of the accountability paradigm. We get autonomy; we deliver outcomes. This has been the mantra and always will be if we don’t want to return to the days of hyper regulation. But, more importantly, we hold ourselves to an accountability that goes beyond test scores. We do this work because we want to make a deep and lasting impact on the lives of students. Many of us have models of teaching and learning that are new, innovative and in their infancy. Some of us have models built around the idea of working with extreme at-risk populations. And these models don’t always produce the immediate outcomes we expect. Does that mean, at the first sign of less-than-stellar test scores, our schools should jettison the ideals of their mission and bring in basal textbook programs, no-excuses discipline and test prep? Was that what anyone signed up for?
Fifteen years of NCLB and RTTT have left quite a mark. An enormous market for standardized assessment materials and test prep courses has been created, and mega-corporations have a stake (and a fearsome lobbying force) in keeping that going. Across the board, all of us, from real estate agents to the edu-press, have bought into the zero-sum game of comparing kids, schools, and neighborhoods by test scores. And leaders of the high-profile charter networks take unabashed delight in how their schools beat the testing pants off district schools – so they have little incentive to change the rules of this game. They’re great at it.
Is the goal of education to create the world’s greatest generation of test-takers? If so, then let’s keep working away on our testing paradigms.
If not, then it’s time to talk about “outcomes” in broader, more human terms. Terms that are aligned with the realities of the 21st century and our need to educate a generation (or two or three) of kids who can solve the awful problems of this battered planet. The movement behind Common Core standards was informed by the same thinking: how to articulate the skills and thought processes students need to develop in order to be productive citizens? What wasn’t obvious during that long articulation and rollout was that testing the acquisition of sophisticated concepts was, in fact, a harder task than coming up with the standards! So, in the end, we wound up with new (and better) standards but with the same boring publishers making frighteningly flawed tests.
So, here’s where I think a lot of us in the independent charter sector are at with regards to all this: we want to be accountable and we want effective authorization. We’ll take the same tests that everyone else is taking and take the praise or lumps, but we want something more. We want to work with authorizers and policy-makers on reaching a better understanding of what real educational accountability needs to look like in this century. And then we want to live by it. Not only is this the right thing to do, but a close reading of the charter law would indicate that this is what we must do. If we can’t do a better job of articulating educational “outcomes” in terms that will elevate society, we’ll only continue cooking the same old stew and choking on it. Charters were created to be laboratories of innovation. It may be fine for some folks to throw up their hands and say that all this testing isn’t getting us anywhere. But it’s up to us and to those who keep a close eye on us to find a better way.
This won’t be easy. It will be a work in progress and it will take additional resources, especially at the authorizer level. Our authorizers need a budget increase, probably even more than we do. And they need it now. If they don’t have additional resources there is no way that they can look critically and with empathy at all their schools outside of the narrow prism of test scores.
So, as my dad liked to say, go figure. What started as a complaint against a president who turned out to be a slow learner on ed-policy, turns into a plea for additional funding for charter authorizers so that they can do a better job of working with our schools on the hard job of defining “real” accountability.
Yes, that’s exactly what it is.
by Steve Zimmerman, Co-Director of C3S