The Clock is Running

The Clock is Running – what a terrible title and miserable metaphor for a post about the first day of school.

But the fact is that as soon as the bell rings, the first roll call is taken, the pledge of allegiance recited, and a brief period of silent meditation completed, the clock is running.

Each question asked and answered, each quiz, each dipstick and exit slip, each homework assignment, and each end-of-unit test, moves us closer to the end of the first grading period, closer to Thanksgiving, to Christmas vacation, to spring, and to the state tests.

There is a fixed destination that each student in a class full of students is supposed to reach by the end of the school year.

There is a single teacher who is supposed to help them get there.

The clock is running.

We hope that the journey from the first to the last day of school will lead students down pathways filled with wonder and joy. A journey that will include the discovery of individual interests and talents heretofore unknown. At the same time as new knowledge and skills are being acquired, some existing skills are being nurtured and allowed to grow, others will solidify into lifelong loves, while still others may fade away.

Actually, we do much more than hope. We actively plan activities and chart a course to provide opportunities, expose students to new ideas, and to increase the likelihood for desirable outcomes to occur.

The clock is running.

It won’t be a straight path from Point A to Point B. There will be twists and turns along the way. There will be setbacks, struggles, and dead ends mixed in with unexpected opportunities as students advance toward the destination.  Some of those obstacles may be surprises to the student but expected and planned for by the teacher. Other diversions from the path may be well-known by the teacher, but it’s not clear when they will pop up or for whom.

Even before the pandemic, each school year included at least one positive twist or negative turn that took both the teacher and students by surprise.

They are all part of the journey. They all must be handled.

The clock is running.

We don’t need the Maps app to tell us that there is not one route from Point A to Point B as teachers and students make the journey through the school year.

In a classroom of 30 students and one teacher, not all students are going to be taking the same route. Some students may not like highways, others may not have the money for tolls, and others may be limited to the routes available through public transportation.

Further, there is likely not one route that is best from August/September until June. One route may be better at certain times of day or certain times of year. Don’t try to take I-95 south in Maine on Sundays from June through Labor Day.

The clock is running.

It’s also no secret that not all students will be making the same journey from Point A to Point B during a given school year. Some students enrolled in a particular grade level may be so far from Point A that it will take them a good portion of the year just to “proceed to the route” that takes them to Point B. Other students may be halfway to Point B on the first day of school.

A teacher may not encounter students spread out across the entire achievement continuum within a single classroom,  particularly as student reach middle school and high school. It is likely, however, that there will be a wide range of starting points within any classroom, even more likely in Year 3 of a pandemic.

The clock is running.

Finally, even under the best of conditions the school year is a slog.

The scheduled rest stops like Thanksgiving and Christmas break, and winter or spring vacation always seem to arrive at perfect times. Even Martin Luther King Day, just two weeks into the new calendar year is a welcome respite in the depths of winter.

But as anyone who has been on a long journey knows, there are days that you just have to pull back for a bit in order to keep moving forward at peak efficiency. You need to stop at the scenic overlook, read the historical marker, or spend an hour or two in the Idaho Potato Museum. It’s worth it.

The same is true in the classroom. There are just days when the very best course of action is a period-long digression that the students think was their idea.

The clock is running.

The Incredible Journey

As I stated in the opening to this post and tried to demonstrate through the examples that followed, “the clock is running” is a miserable metaphor for teaching, learning, and the school year.

Miserable, yes. Inaccurate, no.

Each school year should be an incredible journey, a magical mystery tour, from the first day of school in the fall until summer vacation begins again.

Perhaps that’s an idealized vision of public schools that never existed. Even popular songs painted a different picture from the beginning of the 20th century

School days, school days
Dear old Golden Rule days
‘Reading and ‘riting and ‘rithmetic
Taught to the tune of the hick’ry stick

to the middle

Back in the classroom, open your books
Gee, but the teacher don’t know how mean she looks
Soon as three o’clock rolls around
You finally lay your burden down

to the end

I’m sitting in the classroom thinking it’s a drag
Listening to the teacher rap, it just isn’t my bag
When two bells ring, you know it’s my cue
I’m gonna meet the boys on floor number two

Many will argue that an incredible journey of discovery never was the purpose of public education at all, and others only remember encountering the joy and wonder of learning once or twice with that teacher they’ll never forget.

