Traverse City Record-Eagle

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January 25, 2013

Forum: Importance of local school control

"Alice came to a fork in the road. 'Which road do I take?' she asked.

'Where do you want to go?' responded the Cheshire Cat.

'I don't know,' Alice answered.

'Then,' said the Cat, 'it doesn't matter."

-- Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Choice is only significant when there are distinct options from which to choose.

School choice has been a strategy of educational reform for 15 years. While independent and parochial schools have always existed, public charter schools and school-of-choice options were added as mechanisms to introduce market forces into education.

Choice has had an indisputable effect on quality as schools endeavor to present program distinctions to prospective families. Unfortunately, choice's unpopular partner in reform is standardization. One strategy promotes innovation. The other obstructs it.

The purpose of standardization is to assure equal comparison of schools, but comparison based on what characteristics? Absent in the rush towards standardization is a public debate on what we value in education. The useful adage "what gets measured gets done" has a corollary: "If you measure the wrong thing, you will accomplish the wrong thing".

Any assessment applied across millions of students is not likely to have the capacity to determine the attributes of critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration; skills necessary in today's economy. Instead, what is affordable and scalable are modest assessments of content knowledge in selected subject areas. Since this is the data that can be easily collected and reported on all schools, it becomes the prevailing compass point.

Against their better judgment, educators are pressured to narrow the curriculum and teach in ways that secures success on these assessments. Education has been expensively reorganized around the wrong targets of student achievement, all for the purpose of easily sorting our schools.

The slippery slope of a common national assessment leads to mandates dictating common content, pacing, curriculum, teacher evaluation; all with enormous costs to your school. Local authority over these variables is minimized in an effort to "teacher-proof" the classroom. Under this current regime of state and national mandates, opportunity for local innovation exists only in the margins. Schools become like box stores.

The way to correct the errors of recent reform efforts is to recapture local control of schools.

Mandates are currently being designed by a select few people located very far away from your town, your school, and your child.

Meanwhile, our communities are blessed with creative and highly skilled teachers, dedicated administrators, and supportive businesses ready to innovate and respond to the unique spectrum of talents and challenges present in each classroom.

When a conscientious school board works with impassioned educators to control the variables that shape learning, powerful practices emerge.

Schools should be accountable to communities, families, and students; not assessments they had no voice in selecting. Where local control exists, innovation will thrive, options will be distinct, and choices will have meaning.

About the author: Rob Hansen has 15 years of experience in education as a public classroom teacher, instructional consultant and regional administrator. Prior to his career in education, he was a research scientist and program manager in the pharmaceutical industry. He is the Head of School of The Pathfinder School in Traverse City.

About the forum: The forum is a periodic column of opinion written by Record-Eagle readers in their areas of interest or expertise. Submissions of 500 words or less may be made by e-mailing letters@record-eagle.com. Please include biographical information and a photo.

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