Pushing the Pendulum

It was the spring of 1992 and there was no doubt about it; I was going to change the world. I had just walked out the door of Millersville University with my bachelor’s degree in one hand and my special education certificate, hot off the presses from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, in the other. Kris Kross’s “Jump” blared on the radio waves as my very own personal theme music and I knew nothing could stop me from changing lives.

After going through the grind of daily substitute work for a couple of months, I was thrilled to land a long-term substitute position at an alternative school for students with emotional disturbances. I was still having nightmares about cafeteria duty, trying to find some kind of footing, when I received an interview for a full-time contracted position as a learning support teacher in Upper Darby. I nailed the interview and got the job. Everything was happening exactly according to plan. 

That summer, as I excitedly prepared for the upcoming school year, I had a conversation with two family members who enjoyed pontificating about all the problems with public education.  They did not mind that teachers received raises, but they objected to the increases if kids didn’t learn. One relative, a member of the corporate world, said that she could not understand why there was no accountability for teachers. She asserted, “If my product does not sell, my salary suffers.”  The other relative, who worked in construction, pointed out that if he does not do his job correctly, entire projects break down.  “You think I would get paid then?”  Those conversations disheartened me. I worried about how others may view my chosen career and I hadn’t even started. Instead of the positive vibes of Kris Kross, I was now hearing the warning signs in Joe Public’s “Live and Learn” as my personal soundtrack.

My first few years of teaching coincided with the beginning shift toward accountability in education. With that shift came push back from my colleagues on the intrusion into their classrooms.  I sat in numerous meetings and teacher lounges listening to them object to accountability measures that were supposed to help provide an objective measure of our job performance.  They wanted to know why, after so many years of uninterrupted teaching, their instructional practices were being called into question by politicians and the general public?  They pointed to the “raw material” that they were given as being the problem and asking, “How can we be accountable for kids from a poor upbringing? If the parents would do their job, we would be fine! It’s not our fault.”  I left those meetings equally as disheartened as the previous ones with my relatives. I did not necessarily agree with either side, but I did gain an understanding as to why the conflict existed. Neither side wanted to give the other any ground.

Since that time and up until today, I have firmly believed that there has to be a middle ground.  Educators need to realize that the days of relying on tenure to give us the power to shut our doors and just teach the curriculum as we choose without any sort of accountability are gone.  On the flip side, the politicians and public need to understand that there is so much more to what schools do and who students are than just a data point.  They need to realize that today’s educators did not get into the profession as a backup plan or to have summers off. Teachers today are better prepared and more passionate about making a difference in the lives of children than I have ever seen in my 25 years as an educator.  They do not mind being held accountable; they just want a reasonable measure to be used that paints the entire picture: academically, socially, emotionally, and behaviorally.

To be honest, I have vacillated back and forth on this topic.  As an educator, I have called for more freedom to do as we see fit in our schools. As a father and taxpayer, I have also questioned the tactics used in my own children’s classrooms and wondered exactly what the heck was going on in there (thankfully, I have my wife keep me in check, reminding me that I am not the principal of the whole country).  

I have been a union representative, serving on a negotiating team for a teacher contract and calling for more academic freedom and less intrusion from administrators. I have also been a champion of data and accountability, making the analogy that every kid should have an imaginary tag on their ear like cattle. Only these tags would have their test results so every teacher who works with them could know about their achievement scores. I am not proud of either of these viewpoints, but I do appreciate them because I believe that they have led me to where I am today.

So here we are in 2017. “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” have both proven to have some upsides, but neither have led to substantial improvements in education. In fact, most of the recently released data shows that neither program moved the dial at all. Just more data points for those who want accountability.  More money for those who are willing to play the game. The pendulum appears to be swinging away from so much accountability. I propose that we all join in together and push it ourselves.  

I am not suggesting we push it back in the other direction.  My belief is that it needs to be pushed off the rails completely. Let’s stop this constant back and forth where we make modest gains occasionally and then lose ground based on the whims of the day’s popular accountability system. We are talking about the future leaders of our country, the next generation of workers, which means we need to put aside the political talking points and focus on what is best for them which is also best for business.  Side note: Whenever I talk about this generation and their future, I always think of The Breakfast Club when Vernon is talking to Carl the custodian and says, “Now this is the thought that wakes me up in the middle of the night. That when I get older, these kids are going to take care of me.” To which Carl responds without missing a beat, “I wouldn’t count on it.” (Best line in any education movie ever!)

