Lessons Learned as a Student of Education Reform- Part One- On Thrift

Introduction

I carried the same purple L.L. Bean backpack through middle school, high school, and into college. When my Mom bought it for me, she told me it had a lifetime guarantee and was worth the higher cost than what she might have paid elsewhere. She was right. I carried it for years and when the waterproofing began to peel from the inside, she contacted the company and they sent us another one, this time in red. The purple one is long gone now, but the red one is still in excellent condition, some seventeen years later, and holds pet supplies.

My Mom was right, as she usually is, and the example of the backpack is just one of the many ways my parents taught me how to assess value. The overall lesson was this- Just because something is expensive, does not necessarily make it valuable. However, it is worth it to invest more in a quality item because it will last longer and bring more satisfaction. There is a lot of waste in the world and thriftiness is a virtue. Though I was born and raised in Florida, my parents are northerners, members of the so-called “Silent Generation,” so the Yankee mentality of “Waste not, want not” and “Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without” prevailed in our household.

I bring up thrift in an essay on education reform because although the education reform movement has been identified as a conservative movement, I think this is inaccurate. By thrift I don’t mean cheapness, but rather the dictionary definition of “the quality of using money and other resources carefully and not wastefully.” I use conservative in the sense of valuing caution, moderation, and tradition. As a student of education policy, a former teacher, and a mother to two school-age children, who values both thrift and conservatism as just defined, I have experienced a growing disillusionment and concern with the direction of the education reform movement and its impact on the education of our nation’s children. The education reform movement in its current state, and education policy in general, would benefit from a greater emphasis on both thrift and conservatism.

How do the current education reform movement and its attendant policies fail to demonstrate thrift?

Time

Children have limited time in school. The thirteen years of a K-12 education are not very many in the context of an entire lifetime, and then subtract summers, holidays, spring break, weekends, and so on. Teachers know that covering the content they are supposed to in the depth that they want to is an ongoing challenge. Yet current policies related to standardized testing function as if we have time to waste, and waste time they do. Students sit in computer labs waiting for the new online assessments to work properly. They lose time redoing the same tests when computers crash. They waste time waiting for their turn to test. Students who aren’t testing lose instructional time waiting for the other half of their class that is out testing to return. Libraries are shut down, movies are shown.

Even if other extraneous district and state mandated tests are eliminated, and even if schools had adequate technology that worked properly and allowed tests to be administered in a timely, non-disruptive manner, there is still the question of whether standardized tests and the time spent preparing for and taking them is making the best use of the time they take. It’s hard to know given that parents, students, and teachers are not able to see the actual tests after they are administered and questions persist surrounding their validity and reliability. At best, they are a snapshot of a child’s performance at one point in time based upon an idea of what a child in their grade level should be expected to know. While this is worth something, it is not worth the resources standardized tests currently consume. What is clear is that too much time is being squandered because of standardized testing policies, and it is the children that this impacts the most. Those are minutes for learning that they can’t get back. This wastefulness with the resource of time sends the wrong message to children about the value we place on their time for learning.

Money

Wasting money is another way that education reform policies have proven unthrifty. We spend millions of dollars and thousands of work hours implementing programs such as Race to the Top, which incentivized states hungry for dollars due to the economic recession to adopt new standards and curriculums, tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, and so on, only to later decide to overturn such programs or laws, or that maybe they aren’t having a positive impact after all. This lack of caution and propensity for throwing money at a problem to see what might stick is the opposite of thrift.

Then there is the $2 billion standardized testing industry, supported by taxpayer dollars for education, but which the average taxpayer had next to no say in approving for such a dominant and costly role in their school system. As previously discussed, though questions regarding the administration, validity, and scoring of these tests abound, and even though under the best of circumstances their usefulness is limited, the education reform movement has spawned a tangled web of policies, encompassing accountability, school choice, grading schools, student promotion, and teacher evaluation, that hinge on the use of standardized test scores.

This is a $2 billion industry for something that used to be done for free, the evaluation of student learning, by teachers, as a part of their professional duties. A teacher’s assessment of what a student is learning, conducted through multiple and varied measures over the course of a school year, is a much richer and more accurate portrayal of that student’s growth, yet this method, which has always been a part of the student-teacher relationship, has been devalued in favor of tests created by distant entities and graded by anonymous hands. It is ironic that many of the largest corporations in the world are now getting rid of their systems of once-a-year performance evaluations and employee rankings due to studies showing that “all the time, money, and effort spent didn’t ultimately accomplish their main goal- to drive better performance among employees.” What will these companies do instead? One of the largest companies in the world, Accenture, will “implement a more fluid system, in which employees receive timely feedback from their managers on an ongoing basis following assignments.” Sound familiar?

"All this terminology of rankings  - forcing rankings along some distribution curve or whatever - we're done with that," Accenture CEO Pierre Nanterme said of Accenture's decision. "We're going to evaluate you in your role, not vis-à-vis someone else who might work in Washington, who might work in Bangalore. It's irrelevant. It should be about you."

