by Anthony Cody, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Anthony Cody worked in high-poverty schools in Oakland, California, for 24 years. For 18 of them, he taught middle school science. He now lives in Mendocino County and leads workshops for teachers. He writes the Living in Dialogue blog and you can follow him on Twitter at @AnthonyCody.
We are now three decades into a huge effort to improve our schools using standards and tests. This project has become the status quo, but it has failed to live up to its promise. I spent the past 24 years teaching science in an urban school district, where I experienced this all first-hand. The students that were supposed to be served are still being “left behind.”
Let’s take a look at some of the big ideas that have become the status quo in education, contrasted with what I believe to be more meaningful reforms.
Status quo reforms promise that schools or teachers alone can eradicate the achievement gap in a few short years. Anyone who makes such promises, no matter how fervent or urgent they might be, is selling silver bullets. Don’t buy them - they don’t shoot straight. The status quo for high-poverty schools for the past decade is to have their test scores used to label them as failures and threaten the teachers working there with termination or reassignment if scores don’t rise. But school closures have not provided the results promised, and the constant pressure to raise scores results in a narrowed curriculum.
Meaningful reforms do not promise magical results. They focus attention on the learning conditions for students, including class size, safe and well-supplied schools, and resources for special education.
Take a look at the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA) in California. This project provided high-poverty students with lower class sizes and support for teacher collaboration. The Broader, Bolder Approach to Education has more examples.
Status quo reforms rely on test scores to measure student learning. No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and the NCLB waivers all attach ever higher stakes to student test scores.
Real reform will not narrowly define student outcomes as those that can be measured on tests, even on those new and improved computer-based tests that will cost billions. Real reform will challenge us to elevate rich assessments rooted in the classroom, featuring authentic evidence of student learning. This evidence will not all look the same but will reflect the learning goals of each school. Jon Mueller, professor of psychology at North Central College, explains what this means.
Status quo reform recruits recent college graduates to become intern teachers after a short summer of training, asking only a two-year commitment. These interns turn over in high numbers, but their sponsors claim that this is OK because they get good test scores, and some stay in the education field. But meanwhile, students at the high-poverty schools where they are concentrated suffer because of the lack of expertise and instability this brings.
Meaningful reforms focus on retention of excellent teachers from the very start, recruiting people who wish to make teaching a career. Programs such as TeamScience in Oakland likewise pair novice teachers with experienced mentors for support and have shown some success in boosting retention. An even more thorough approach has been taken by Urban Teacher Residencies, which honor the complexity of teaching in high-poverty schools by matching novices with experienced mentors. Teaching becomes more like an apprenticeship, with teachers receiving close guidance from the mentors, gradually increasing responsibility as their expertise grows.
Status quo reforms promote competition between teachers for bonus funds based on test scores. Systems that rate teachers based on test scores, and offer rewards or humiliation, are demoralizing and corrode collaborative relationships at a school. What is worse, they have repeatedly failed to even raise the test scores on which they are focused.
Lesson Study is another model of collaboration with a strong track record. Mills College research scholar Catherine Lewis explains:“The professional community (at a school and more broadly) changes as teachers become more willing and able to share their instructional knowledge and challenges with each other. As one veteran teacher put it, ‘Lesson study changes how teachers talk to each other around the water cooler.’ Teachers see how students' development depends on the efforts of many teachers, over many years, and they become committed to improving colleagues' practice, as well as their own practice. They think in terms of ‘our’ students, not ‘your’ and ‘my’ students.”
The big reform ideas of the past few decades have ripened into a stultifying status quo that allows us to avoid the real challenges we face in our schools. We can no longer pretend that another round of tests or harsher consequences for low scores will spur our nation’s schools to new heights. This status quo is on life support and ought to be allowed to die. Its departure will make room for more meaningful reforms that address the needs of our students and build on the strengths of their teachers.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Anthony Cody.