I can hear you saying to yourself, “How do we do what you suggest? How do we fight against a rigged system that controls everything?”  My answer? It’s simple. Both sides need to embrace the salient points of the other and work on a plan to move forward. Much like the current political atmosphere in our country, I believe we have dug in our heels to the point of being unwilling to budge. What we don’t realize (and what our politicians do not realize) is that while we are busy serving the masters of standardized testing and accountability, the whole system is suffering.  We cannot continue to support schools where every student is just a number who walks the halls like cattle with an eartag. A place where there is so much focus on the data that we have no time to build relationships. Where we are competing so much with our fellow schools and teachers, within our own district and school building, that we miss out on chances to collaborate and grow together. 

We also cannot support schools where teachers have full autonomy to teach what they want, where they want, and when they want, without some form of accountability to make sure the customers are getting what they paid for. A place where we are so focused on doing what we alone think is best we miss out on learning from our community and even our children who have so much that they can teach us, too.  If you truly want what is best for all children, then you have to be willing to see both sides of the argument.

Locally, as teachers and principals, there is plenty we can do.  First and foremost, stop worshipping at the altar of standardized testing. Trust me, I know how difficult it can be to not get sucked in. They play this game of scoring and ranking us and we immediately click the link and start comparing ourselves to one another. Out of one side of our mouth we pound our chest and brag about getting this recognition. Then, when the ranking inevitably goes down, we turn the focus on educating the whole child or, worse yet, make excuses for why we are not as highly ranked as previous years. Mind you, I am not saying ignore standardized tests completely. I am saying the more power we give them, the more powerful they will be. 

Provide your teachers and community with the information. Have open lines of communication to respond to questions.  Do so with transparency holding yourself accountable.  But also, remind everyone about the other measures of a good school that we all know exists because we live them every day.  I can tell you from first hand experience, there is nothing quite like the response you get from teachers, parents and students when you announce that you will not be “teaching to the test.” Stop all of the testing pep rallies where we try to convince the kids that this is a great thing. Quit trying to jam a square peg into a round hole by doing last minute test prep. Teach the curriculum. Address the standards. Use multiple measures for effectiveness.  Then move on to other matters. That being said, don’t be one of those educators who cries about standardized testing taking away from your instruction and then providing your own “high stakes tests” in your school with midterms and finals. If we want other methods to measure our effectiveness, we need to lead by example by moving away from our own version of this type of assessment.  If you think having kids cram endless details into their heads just so they can spit it out on a final is worthwhile, well, you probably stopped reading this post long ago.

If we demonstrate an openness and willingness to not only accept constructive criticism, but actually go out and request it from our communities, then we disarm those who want to paint us with the broad brush of institutional failure. Don’t just invite your parents in for conferences. Have opportunities all year long for them to see what happens during the 98% of the year when you aren’t doing standardized tests. Reach out to your community for input and cooperative activities. All of the statistics in the world will never replace the conversation on the sideline of a Saturday soccer game. People believe what they see most, but what they hear from their circle of neighbors and friends is a close second.

In today’s world of technology, it is also critical that we control our message and brand.  Get active on social media. Embrace the unknown. For all the negatives of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, there are myriads of opportunities for positives. Set up official accounts for your school (with proper permission) and go to town. Get the truth out there in the digital community so those who are on your team can help spread that truth. Trust me, they want to help you.  Give them the chance to share your posts and comment your brand.

Finally, be a champion for children. Take risks. Put your neck out there for what you believe is important.  Will it occasionally get you flak? Absolutely.  But, as the bomber pilots were known to say in WWII, “If you’re not catching flak, then you’re not over the target.”  We have to remember that the objects of our attention are quite frequently also on the radar of others. Quite often, those others will feel significantly different about the topic than we do. How do you think the person responsible for data will feel if you start minimizing its impact potentially threatening their job security? How about the person in your school whose job it is to make copies for everyone? What are they going to do when you start talking about going paperless? Naturally, they are going to push back.  You have to be prepared for that flak.  It means you are over the target.

As I sit here penning this article in late 2017, the radio is blaring the lyrics to Imagine Dragon’s “Believer.” Maybe it’s prophetic. I listen and I say: Let’s lead by example. Let’s control the narrative, but also be warm and welcoming to those who disagree with our with ideas. Let’s push that damn pendulum so far over the cliff that we never have to see it again.

“I’m fired up and tired of the way that things have been, oh ooh
The way that things have been, oh ooh
Second thing 
Second, don’t you tell me what you think that I can be
I’m the one at the sail, I’m the master of my sea, oh ooh
The master of my sea.”  

​By Jon Ross

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