assessment, accountability, and other important stuff

In the blink of an eye

Charlie DePascale

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Last month, I attended my 35th college reunion, where my classmates optimistically and encouragingly still were focused on looking forward (who we will be when we grow up and how we will change the world) rather than on looking back.

One of the first events I attended at the reunion was a town hall session titled Envisioning and Contributing to the Future of Education.  The word cloud at the top of this piece depicts the major themes that emerged during the course of the hour-long discussion.  Those themes should be quite familiar to anyone who has engaged recently in a discussion of the future of education.  As I reflected on my classmates’ discussion, it occurred to me that with the exception of a few specific contemporary words or phrases (e.g., tipping point, Finland, charter), those are also the same themes that were beginning to dominate discussions of the future of education during our years in college.

Although I did not realize it at the time, the formal preparation for my career in education began during our senior year, in the spring of 1981.  Having completed all of the course requirements for my music major, I was able to take a course in education policy at the Graduate School of Education and a Gen Ed course in the use of statistics in the social sciences.   A career in using data to inform education policy was born. And now, in the blink of an eye, 35 years have passed.

So, with an eye fixed on what lies ahead, it may be informative at this reunion milestone to look back on four forces that have shaped education and my career over the last 35 years: equity, excellence, technology, and funding.

Equity

My classmates and I entered college in the fall of 1977, one of the first cohorts of students fully educated in the era of a federal commitment to equity in education through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA).  Educators and policymakers were still unpacking the findings of the 1966 Coleman Report on the Equality of Educational Opportunity, attempting to understand and overcome the impact of poverty and socioeconomic status on student outcomes.  My high school years in Boston were dominated by court-ordered efforts to integrate, or desegregate, the public schools and to ensure that high quality teachers were assigned to all schools.  Across the nation, there was controversy over claims of cultural bias in standardized testing and public education.  Debate over culture pit concerns about cultural bias in testing and the need for cultural sensitivity in instruction against claims that it was most important to prepare students for the culture in which they would need to succeed.   Much of that debate is just as contentious today – although today’s conclusions on cultural issues might be different than those of the 1970s and 1980s.

Landmark legislation in Massachusetts in the mid-1970s on the rights of students with disabilities to equal access to educational opportunities became the blueprint for federal laws on educating students with disabilities, culminating in the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The focus on individual students with disabilities was accompanied by a general shift from a teacher-centered to student-centered view of teaching and instruction. The belief that every child can learn is a natural prerequisite for policies such as No Child Left Behind, Every Student Succeeds, and the current emphasis on individual pathways, personalization, and culturally aware learning environments.

After students with disabilities, English language learners became the next focus of attention in the fight for  equity and access to equal and appropriate educational opportunities.  Nationwide, approximately 10% of students are English language learners, although there is significant variation in the percentage of English language learners across states.  There is also a wide variation in the percentages of English language learners across grade levels with the percentages highest at grades K-2 and steadily decreasing across the grade levels.

Although the basic premise of universal public schooling for all children has not changed, the increased emphasis on actually educating all children and the unique learning needs of each individual child has certainly changed the task and challenge presented to public schools.

Excellence

The publication of A Nation At Risk in 1983 added concerns about the quality of education to concerns about equality of educational opportunities.  Excellence and Equity has been the tagline driving education reform since the late 1980s.  The latest focus on excellence is couched in the language of college- and career-readiness. Additionally, the traditional concept of universal K-12 education has been expanded to K-14 or K-16 with the Obama administration declaring that earning some type of postsecondary degree or credential is no longer an option for the “talented few” but now is a “prerequisite for the growing jobs of the new economy.”

