New York State School Boards Association

The path of education reform


On Board Online • September 20, 2010

By David Steiner
Commissioner of Education

In their important 1995 book Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform, authors David Tyack and Larry Cuban identified a persistent historical pattern in American education reform – our tendency to swing from one position to its polar opposite. The result, they pointed out, was often the worst of both worlds: one reform movement would just be getting underway on the ground when it would encounter the arrival on the policy stage of its opposite, with the predictable result of chaos.

Let us try to learn from this history so as not to repeat it. Today there is an important reform movement underway with the support of unprecedented federal dollars. The entirely sound premise of this wave of reform is that we should stop building educational policy on guesswork. We need to know how students are doing as measured against a high standard of learning and hold ourselves accountable for bringing ever more students to that standard. This is what underlies the unprecedented emphasis we have been seeing on developing national academic standards and building the databases for analyzing student performance, as well as the push for new policies to hold teachers and principals accountable for students’ academic growth based on annual assessments.

But there is a strong “counter” movement, supported by many teachers, the schools of education that support them, and a sizable group of parents. They are skeptical that multiple-choice tests can capture the rich skills and knowledge that children should encounter, and doubtful that mathematical equations based on tests can ever be an adequate way to measure teacher performance. They are convinced that the most effective learning often occurs in project and team-based environments and that we need to get away from test prep and instead focus on critical thinking and metacognitive skills.

Extreme versions of both positions are problematic. Politicized versions of the current national reform agenda can make it sound as if measuring something is, in itself, the answer to making education reform happen. That would mistake a thermometer for both a diagnosis and a treatment. Likewise, rhetoric from the anti-testing, anti-data viewpoint can sound as if we are expected to believe that children can teach themselves and that any form of standardized evaluation is, by definition, “inauthentic.”

For the sake of our P-12 students, we need strongly to resist the temptation to reify these distortions. What is wrong is surely not testing per se, but narrow tests in only a couple of subjects that do not probe for real understanding. Building on the pioneering work done by Chancellor Joel Klein in New York City, we should surely give our teachers, parents and students accurate information about their academic progress, yet be equally sure that we define that progress against challenging intellectual standards based on a demanding, rich, and engaging curriculum that teachers will be excited to teach.

We can use data wisely. We should recognize our best teachers with professional advancement and make appropriate efforts to support our weakest teachers. If poor performers remain so, we should not retain them in the classroom. Finally, we should, wherever possible, embrace common sense. For instance, the time we provide in this country for learning is simply too short and the length of the summer break is especially destructive for underprivileged students.

Naturally, I am very pleased that, thanks to funding from the Race to the Top program, New York State will have significant, new resources to devote to education reform. The Board of Regents and I are determined to use these resources in ways that will have the most impact. We will not choose between a Scylla or a Charybdis, but rather work with parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, college faculty and our communities to build an outstanding curriculum, provide both the clinical skills and the content knowledge our teachers need to be effective, create better assessments grounded on the curriculum and linked directly to national standards, and encourage districts to adopt new models of schooling that better serve their diverse populations.

We will create the data systems we need to tell us how we are doing – data designed to measure real academic achievement. We will broaden the range of subjects that are given equal support through the K-12 years. We know that opening the door of learning for each and every child in our state is an extraordinary responsibility – worthy only of our best thinking and most determined efforts.


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