The Blog

Who Are Our Masters?

We need to scrap all of our systems and begin by asking our students and teachers what they need. This is a radical proposition, but it is also simple and the most effective.
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Who are our masters?

I pose this question with absolute seriousness. I was invited to participate on a task force for the Illinois State Board of Education to review the assessments currently mandated across the state. I originally assumed this would be a group pulled together to serve as a political charade during our municipal election period. My cynicism proved wrong when, at our first meeting State Senator Lightford herself described the statewide discomfort with PARCC. It was evident this task force will be able to share authentic input on informing the state legislature. This is hopeful.

What concerns me is how we spoke of education. The rooms, one in Chicago and one in Springfield, meeting concurrently and in real time linked via a webcast, were filled with real stakeholders and experienced educators representing the P-20 spectrum, including parents, teachers, superintendents, deans and principals like myself. There was not a single person representing what has become known as the 'corporate reform' agenda.

We are tasked with disentangling and making sense of the numerous, if not countless, assessment systems currently in place across the State and our more than 800 school districts (side note: we have the fourth highest number of school districts in the country, costing millions of dollars paying superintendents and staff that could otherwise be consolidated). Discussing how we might gather data about the countless assessment systems across our state felt a bit like figuring out how we can disentangle a giant, knotted, ball of yarn.

The question was proposed how we can determine what masters our assessments are serving. I believe the use of the word 'masters' was partially intended to be facetious, but it was also appropriate. The fact is the Illinois State legislature, and I would venture to say every legislature, doesn't know much of anything about effective education. It was laid bare when it was revealed key lawmakers didn't know the difference between interim, formative and summative assessments, yet have passed laws mandating high-stakes assessments that have been highly questioned as to their validity.

When it was suggested that we explore assessments at the local level across the state, participants, including myself, described the data collection as going "down" to the classroom level. In other words, we have been convinced of the notion that our "masters" begin with the Federal Department of Education, then the Illinois State Board of Education, then our Districts (800+ strong!), then our local administrators and finally, maybe, if we have time...the teachers and the students.

We need to flip on its head our notion of who controls education. We need a libertarian movement in education. The real reform has to happen in who we perceive our masters to be. Our masters need to be our students and teachers. That is where all decisions need to begin and end. Not at the district, state or federal level. No doubt people reading this will gasp and suggest teachers are incompetent and can't be trusted with decision making. We've been told teachers are incompetent since the inception of public education as teachers have been blamed for everything from poverty to our lack of men walking on the moon (read "The Teacher Wars" by Dana Goldstein to learn more about the long history of teachers-as-scapegoat). As a principal I've certainly seen my fair share of teachers that didn't belong in the profession. Yet the vast majority, more than 95 percent, are intelligent, dedicated, hard-working, tireless (nonetheless stressed and overworked) and highly educated professionals who know far more about what makes effective education than any legislature, be it a board of education, state senate or federal department, in our land.

If Teach For America has taught us anything, teaching is one of the most difficult jobs around and Ivy League graduates with minimal training too often can't hack it. Teacher candidates in traditional programs take coursework to learn about psychology and human development, subject-specific curricula and content-knowledge, pedagogy and instructional methods, all while having to connect with and teach students from a wide variety of cultures and socioeconomic levels. Every year the average teacher participates in more than one-hundred hours of collaborative planning meetings, professional development sessions, peer and supervisor-led observations, coaching and mentoring. The typical lawmaker has less training and experience teaching students than a Teach For America corps member. That's not a criticism, it's just a fact.

We need to stop asking how we serve our masters and recognize that teaching and learning begins with the teacher and the student. We need to scrap all of our systems and begin by asking our students and teachers what they need. This is a radical proposition, but it is also simple and the most effective. Instead of disentangling the ball of yarn and deciding which assessment and curricula vendors will receive our millions of dollars, and billions of dollars nationwide, let's build a system using backwards design that begins with the classroom and enables teachers to receive the support and professional development they need. We can continue to hold teachers accountable, and we don't need high-stakes, highly-questionable assessments to do so. Let's make sure we begin to serve our true masters, which are our students and teachers, not the countless assessments and legislative bodies.