Thriving In Spite of
In December 2015, I read Pastor Mark Batterson's latest book, If. The book was written to inspire Christians to live life void of "if only" regrets by pursuing "what if" possibilities. While it is written in a spiritual context, the transfer to education was unavoidable for me. Over the past 18 months, I have informally interviewed more than 1,000 educators from across the United States. Without fail, all of them eventually point to testing as a substantial issue in public education. Those interested in reducing racial, socioeconomic, and gender gaps will point to the inevitable and well documented biases woven into high-stakes tests.
Those with an interest in teacher development will rush to explain that to evaluate teacher effectiveness based on student performance on a standardized test is foolish for a litany of well-researched reasons. Those with an interest in ed reform will confusingly use poor test scores to justify the reform they are advocating for but will almost always digress to agree that they don't believe in the value of the data generated by such mechanisms. Students generally hate the tests. Teachers loathe the hours of testing, prepping, and trivialized learning that the tests foster (not to mention the dreaded value added formulas that many states continue to use, in spite of substantial evidence that such formulas are null and void of any merit). The public is left to question the validity of the tests but they are not offered clear criteria to alternatively use to evaluate the effectiveness their schools. Meanwhile, testing agencies rake in millions of tax payer dollars to develop questions and to streamline the grading process so that schools can manage to test and return grades to millions of students each year.
I'm not the first, and won't be the last to question the role of testing, or the motivation to continue to implement such a maligned practice. However, what concerns me most from the conversations I have had over the past year is the number of administrators who lack the back-bone to lead in spite of the potential consequences of poor test scores. The progression is simple to see. A principal gets pressure to increase test performance, because his superior at a central office is pressured to increase district level test performance, because her superior is pressured to increase regional test performance, because his superior is pressured to increase state test performance because elected officials committed to improve public education--because that helps them get elected and helps them vie for federal funding which helps them get re-elected. Now, I'm not bashing on legislators--at least not on purpose. I realize I'm painting with a ridiculously broad brush, but stay with me for a minute. Once this has happened, the stage is set. The official fills the state department of education with well-vetted experts (when is the last time you heard a classroom teacher described as a "well-vetted expert" -- just saying). The experts, though usually well-intended, ubiquitously ignore all of the clamoring for reduced testing and they call for increased testing in order to generate what eventually becomes job securing data. It doesn't take long for the pressure to improve that data to trickle down to principals and consequently, teachers. There are a lot of disasters that happen along this path, but to me, the scariest is that principals become crippled by the pressure to develop test performers (you know, a skill none of us has ever seen on a job board...ever).
By all accounts, this isn't really the principals' fault. However, the pockets of great success across the country are those schools where the administrators have dug in their heels and decided they will not be ran by a test...and certainly not shackled by the potential thrashing they will take if they don't produce test performers. Instead, in these beacons of hope have (sometimes publicly) declared that standardized tests, by their very design, are not going to drive what they do. In talks with one prominent principal, he explained, "We just believe the [state test] is a test of mediocrity. It's not that we are trying to be disrespectful to the state, we just expect our kids to be way better than mediocre. As a result, over the last 6 years, we have not allowed our faculty to discuss, or even directly practice for the test. We use the data to help us sure up any areas that we may have mistakenly overlooked, but we don't prepare for the tests. Instead, we deliver a world-class education and our students perform just fine on the state tests." So far he's right. His students do just fine on the tests, but more importantly, many of them graduate with transferable skills that are consistently highlighted by college admissions departments and employers alike. These principals, like most, cannot skirt the test. Instead, they thrive in spite of it.
This is no simple feat. I'm not disparaging principals who don't take that leap of faith. I get it. The fear of public outcry, job loss, and career demotions can be overwhelming. However, as Batterson so eloquently explains, wouldn't you rather live in pursuit of what if possibilities rather than look back with if only regrets? Don't our students deserve leaders with that philosophy? This isn't a business where if we get it wrong, we close and adults move on to find their next step. This is education where kids' lives are in the balance.
So, you choose...
What if every student left your school as adaptable problem solvers.
If only I had given my students more than the minimum to get to the next level, then they would be ready.
What if you acted as if every student deserved to thrive?
If only my school wasn't expected to sort students into arbitrary strata, then we would succeed.
What if you realized the status quo isn't working and took the risk to innovate in spite of potential consequences?
If only we had a better leader above me who would change the norm so I could thrive.
In a later post, I may write my opinion on why I believe testing in public school is here to stay for the foreseeable future, but one thing is clear, as John Maxwell says, "Everything rises and falls on leadership." In spite of the mandates, testing, pressure, public scrutiny, political agendas, and all of the other junk that gets thrown into public education, choose to teach and lead in pursuit of "what if." Control what you can and thrive in spite of the barriers in the way.
Great teachers and principals are doing this all across the country.
You can too!
As always, I welcome your feedback, especially if you disagree--debated banter is how I learn and grow!
Update 8/22--I have been blessed to teach under and work with a number of local and state officials, central office administrators, and school level administrators who have embraced these concepts. It is truly a blessing to work in a situation where you are empowered to innovate and thrive!
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