Let's Go Back to School

The nation's school children and their families are well into the time of year we know as "back to school," filled with excitement and anxiety that accompany a new school year. Summer is also over for teachers and school leaders, who face controversies over testing, teacher evaluation, and even the academic standards used to guide their work. Add to this a presidential campaign that's bound to stir up the politics of what we teach our kids and how we teach it, and you've got fuel to burn. Let's try to shed some light on a few of the issues that seem to generate the most heat.

1) School starts in kindergarten.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Once the entry point into school, kindergarten is now a point along an early education path that starts much earlier, is uneven in quality and expectations, and accessible in various ways in different states and localities. Although many assume kindergarten is the first year of school, enrollment is not mandatory in every state. Among states in which kindergarten enrollment is mandatory, some provide full-day programs while in others a "day" equals 2.5 hours. And in states that mandate kindergarten, access to full- or half-day programs depends on where you live. At the earlier end of the path into school, 70 percent of the nation's school children attend some form of preschool. And this doesn't even take into account the schooling that goes on at home, where helicopter parents make sure their child starts with a leg up on the competition. A lot of time, effort, and public funds go into educating young children and school starts long before they hit kindergarten. Unfortunately we have no real system in place to more effectively deliver these resources to all kids and at all ages.

2) There is too much testing in U.S. classrooms.

There is no question that education is enamored with data, inching closer to its own version of Moneyball every day. Much of those data come from student assessments, including those that are state-mandated, plus an assortment of local tests and demographic indicators. Much of the debate over Federal education legislation involving education centers on reducing testing in public schools. But the clamor over too much testing obfuscates and masks three more important questions: Are the tests we are giving the right ones? How are educators using test results? What aren't we assessing that we should? The argument over too much testing is not the right one. If we care about outcomes and dollars spent, and about ensuring all American schoolchildren learn, then we need data that is visible to the public and to educators. We need multiple, valid indicators of the quality of classroom teaching and children's learning. We need data, but most importantly we need to know how to use it.

3) My child is young for his grade; so I should hold him back a year.

Every year, tens of thousands of parents wonder whether keeping their child home (or in preschool) for another year is better. The belief that starting as the older kid, or that another year of preschool will make kindergarten smooth sailing, is mixed at best. Although there may be some benefits of this extra year, perhaps improved social skills or early reading, by third grade there is virtually no discernible difference between students' performance as a function of age within grade, all other factors being equal. Academic redshirting (the practice of holding kids out) actually expands age and skill spreads in classrooms (and so is not popular with teachers) because it puts older, more mature kids in every kindergarten classroom. Schools try to manage the age controversy by manipulating cutoff dates for enrollment. But no matter the date, a 12-month span of chronological time and a far wider span of developmental skill will show up in every classroom. Age and gender are two things parents can stop worrying about when their child goes to school; and most of the parents doing the worrying are precisely the ones that make sure their student is ready regardless.

4) All teachers in this school are terrific.

This is the "back to school night" mantra of every principal in the country. And as the leader of an organization with responsibilities for morale and the public face of a school, it is understandably the right thing for principals to say. It's also not true and everyone knows it. A more nuanced version could be, "Every teacher in this school is prepared to teach your child and participates in this school's continuous improvement plan through which teachers will receive critical feedback and supervision to ensure they are not only prepared but performing at the level your child needs to be a successful learner." See #2 about data and measurement because to make this statement true, we have to be smarter about collecting the right data and using it well. We have a long way to go to make the more nuanced version of this mantra the reality in American schools. Unfortunately, by some estimates, including observations of almost ten thousand U.S. classrooms, 25 percent of teachers (across public, private, and charter schools) are not all that effective in fostering students' engagement and learning. The responsibility for this lies with unions that have stonewalled efforts to put metrics into teacher evaluation, reformers who have dogmatically stuck by narrow and controversial assessments of student learning and effective teaching, policies more focused on firing bad teachers rather than improving everyone, and teacher preparation programs that are more accountable to state bureaucrats than to learners. It's sad, but this is where we have landed 15 years after No Child Left Behind and dozens of reports calling for improvements. Shame on everyone; we all own this one.

5) Common Core is a federal takeover of a state role and should be killed.

This canard is being perpetrated actively by every Republican candidate for U.S. president except Jeb Bush, and even he is waffling his way through the questions. The Common Core State Standards Initiative was launched by governors, including many Republicans, and at one time was supported by 46 of them. The reason Common Core was so popular among governors was that they saw it as a way to raise standards for students and boost economic productivity and community well-being. And much of the impetus for higher standards came from the business community. Federal dollars were used to articulate standards and build assessments. Teachers' unions were supportive at first because these new standards required a way of teaching that wasn't the reviled "drill and kill" that was driven by the first wave of accountability testing. But once teachers' evaluations were tied to student performance, and it was looking like students might not perform so well on these new, higher standards, the unions joined forces with ideology on the right to undermine political will in statehouses across the country. The federal government also shares blame here. Had they developed and deployed the assessments for Common Core at a faster pace, we would now be focused on students' performance on skills far more relevant for their success now and into the future. And don't forget that the assessments for Common Core would also allow comparisons of how states' systems performed against one another on the same test, enabling the states to really be a laboratory of experimentation. And with similar tests and standards across states, the 30% of students who move across state lines would not have not start fresh every year.

Welcome back to school. It may be a new year, but it hardly feels like a fresh start.