If only we could treat our nation’s children with the same common-sense respect.

Two more important points from this article that are relevant to education-

“Brain research has shown that even employees who get positive reviews experience negative effects from the process. It often triggers disengagement, and constricts our openness to creativity and growth.” If learning becomes all about getting the A, or the 5, or whatever, what comes next? What if they get the A right away- where do they go from there? What if they decide they don’t care about the 5? We need to structure our education system in a way that emphasizes the value of learning beyond a score on a test.

Finally, and related to thrift, companies moving to a new evaluation process (quite similar to our “old” evaluation process in education) are not likely to save much time or money. “Where they stand to benefit is, instead, the return on those investments. “The smartest companies are asking, how do we get the best value out of the time and money we are spending?” Brian Kropp, the HR practice leader for CEB said.”

Thrift does not mean being cheap; it means not wasting the resources we have. The current standardized testing system in America is not the best use of our education dollars or minutes.

(Thank you to Lillian Cunningham with The Washington Post for the excellent article I have cited from here. The complete article can be found at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-leadership/wp/2015/07/21/in-big-move-accenture-will-get-rid-of-annual-performance-reviews-and-rankings/)

Other examples of monetary waste related to education reform policies are plentiful. One is the public funding given to charter schools that end up being of poor quality. Not only is this a waste of money, but also a waste of time for those students that attend them, who are more likely to be living in poverty or minority students, and who especially can’t afford the time for education lost to attending a dysfunctional school. Money is wasted on for-profit charter management organizations who have a financial incentive to open as many schools as possible and run them for as little as possible, thus maximizing their profits. What about voucher programs that provide funds for students to attend a private school? Is the amount of the voucher enough for the student to attend a high quality private school, or just the one that has recently opened and happens to conveniently charge precisely the amount of the voucher? What guarantees are there that this is money well spent? This is not to say that there are no good charter schools and no children who have benefited through the use of a voucher. What I am saying is that there are enough examples of bad actors motivated by getting their hands on some education dollars that the citizenry should demand a closer look at the policies that are allowing this to happen. We should not let these children’s time or the public’s dollars be wasted on schools run by people motivated by profit.

One additional example of the lack of monetary thrift in current educational policies involves technology and its integration into our education system. I have great hope for the transformative power of technology-assisted learning. The waste has been seen in the widespread and costly adoption of hardware that is quickly obsolete or defective, technology purchased and used just for the sake of it being “technology” that does not accomplish anything different or unique, and when technology is a distraction from rather than an aid to learning. There are state, district, and school level policies that need to be evaluated regarding the use of technology so that it is being used in ways that are productive and resourceful.

Human Potential

Beyond the waste of time and money involved with many education reform policies, there is a third aspect that is the most important of all, and that is the waste of human potential. This applies to both students and teachers. When we make a choice to teach one thing, we are also making a choice not to teach something else. When a teacher’s practice is tightly constricted in terms of following a standardized curriculum, chosen because it aligns with the all-important standardized tests, the teacher loses the ability to follow up on the particular interests or needs of a class for fear of getting off track. Sometimes the best learning takes place when a conversation or activity is allowed to go off track and evolve based on the students. This is student-centered learning, rather than curriculum-centered learning. When class must move along regardless of the learning taking place, and when student interests and needs are secondary to the imperative to stay on track, those students’ learning potential is not being optimized. When teachers lose their autonomy to make decisions in the best interest of their students and to bring their most creative ideas and techniques to their classrooms, their potential as teachers is stifled. This is one of the reasons why bright young adults are hesitant to enter the teaching profession as it is in America today, and why so many who enter the field leave so quickly. The waste of human potential, from both our students and our teachers, due to misguided education reform policies is immense, shameful, and irretrievable. 

Conclusion

I did not intend for this first blog post to be so long, and there is still so much more to say. My next post will address education policies and freedom. Beyond that, I will write about, in no particular order: kindergarten, the opt-out movement, teaching, hypocrisy, brain research, and imagination. I will share interesting research and inspiring stories from the field, along with more in-depth analysis of specific policy areas. If this sounds interesting to you, please subscribe to the blog through RSS or email. If there is a particular area you would like me to write about, please let me know and I will try to address it.

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A few final thoughts on thrift. There is waste in our education system. It was there before the current spate of education reform policies over the past 15 years, and it has grown since. There is time, money, and human potential being wasted and this comes at a great cost to both our children and our entire nation. The bureaucracy involved in education at this point, from the federal, to the state, to the local level can be overwhelming. Our current tangle of education reform policies is not conservative. These policies have not been cautious, moderate, or respectful of the tradition of a free, quality public education for all that set the United States of America apart from much of the rest of the world. I believe we can do better and that it is never too late to change a system that isn’t working. We shouldn’t not change because a corporation might lose money or a politician might lose face. These issues are too important for concerns like that. I encourage everyone reading, whether parents, teachers, or simply concerned citizens, to question the current education policies in place and get involved with advocating for what you think is right for our children and our country.