Ed Reform – The Song That Doesn’t End

This is the song that doesn’t end
Yes, it goes on and on my friend.
Some people started singing it
Not knowing what it was.
And they’ll continue singing it forever just because
[repeat ad infinitum]

Well, folks weren’t too receptive of my attempt to invoke Friedrich Nietzsche in a recent post on Education Reform and the need to acknowledge the complexity of the problems that we are trying to solve. Fair enough. Nietzsche and nihilism are way too heavy for people who freak out at terms like learning loss and achievement gap. And we all prefer light reading in the summer, particularly this month as we near the end of the pandemic (fingers crossed) and the beginning of a new school year.

This week, I’ll try a different tack – exchanging Nietzsche for Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop. Everybody loves Lamb Chop. My daughter dressed as Lamb Chop for Halloween – twice!

The problems we are solving are daunting, and like the song, they go on and on my friend. But that’s OK.

 Some people started singing it, Not knowing what it was

Lamb Chop: I’m a little teapot, short and stout. Here is my handle… [curls up left arm]… and here is my… [curls up right arm the same way]… oh darn, I’m a sugar bowl.

I’m sure that some people walk into the Education Reform arena with their eyes wide open, but for many of us it was our early experiences as education professionals that were eye opening and life changing, whether as a high school teacher, district program evaluator, or state testing specialist.

I’m not suggesting that people enter education totally unaware of the extent of the problems. I am from Boston. I was born in Roxbury, raised in a changing Dorchester neighborhood, and attended Boston Public Schools in the 1960s and 1970s. I was fully aware of all that was going on around me in the schools we drove past on my daily commute to and from Boston Latin School even before reading Death at an Early Age. In college, I read Inequality, Compulsory Miseducation, and Deschooling Society; and I could recite all of the relevant correlations from the Coleman Report.

Still, I did not seek out the testing and evaluation director position in Portland, Maine in 1988 with the intent of reforming public education in Portland or throughout Maine – I just spent a few months trying to do what I could to help some principals to do their job and the special education director to do her job. (My position was eliminated in a bitter budget/tax battle before I had enough time to meet many more people than that.)

Same when I entered the testing industry in 1989 through the doors of Advanced Systems and even when I left my own consulting company to join the MCAS team at the Massachusetts Department of Education in 1999.  Advanced Systems had free juice and soda, Rich Hill and Stuart Kahl were really excited about what they were doing, and eventually they offered me a job. In Massachusetts, Jeff Nellhaus and Kit Viator needed my help to understand what Neal Kingston was telling them (coincidentally and also ironically, very similar to the role that Neal Kingston filled when he started working for the Kentucky Department of Education, I was at Advanced Systems, and the shoe was on the other foot).

And they’ll continue singing it forever

You are young, or even just youngish, no kids, spouse with their own career, and you are presented with a technical, instructional, operational, fiscal, or moral/ethical challenge, or perhaps a combination of all of those in the form of a state assessment/accountability program. What do you do?

You try to solve it. That is, you devote almost all of your waking hours and sometimes while you’re dreaming, seven days per week, 6-8 months at a time, trying to solve it. That’s what you’re wired to do. They know that about you when they hire you.

At some point, however, something clicks. You continue trying to solve those challenges, but you shift from working in education reform to working to reform education. (I think that it’s kind of like that whole assessment of learning v. assessment for learning thing.) The change is subtle but profound.

When the change occurs, the key to your survival, success, happiness, mental and physical well-being is to recognize three facts:

  • You are not going to reform education by yourself. You are still working on improving an assessment or accountability program, instructing students, or implementing policy. You are a piece in a very large and complicated puzzle.
  • You are in it for the long haul.
  • There are always going to be new challenges.

“Self esteem comes from doing something and accomplishing something.” – Shari Lewis

We need to acknowledge and celebrate tasks accomplished, projects completed, and small victories along the way. The completion of a school year. A successful test administration. Issuing school accountability reports. Implementing a new early childhood education program.

Tom Brady’s career is a never-ending process. He knows that every football season brings a new set of challenges, but he takes time to celebrate and savor his Super Bowl victory every other year before putting that accomplishment behind him and moving on – his favorite Super Bowl ring is “the next one.”

Cronbach and Meehl, and other since them, told us that validity is a never-ending process. Yet we can and must continue to accumulate evidence – to validate and to evaluate – and to improve the validation process.

Education reform is a never-ending process. But we can and must make education better today than it was yesterday. Knowing that it will need to be still better tomorrow doesn’t take away from anything that we accomplished today.

Image by Hands off my tags! Michael Gaida from Pixabay

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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