The dual goals of equity and excellence fostered bipartisan support that fueled the state and then federal test-based accountability policies that have dominated the last two decades. There certainly have been unintended negative consequences associated with such a heavy reliance on standardized test scores.  Accountability systems, however, have focused attention on the wide disparities in educational achievement within and across states.  The era of federally mandated test-based accountability may be nearing an end. One possible outcome of relaxing federal oversight of accountability systems is a reduced emphasis on excellence and for all.  That would be unfortunate.  In many states, districts, and schools, the momentum of the accountability era may be sustained.  In others, however, particularly those where change is difficult and resources are stretched thin; returning to equilibrium and the status quo will be the more likely outcome.  Education policy tends to swing from one all-or-nothing position to another (e.g., high levels of state or federal oversight to total local control).  Ideally, it will be possible to find an accountability policy that lives somewhere between one based on total reliance on standardized test scores and one based totally on local control with no audits or checks on the system.

Technology

It may be difficult to imagine, but technology as a game changer in education was already a major theme in the early 1980s. True, digital technology and personal computers led by the Apple II were just beginning to enter schools and the classroom.  However, computer-based instructional systems such as PLATO (the acronym for Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) had been under development since the 1960s. PLATO ran on mainframes and was licensed for distribution by Control Data Corporation.  Technology in the classroom, however, was not limited to computers.  In 1984, I joined a project evaluating the implementation of a PC-driven instructional management system in an elementary school.  The room that we were provided as an office was a grim reminder of the difficulty in integrating technology into instruction.  Affectionately dubbed the “technology graveyard” by our team, the room housed the ghosts of technology past, remnants of film strip projectors, phonographs, Wollensack reel-to-reel tape recorders, overhead projectors, TV carts, and other personal learning devices.

One possible reason for the difficulty in integrating technology into the instructional process is that there are differing opinions on the appropriate role(s) that technology should play in the classroom.  Throughout the history of technology in education, there have been two prevailing philosophies reflected in the products developed for the classroom: technology as a tool to replace teachers and technology as a tool to support teachers.  Again, this is not a place for either/or, all-or-nothing policy.  What is needed is a clear understanding of the roles and responsibilities of the teacher and the ways in which technology can be used to facilitate those.

Funding

The seeds for funding issues in public education were sewn in the property tax revolts of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Tax cap initiatives such as Proposition 13 in California followed by Proposition 2 ½ in Massachusetts set the stage for similar measures across the United States.  Given that property taxes were (are) the primary vehicle for funding public education at the local level, it is not a surprise that pressure on property taxes trickled down to pressure on school funding.  The tax cap initiatives were soon followed by a series of lawsuits at the state level challenging the use of local property taxes to fund schools.  The suits were filed on the basis of the state’s obligation to provide an adequate educational opportunity for all students.  School finance lawsuits in Kentucky and Massachusetts in the late 1980s and early 1990s had a major impact on school reform laws in both states and shaped my career in educational assessment.

Regardless of whether schools are funded directly by local property taxes or via a redistribution of local tax dollars across districts statewide, it is clear that public funding of schools is no longer sufficient to fund public schools.  When I attended public schools in Boston, virtually everything needed in schools was provided – paper, pencils, books, art supplies, music supplies, etc.  Yes, the book for my 1976 U.S. History course ended in 1964; but as Stephan Thernstrom explained to us freshman year in college, anything that happened within the last two decades is current events, not history.

As anyone who has a child or who has walked through a Staples or Office Depot store in the summer knows, public schools no longer provide students (or teachers) with all of the necessary supplies.  Students receive lists of supplies to purchase, teachers are given discounts to purchase supplies for their classrooms, and the office supply stores are set up to accept donations of supplies in the same way that grocery stores are set up to accept donations of food.  Still at the individual student level, there are pay-to-play programs or a-la-carte fees to participate in an increasing number of school activities.  Moving beyond the student, there is an increased reliance on external grants from foundations and/or partnerships between schools and private sources to fund essential school programs.  We are well beyond the occasional bake sale.

Of the four issues discussed, it can certainly be argued that funding may be the most critical.  Adequate funding and resources will impact the ability to address issues in each of the other three areas.