Maybe so. But the school year should never have become a frenetic race toward a test score. We never intended to turn it into one. Be true to your school!

My question then is why have we adopted policies and practices that have contributed to making a constantly ticking clock an apt description of life in US public schools?

Was/Is there a compelling need for state content and achievement standards that defined a common core (lowercase) of knowledge and skills that should be the focus of curriculum and instruction for all students? 

Most definitely, yes.

Was/Is there a compelling need for a national consensus and the Common Core (uppercase)?

Yes, as long we allow for state and regional differences in execution, emphasis, and examples.

Test data, economic data, higher education data and just about every other important indicator clearly showed that there was too much variation across regions and states in the rigor of instruction being offered to students in K-12 schools.

Was/Is there a compelling need for state assessment programs as first defined by the Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA) in 1994?

Again, yes. I and others have made the case repeatedly explaining the need for high-quality state assessment programs and the implicit district and school accountability that accompanies them.

In the past two decades, have we simply “overdone it” with regard to content standards, achievement standards, state assessment programs, and state accountability programs?


A resounding yes. A yes that starts out loud and grows only louder until like rolling thunder it rattles the ground beneath our feet, and a tingling sensation throughout our body warns of imminent danger.

We have overdone state standards, assessment, and accountability almost as much as I overdid the previous sentence.

As we moved across each school year, the role of content standards, achievement standards, assessments and accountability only grew.

The mantra that accompanied the Common Core State Standards may have been “fewer, clearer, higher” but their intended and unintended consequences on instruction and education policy was anything but a light touch.

The use of individual student scores on state tests for high-stakes decisions like high school graduation and promotion may have lessened, but the burden that state assessment places on instruction has only increased as state tests have grown in number, size, and complexity.

We can debate how much of that burden is due to the test themselves and how much of the burden is really due to the preexisting inequity, inequality, and poor decision making revealed by the state tests. Either way, the burden is real.

College-and-career readiness? Get back to me when you know what that means.

State school accountability systems? The foundation laid for school accountability systems under NCLB was made of sand. Any subsequent attempts to renovate the accountability houses built on that foundation are only temporary stopgaps that will eventually be washed away or collapse under their own weight.

Turning Back the Clock

Do we want to turn back the clock to a time before standards, assessment, and school accountability? Clearly, my answer to that question is no.

But can we perhaps turn the clock on state standards and assessment back to IASA and regroup.

The door was opened wide for NCLB because many states never met the IASA requirements for standards and assessments. Now that all 50 states have state standards and assessment programs in place, can we revisit what it was that policymakers hoped to accomplish by requiring them? My former colleagues might ask what was the theory of action?

There are problems to be solved in public schools, and yes, there are children left behind.  But we know now that making state standards and external state tests bigger and bigger and bigger — even if we are making them better — is not the way to solve those problems.

How best can we use state standards, assessment, and accountability to help solve those problems rather than using them in ways that create new problems?

From A Nation at Risk to NCLB to Obama’s “Sputnik Moment” to the current cry to accelerate learning like never before, policymakers have tried to create a sense of urgency around the need to fix or improve education in America. Perhaps there should be a sense of urgency, but the last place we want to display academic panic is in the classroom. Teachers and students have enough to deal with already.

We cannot solve all of the problems in the classroom with assessment, but we can do our part. We’re all in this together!

We can begin by reshaping assessment policy to right-size the role of state tests and we can proactively support assessment practices that help make classrooms the sanctuaries of learning they should be.

And we cannot wait for the next reauthorization of ESEA.

We need to do it now.

The clock is running.

Image by Gerd Altmann 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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