Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell has released his full legislative agenda for k-12 public education over the last two months, culminating in his State of the Commonwealth address on January 9. While his agenda carries some valuable changes for education in the Commonwealth, much of his plan appears to be under the influence of a consistent national reform movement that we often speak out against in the Teaching Underground. In response to the Governor's proposal, we'd like to offer several "planks" in our own education reform agenda that would serve to strengthen public education in our state.
1) We hear much about "all children, regardless of their zip code" deserving an excellent education. This implies that we consistently have some schools or districts that fail. Explicitly it means that certain schools or districts fail to consistently meet target scores on standardized testing. It doesn't take deep research to look at demographic groups in Virginia that are failing according to these measures.
In defense of a plan to create different pass rates for racial groups as a part of the NCLB waiver State Superintendent Patricia Wright stated "we have to consider that students start at different points." We contend that the reason children in a given zip code consistently fall short is only due in part to sub-par schools. Many factors in a given zip code impact the "starting point" of large groups of students.
The governor says:
We must have a zero tolerance policy for failing schools.
Therefore, I’m asking you to approve a bold initiative to establish a
statewide Opportunity Educational Institution to provide a high quality
education alternative for children attending any chronically
underperforming public elementary or secondary school. The Opportunity
Educational Institution will be a new statewide school division to
turnaround failing schools. If a school is consistently failing, the
Opportunity Educational Institution will step in to manage it. If the
school has failed for two years, the Institution can take it over and
provide a brand new approach to a broken system.
Failing schools are not an option. But before we label them failures, we need to put more resources into pre-K intervention strategies and wrap around services to make sure that before we judge schools' effectiveness we're certain that they're being judged fairly in comparison to others. Some schools have to turn volunteers away, have no concerns about availability of books and technology in the home. The education received in school complements the education received in the home and doesn't substitute for an enriched environment.
They say that teachers want to blame the students for their failures, but we're getting very close to blaming teachers for the failures of a society that refuses to do the hard work of making sure that every student enters school on an equal playing field.
2) We continue to hear the narrative that all we need in under-performing schools are better teachers.The governor proposes that Virginia take part in the Teach for America program. He admits that we have a "very small sub-set of Virginia schools that are failing" but seems to doubt that we have the talent among qualified teachers to make a difference. Teach for America is not the solution.
First, the state should determine if a shortage of teachers actually exists in the state. Second, if schools are truly hard-to-staff, perhaps we should identify what factors make them so hard to staff. Poor pay, lack of support, lack of resources? Certainly we're up to the challenge in the Commonwealth of making our schools places that students, teachers, and a community want to belong instead of "outsourcing" our children's education to a fluid cadre of teachers with five weeks of training and a two year commitment. Perhaps a "teach for Virginia" corps made of the state's most recent ed school graduates would be more in order.
3) Throughout the governor's agenda, the focus rests on measuring output and responding to failure. Since the advent of Standards of Learning testing in Virginia, this has been the narrative. We start with the assumption that things are bad and then pour our resources into proving it.
Part three of our plan would involve providing time and resources to school systems to build and ensure quality instead of a single method approach of measuring output. We argue that currently so much of our time and resources are being devoted to the measures of output it decreases the quality of our input.
4) Accountability and Parent Choice appears to be a common theme, so we propose the following:
Create a clear policy for parents to opt students out of standardized testing if they are satisfied that their child's classroom performance adequately measures their achievement.
This plan would allow parents to become more involved in their child's education and force schools to take a more transparent approach to instruction. Parents could continue to allow children to take standardized tests in order to objectively measure student progress if desired, but for students who have clearly exceeded standards it would free up time and resources for other activities.
5) We realize that large numbers of students opting out of testing would create one problem. Currently, the same tests used to measure student achievement also measure school and teacher quality. Student achievement certainly correlates positively with teacher and school quality, but one measurement can't accurately measure both. We need to more specifically identify and differentiate the measurements of student achievement and teacher/school quality.
We can't be afraid to admit that the students of two different teachers are very likely to show different levels of achievement even if those teachers are of the same quality. As long as we purport to measure student achievement and educational quality in a single undifferentiated measure, we inadequately measuring both.
Hopefully, enough Virginians (and more importantly our legislators) are familiar enough with the consistent messages of the national reform movement to recognize the similarities and identify the shortcomings of this proposed direction of change. We're not in favor of status quo, certainly we need some change in education. It is doubtful our ideas above will make it much further than our brains, but one can only hope.