Anxiously Watching the Reform of the U.S. Education System
Now I’m anxious, and no, it is not due to the mere 70-something days of shopping until Christmas.
No, instead there is another December event that is sparking increased blood pressure. As announced Friday, October 2nd, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will step down from his post at the end of 2015. Duncan has served in this capacity since January 2009 in a position that was not without significant criticism. Many pundits flamed his Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion competitive grant program that set the stage for the Common Core State Standards. In the spirit of football season, President Obama punted the succession process, naming John King, Jr. the acting Secretary of Education- in so doing he avoided a nomination struggle with the Senate.
So what do we know about Mr. King?
He has worked as a teacher, which offers some solace as many at his elevation lack this sense of perspective. He is also arriving with statesmanship (something I find sorely lacking these days), as evidenced by his tweet:
“Our schools& communities are stronger b/c of @arneduncan. Big shoes to fill.I’m ready to keep working hard for students, educators & families”
That said, John King, Jr. comes to the position with some controversy of his own. During his time as the New York State Commissioner of Education (2011- 2014), King was the focus of ire concerning the implementation of Common Core Standards and teacher evaluations. NYS ALLIES for Public Education, a coalition of parents and educators (among others), actively sought King’s resignation due to the implementation of high stakes testing and associated teacher evaluations. Former Assistant Secretary of Education, Dr. Diane Ravitch shared NYSAPE’s release on her blog with numerous comments indicating distaste (http://dianeravitch.net/2015/10/02/nysape-john-king-was-a-catastrophe-in-new-york/).
Let me assure you, as a father and as an educator, I’m not drinking the Kool Aid of the current testing climate. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a data geek. Ask my coworkers, they’ll attest to my ramblings. Heck, ask my friends- if they wind me up on a related topic I find it hard to shut up. I love data and can get behind its use for anything. I’m not saying that data isn’t useful to the process of education (note, I use the term ‘process’ as it is ongoing, not a quantifiable destination). No, what I worry about are concepts like ‘teach-to-the-test.’ I see the pressures our Local Education Agencies face when considering options for students. I get notes from my children’s teachers guiding how we should set the food and rest routines during test weeks. I can’t even imagine an environment in which teacher evaluations (and commensurate pay scales) rely upon test results. Suddenly, I am acutely aware that my anxiety is nothing in comparison.
Still, I worry.
I worry because what I see at my local level is a group of talented, well-intentioned educators who are invested in trying as hard as they can to support students. They serve as LEA liaisons to our students at Grafton. They work in our classrooms here at Grafton. They teach my children in public school. They don’t make policy. They try as hard as they can in the system that has been created outside of their control.
It’s the system that has churned out such pressures that entire schools have sacrificed their integrity to inflate test results, as found in Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, just to name a few.
According to educator/author/blogger Nancy Bailey, King’s selection isn’t a sign that our current course will change (http://nancyebailey.com/2015/10/04/the-duncanking-robots-and-the-revolving-door/). She surmises that Common Core may indeed be here to stay, and that the high stakes testing climate will continue to rule the hallways of our schools.
This entire algorithm gets even more complicated for our students whose impact of their disability is directly related to test performance- an anxiety-related disorder, or any number of emotional and/or learning disabilities. The system presses down on educator and student alike, and I worry that students receiving special education services are even more targeted as ‘at risk’ populations for test-taking techniques instead of skill acquisition.
So what is the answer? I wish I had an easy one. I worry about how funding is tied to competitive performance. I worry that teacher evaluations can also be tied to that performance. And most importantly I worry how this impacts the way our children are taught and how it is deemed that they learn. I am aware that school reform is a multi-faceted animal that is not easily manipulated. No one sitting in Mr. Duncan’s (or soon to be Mr. King’s) seat holds an enviable position. That said, what I see daily is the impact on our students and on my children, which causes me concern.
All of this is transpiring just over a year prior to the next presidential election in which we may find if an appointment to the position of U.S. Secretary of Education will offer a substantial change- or if Bailey is correct and the revolving door churns out the next ‘robot.’
And here I thought my greatest worry was trying to shop for those on my Christmas list in time.