Traverse City Record-Eagle

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March 9, 2014

Forum: A better formula for school reform

Over the past generation, school reform has been predicated on the notion that accountability to student performance on standardized tests would drive improvement. The formula is simple: itemize the content into standards, pace the standards by grade level, administer standards-based assessments in all classrooms, and make results public.

The intention is to instill common definitions of success at each grade level. If all teachers of the same grade teach the same stuff at the same time, comparisons would be easy to make, and competition would drive change. Much time and money has been spent to create assessments and data systems. Legislation has been passed to assure schools are following this formula. Federal and state grant money has been distributed to support and reward those who comply.

Having institutionalizing this formula into the fabric of schooling, we should expect bold improvements in student performance on these aligned assessments. That has not been the case. Overall student performance is characterized by an up-and-down pattern varying a few percentage points year-to-year. We celebrate small gains and ignore small regressions.

Students still struggle to reach “proficiency” in a combination of reading and math. In content areas less valued by state assessors (science and social studies) student performance is even lower (source: MISchool Data). In spite of the mandates and alignment exercises, little has changed in student performance on these tests. The idea that nationalizing this process is going to result in anything different is a dissatisfying assumption.

On the other side of the ledger, the cost of standardization has been high. Local control over curriculum has been reduced. Unfunded mandates have complicated budgets. Talented administrators are consumed with the bureaucracy of state reporting. Good teachers are leaving the profession. Students feel “sorted and selected” based on a narrow and external definition of success. It is unreasonable to expect gains in learning when students feel like they exist for the school, instead of the school existing for them.

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