By Todd Gazda, Superintendent, Ludlow Public Schools
We are at a pivotal juncture in this country with respect to education. Over the past decade, we have seen a dramatic escalation in the involvement of the Federal Government in education. There seems to be the belief in Washington that the alleged problems in public education in the U.S. can be corrected through national standards, increased regulations, standardized testing, and mandates regarding what and how our children should be taught. It seems that government at both the State and Federal levels want to take control of education away from locally elected officials and place that control in the hands of bureaucrats in the various state capitals and Washington. Nowhere is that practice more evident than here in Massachusetts.
We are drowning in initiatives. Even if they were all good ideas, there is no way we could effectively implement them all. They are getting in the way of each other and working to inhibit necessary change and progress. The number and pace of regulations to which we must respond and comply is increasing at an alarming rate. The following information is taken from the testimony of Tom Scott, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, presented to the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Education Committee on June 27, 2013. An examination of the regulations and documents requiring action by local districts on the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website demonstrates that from the years 1996 -2008 (13 years) there were 4,055 (average of 312 each year) documents requiring action of local districts in response to regulations. The same examination conducted on the four year period of 2009-2013 reveals that there were 5,382 (an average of 1077 each year) multiple page documents requiring action by local school districts. How are we effectively supposed to implement local initiatives and meet the needs of our students when we are mired in this bureaucratic nightmare of a system?
Education is an inherently local pursuit. To view it otherwise is misguided and detrimental to the mission of educating our children. In order for schools to be effective they must be responsive to the culture of the community in which they reside. The culture of those individual communities differ greatly and mandates which dictate uniformity for schools across the state, and now even the nation, are in direct contravention to that reality. Educational historian, David Tyack, stated that “The search for the one best system has ill served the pluralistic character of American Society. Bureaucracy has often perpetuated positions and outworn practices rather than serving the clients, the children to be taught.”
Current education reform is not designed to truly change education it merely adds additional levels of bureaucracy to an already overburdened system. The extreme emphasis on standardized testing is an unproductive exercise in bureaucratic compliance. As educators, however, if we speak out against the standardized testing movement and the amount of time it takes away from instruction then we are not for accountability. If we point out that many of the standardized test questions are not developmentally appropriate for the age of the students to whom they are being given, then we are not for rigor.
Assessments are an essential part of education. They serve as diagnostic tools that afford teachers the opportunity to determine areas where students need extra assistance or demonstrate when a topic needs to be re-taught. However, standardized tests whose scores take months to arrive, often after the student has moved on to another teacher, have a limited utility for shaping the educational environment. I am concerned that we are creating students who will excel in taking multiple choice tests. Unfortunately, life is not a multiple choice test. Enough is enough!
It is time for educators to push back against the standardized, centralized, top-down mandate driven school reform environment. I agree with the need for standards, but those standards need to be broadly written. Local communities, school boards, administrators and teachers should then be afforded the flexibility to demonstrate how they have worked to creatively to implement local initiatives in order to meet those broadly construed standards. The problem is that it is difficult to boil down creativity to a data point and that makes bureaucrats uncomfortable to say the least.
Well, where does that leave us? Education in the United States is constantly being compared to the systems in countries around the world. One important characteristic of education in those countries, which is consistently linked to the success of their students, is the esteem with which they hold their educators. It is time to treat our teachers with respect. It is time that we involve teachers in the discussion to set the direction for education in this country. They are the ones with the training and expertise. They are on the front lines in this battle. It is time that as educators we let our representatives at the state and federal levels know that we are headed in the wrong direction. It is time that, rather than be influenced by special interests, we focus on the students and the skills they need to be successful in our modern society. I will do my part. Will You?