Friday, January 1, 2016

Preparing for 2016

As we approach the end of this calendar year and look to 2016 and the presidential election, I am keenly aware of the coming political change. A 
new president means a new secretary of education and new ideas concerning the role of the federal government in education. However, change at the federal level is already well underway, and our own Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander has provided leadership in this rewrite of the federal role in education. 

This legislation eliminates the federal mandate that teacher evaluations be tied to student performance on statewide tests, although states will be able to link these scores to teacher performance reviews. Second, the rewrite also says the federal government may not mandate or give states incentives to adopt any particular set of academic standards, such as the Common Core. Third, states and districts will now be responsible for coming up with their own goals for schools, designing their own measures of achievement and progress, and deciding independently how to turn around struggling schools (Jennifer C. Kerr, The Associated Press, 2015). This is a fundamental shift from a broad constructionist view of the United States Constitution regarding education to a strict constructionist view, which leaves the governance of education solely to the states. 

The death of a federally mandated Common Core has not come as a surprise to those invested in educational policy. These standards have been attacked by those on the political right and left. False statements about the Common Core Standards, which range from their origin to their relationship to the Obama Administration, have trended regularly on social media. 

As a result of the rewrite of this educational legislation, the states and local school districts must step up and maintain rigorous standards for our schools and students. We must not return to the previous system where the state-determined proficiency levels on state tests were so low that being proficient was a joke--our own state of TN was part of that system. I am afraid the real losers in this retreat to the previous state of affairs may be our children and the future competitiveness of our nation. 

As these coming changes swirl around in my mind, three issues come to the forefront. First, the one emphasis we must keep is the essential importance of formative assessment. During the past several years, school districts trained data coaches, and teachers built data walls to visualize the academic achievement of their students and identified the standards to be addressed during instruction. This process has opened the eyes of many teachers and given them the clear direction on where to direct subsequent instruction. 

Second, we must devote more of our energy and time on the top performing students. We have bored these students to death with the endless practice of taking standardized tests and by the constant drill in basic skills. No Child Left Behind focused on the students in the bottom half of the achievement range. I n 2008-2012, I directed a NSF Math and Science Partnership Grant during which we worked with three school districts on math and science instruction. Some of the highest growth in achievement was seen in students who were in the top third of the academic achievement range, but no one at the Tennessee State Department of Education seemed to be interested. All the pressure was on the improvement of students in the lower third of the achievement range. As my current and former students will confirm, my heart is with students living in poverty in our region of Southern Appalachia. However, the next generation of engineers, scientists, inventors, and leaders will come from the top performing students. We continue to neglect them at our own peril. 

Third, I want to address my colleagues in teacher education. We sat back and let individuals in other fields (politicians, business leaders, and philanthropists), who may or may not understand the complexity of teaching and learning, take control of education. We go to our conferences and write journal articles for each other, but we need to be communicating with the shoppers at Walmart. Furthermore, we must change the reputation of “education courses” as fluff. Robert Munday, the chair of my doctoral committee at Texas A&M University- Commerce, told me that as teacher educators we have brought this criticism on ourselves. Our courses have lacked substance, been void of rigor, and are seen as not applicable to the public school classroom. Our courses should always be relevant to the public school classroom, and we should have the reputation as some of the best teachers on campus. 

We are entering a new day in education. As teacher educators we must seize the initiative.

Bless You My Children,
Terry L. Simpson

Jennifer C, Kerr, The Associated Press, December 10, 2015

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