The final draft of the “No Child Left Behind” rewrite is heading to Congress for a vote. With another persuasive title, the “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA) takes one step forward from the two steps back taken with “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) and “Race to the Top” (RTTP).
I really think we should take some inspiration from IKEA for bill naming schemes. I’m just not sure every member of Congress read all 670 pages of NCLB. I wonder how many just looked at the title and thought, “This sounds emotionally compelling. I can’t vote against this!” But I digress.
Tip of the hat: under ESSA, the federal government can no longer order states to “take drastic action” against schools with low test scores. They can’t shut schools down and they can’t transform public schools into charters. Sorry fans of the parent-trigger law, I can’t support corporate-backed privatization under the guise of parent empowerment. The strategies supported to turn schools around in “trigger” legislation have no proof they work and are not evidence-based. “Good” ideas applied as a band-aid with no basis in research often fail very hard. I suggest advocates of the parent-trigger law instead come up with ways to bolster PTA participation and engage their respective communities before hastily wiping out entire institutions with rich histories.
Under the ESSA, there will still be standardized testing for students from 3rd to 8th grade and in high school. That’s unfortunate and a damn shame. It’s nearly 2016 and our policies still push for children to be assessed by age group versus skill level. Rather than prioritizing personalized learning, we’re still asking for annual assessment data with no significant plan in-hand to act on said data. Our students are already getting tested by their respective teachers and by interim assessments administered by their schools and districts. Our policies today incentivize over-assessment, when they really should be written to incentivize educators to analyze and act on data in real-time.
To balance the standardized testing, one part of the ESSA might actually satisfy the opt-out movement: for states that allow it, parents have the right to opt their children out of these exams. Schools need to show a 95% test participation rate. For schools that don’t, the state gets to “decide” what to do. And there’s nothing in ESSA about stopping or limiting the opt-out movement growing nationally. Sounds deliberately vague.
As a former educator deeply invested in education, I think this bill is a short-term win for educators, parents, and students, but the hard work remains ahead. The opt-out grassroots campaign is gaining popularity. College students are no longer seeking teaching professions. Clearly, legislators are unofficially acknowledging there’s an elephant in the room, and they’d rather deal with it after election season. Or maybe this would be significantly easier to address if a front-runner presidential candidate got serious and deliberate about their own education policy. One-off statements about equal access to quality education and the “original role” of charters don’t count Mr. Sanders and Mrs. Clinton. Let’s hear a real plan.
There’s not a single day in the school year that’s capable of both boosting teachers’ morale or crushing them entirely more than data day.
Before I continue, I must first disclose I’m not against the “idea” of data day. Nor am I against measuring class data to inform and guide instruction. Quite the contrary actually — when I was in the classroom, I triangulated data from a variety of sources (including my own “teacher hunches”) and then made informed instructional decisions.
Of course, I came from the investment banking world, so making overly complex spreadsheets (on top of the mandated school gradebook) wasn’t a big issue. However, this isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a norm for teachers. Although this practice proved somewhat useful, it was incredibly time-consuming and difficult to maintain. As I gained more teaching experience, I learned when to overkill with data and when to go with my gut. Using data can be a hardship, but it can also be a game changer when used appropriately, efficiently, and in a timely manner.
My distrust for data day comes from how its typically implemented in practice. Teachers are in essence promised a full day to churn useful, yet otherwise hard-to-compile information into their daily work. But by the time data day actually happens, one or all of the following occur:
Teachers get bogged down with so much lesson planning and grading that the new “data” becomes overkill.
Teachers grow frustrated with the plethora of unorganized data “handed off” to them from a printer.
Some teachers use data to develop a plan of attack, while others grow weary and lost. School leadership fails to pair these groups up.
In my experience, data day became a dumping ground to do things we should be doing more often. Kind of like receiving a giant gift basket on Teacher Appreciation Day, when all you really had to do was say “thank you” periodically.
I think schools need to completely redefine what “data day” means. In general, it’s offered twice a school year, once in the middle and once at the end. There are schools that offer it more frequently, but it still remains up to school leaders to determine how effective this day is. Frankly, I think it’s ridiculous to expect every teacher to effectively use one day for something that should be happening weekly. Some schools are reducing the number of professional development days as a solution and that’s not helpful. We shouldn’t have to sacrifice professional development in the name of personalized instruction — they go hand-in-hand.
Data day should be every day (and maybe school-wide, it should be weekly) for teachers. While that’s unrealistic now given there isn’t enough time in the school day or week, it must be done. There’s a big demand for personalized learning and that doesn’t happen without teachers effectively using data to adjust their practices in real-time, all the time. We’ve got to figure out a way to balance professional development and data analysis with instructional delivery. Master teachers are able to engineer learning experiences that put students in the driver’s seat of their own learning. You don’t get that kind of magic without content expertise and student data analysis.
Unfortunately, master teachers are rare gems who often sacrifice a lot of their “me” time for the job. If we want sustainability, schools should think about developing staff-wide practices that build off what master teachers do, rather than simply glorifying how hard they work to “go the extra mile.”