The next 35 years …

I think that it is a safe bet that the four forces discussed in this post will still be dominant issues in education 35 years from now.  And that is not necessarily a bad thing.  Obviously, it will not be good if we are worse off with regard to any of the four issues.  On the other hand, ensuring equal opportunities, striving for excellence, successfully integrating new technology into education, and finding adequate funding are not issues that you solve once and they go away.  There will always be new equity challenges.  The criteria for excellence will change over time.  Technological innovation will continue at a pace that we cannot even imagine.  And funding is funding.

I do hope, of course, that instruction and the physical classroom look quite different 35 years from now.  I was just a bit surprised at my college reunion that the classroom where the town hall session on the future of education was held still had chalkboards and desks fixed in rows.  (When I had my very first college class in that same building 35 years ago, we were able to move the chairs into a circle.)

Several of my classmates wondered what the tipping point to a transformation of education would be. It is difficult to imagine a single tipping point, however, with something as complex as public education that has so many moving parts.  Yes, there will be tipping points within education when online materials replace textbooks; the school day and/or school calendar is changed; urban school systems are funded by wealthy philanthropists; and I guess, when classrooms no longer have chalkboards. It is not clear, however, that changes such as those will transform the nature of education.

Perhaps rather than a tipping point, my classmates meant to ask whether there will be a Sputnik moment that transforms education; that is, an event or outcome that makes it obvious to everyone that the status quo is no longer acceptable.  Early in his administration, President Obama used the State of the Union address to tell us that we had arrived at a Sputnik moment in education.  The problem with his warning, however, was that if you have to tell people that this is a Sputnik moment then it clearly is not a Sputnik moment.

Before there can be a major tipping point or Sputnik moment in education, we may have to develop a better shared understanding of the purpose of education and how best to achieve that purpose. To a large extent, over the last 15 years education policy has been reduced to a singular focus on student achievement in reading and mathematics and an endless debate over testing and accountability.  To be sure, reading and mathematics are important subject areas. Student proficiency in reading and mathematics, however, has never been an end in itself.  Rather, a certain degree of proficiency in reading and mathematics are among the many tools that an educated person must possess and be able to apply.

Any attempt to envision the future of education and determine how best to contribute to that future, therefore, must begin with a discussion of the purpose of education.  I am afraid, however, that is a topic which our country has not addressed fully during my career in education.  It is not a discussion that fits nicely into 140 characters or into a 10 second sound bite. It is not a discussion that can be reduced to slogans such as every child can learn, no child left behind, or every student succeeds.

It is a topic, however, that has figured prominently in the aforementioned school finance lawsuits that shaped education reform in Kentucky and Massachusetts (McDuffy v. Sec’y of the Executive Office of Educ., 415 Mass. at 618-19, 615 N.E.2d at 554 (quoting Rose v. Council for Better Educ., Inc., 790 S.W.2d 186, 212 (Ky. 1989)).  In their decisions, both courts offered the following description of an educated child.  An educated child must possess ‘at least the seven following capabilities:

  • sufficient oral and written communication skills to enable students to function in a complex and rapidly changing civilization;
  • sufficient knowledge of economic, social, and political systems to enable students to make informed choices;
  • sufficient understanding of governmental processes to enable the student to understand the issues that affect his or her community, state, and nation;
  • sufficient self-knowledge and knowledge of his or her mental and physical wellness;
  • sufficient grounding in the arts to enable each student to appreciate his or her cultural and historical heritage;
  • sufficient training or preparation for advanced training in either academic or vocational fields so as to enable each child to choose and pursue life work intelligently; and
  • sufficient level of academic or vocational skills to enable public school students to compete favorably with their counterparts in surrounding states, in academics or in the job market.’

So, with that list as a starting point, how do we envision public education thirty-five years from now? Who will receive an education, how will it be delivered and funded, and how will excellence be defined?

After all, 2051 will be here in the blink of an eye.

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