Giving the Governor What He Needs, Not What He Wants

I am certain that our governor shares our interest in helping all students to be successful and to realize their potential.  It’s just common sense that better student outcomes translate into fewer bad things and more good things for our society.


We all know his approach. Use test scores to identify and weed out bad teachers.  Set up competitive structures to reward those identified as highly effective.  Quality control education through state mandates.  And accomplish all of this immediately.


Almost everyone can appreciate the Governor’s sense of urgency.  Our statewide graduation rates are too low.  A large percentage of those who enter higher education programs do not finish what they start.  Our social service net groans under the weight of those who fail to become career or college ready.  Global competition threatens our economic well-being.  There are many compelling reasons to improve our educational system ASAP.


However, how to achieve this shared goal is where agreement ends and controversy begins.  For many educators, myself included, the problem with the Governor’s approach is quite simple---it won’t work and it does more harm than good.  Heavily weighing test scores in a teacher’s evaluation is neither valid nor reliable given the multiple psychological, economic and social factors which affect student scores.   High stakes testing narrows the school curriculum, crowding out time for art, music, citizenship and co-curricular activities which help students develop the soft skills so necessary for success in the adult world.  Testing pressures and focus on evaluation demoralize and disempower experienced teachers while serving as a disincentive for young people considering a career in education. 


And then there is the implementation problem.  There is an old saying that in school reform, there is real time and there is political time and political time is yesterday.  So it is with the Governor who seems to believe that intense pressure on the educational system will yield dramatic results immediately.  It won’t. 


Most teachers are now deeply engaged in efforts to successfully implement the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) but teaching to the Common Core is hard.  It calls for teachers to use instructional practices which are new and challenging.  They need strong content knowledge and a greater understanding of how students learn. They need to reflect upon their practice,  dialogue with their peers and experiment with new approaches.  It will take time for them to gain confidence and competency in teaching the Common Core.  Time is something the Governor does not want to give them; but, in the end, it will take the time it takes.


Finally, and ironically, the Governor’s current approach actually distracts educational leaders from their efforts to improve the student outcomes which everyone seeks.  Echoing the observations of virtually all educational researchers, Michael Fullan recently commented, “Principals are spending more and more time on instruction but it is not time well spent, in that it does not yield widespread results.  To increase impact, principals should use their time differently.”


Currently, building leaders devote a large percentage of their work time to conducting APPR pre-conferences, classroom observations, write-ups and post—conferences.   Though they often report that these efforts result in conversations with faculty about teaching and learning, this focus comes at a cost.  Principals also indicate that complying with APPR has resulted in less time for class walk-throughs, meaningful interactions with students and opportunities to take the pulse of their school. Relationships between principals and teachers have been reduced to a few formal observation events per year, leaving little time for supervisors to meet regularly with teachers to address their unique growth needs.  Competitive structures built into the Governor’s program work against leaders’ efforts to cultivate the collaborative cultures where knowledge is created and shared for the benefit of all students.


In this highly politicized era, we must avoid confusing means with ends.  Success does not come from complying with the terms of APPR which was designed as a means to the end of helping all students to be successful.  As you can, with the time left to you after addressing state mandates, continue to work toward this end, which both you and the Governor share.

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