I've been following the national conversation on reform since I became a teacher. As reform moved from individual subjects, where the focus was often on being student-centered, it moved to whole school reform, where test scores became synonymous with learning. It looked horrendous – teachers were portrayed as the problem and all schools—except charter schools—were portrayed as failing. NCLB was a punitive accountability measure that really did nothing to improve schools except to be able to put a number to failure, and the line for failure was moved depending how the current state governments wanted their schools portrayed. If they liked their schools, they set the bar low; if they thought their schools should change, they set the bar high.
It's not like we didn't know which were the terrible schools already. Almost everybody knew which schools they were -- schools no child should have to attend. New Orleans was a classic example, as were most inner city schools. Greed, corruption, and indifference were hallmarks of these schools. But there were also plenty of rural schools that didn't prepare their students well.
I thought the reformers were off their rockers. Rather than vilifying teachers and schools, they should have supported them in change.
But where was the compelling alternate vision proposed by schools that addressed school quality, teacher quality, and student learning? Schools and teachers were protesting the measures, but they did not have a compelling alternate vision that they all agreed on. Their proposed future looked very much like the past – but with more money. Of course the reformers were having a field day – the message the public and people with deep pockets received was, "Here we are – we care about kids and we are doing our best to give kids and parents choice to get them out of failing public schools because…'' imagine a dramatic arm sweep pulling the curtain aside showing a bunch of shouting teachers with signs protesting testing "…schools and teachers just want more money to do the same thing that has failed, and with no accountability." The schools were outmaneuvered.
In the meantime, how was anybody helping leadership at the district and board level in individual districts? Michael Fullan, in Professional Learning Communities Writ Large pointed out that improvement had never really moved out of individual schools to district or state level. Accountability and building capacity go together and should be done simultaneously. Yet accountability tends to get done first because it looks easy and it is easy to pass laws on it, but it is in building capacity where change happens (Fullan, 2005). The government has done accountability; now it is time to focus on building capacity.
Fullan, M. (2005). Professional learning communities writ large. In R. DuFour, R. Eaker & R. B. Dufour (Eds.), On common ground: The power of professional learning communities (pp. 209-223). Bloomington, In USA: Solution Tree Press.