Test scores reveal school leadership failure

It's not just students who are in crisis, so is our national education leadership.

A front-page one-two punch of test scores last week was enough to knock public school parents and educators senseless.

The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores show a nationwide decline. Maryland had one of the largest declines of any state on NAEP, while the scores on the statewide PARCC exams were described by state officials as "shocking" and "pretty horrific."

Not surprisingly, Baltimore City students took the worst beating. On NAEP Baltimore slid the worst of any urban district. In reading, only about 12 percent of students achieved proficiency (the 12 percent is not a misprint).

To try to make sense out of these calamities, let's start by dispensing with a couple of common reactions.

One is Gov. Larry Hogan's comment that the PARCC scores are a "wake-up call." Actually the nation has been on high alert since the 1983 report "A Nation At Risk" famously warned, "The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people." For decades, we've been flooded by waves of education reform.

Another mistaken reaction is to take refuge in blaming the messenger — that is, the tests themselves. It is widely acknowledged that students have been over-tested, but the roots of failure are far deeper.

A more plausible response is to hold culpable the ideologues who politicize and polarize the education debates. A prominent education scientist has lamented that we are "distracted by dogfights over Common Core, testing, choice, teacher evaluations, charter schools and other policy debates."

Where then should we zero in? Of course the complex issues can't be fully captured in an op-ed article. Still, the most promising pathway to progress is fairly straightforward, yet critically overlooked. The pathway begins with the core truth that, as the authors of a landmark history of public education reform efforts concluded, "Change where it counts the most — in the daily interactions of teachers and students — is the hardest to achieve and the most important." Yet, classroom teachers are underappreciated and most of all under-supported in ways that are not well recognized.

We all know that classroom teaching can be inordinately difficult, particularly when poor schoolchildren come to school with severe environmental and developmental disadvantages. But demographics are not destiny. Some states, some districts, some schools do better than others, even controlling for socio-economic factors and funding levels.

More of them could do much better if, first and foremost, they improve teachers' working conditions. In the current state of K-12 public education, teachers don't get the support in the classroom that they crave: clear, coherent learning standards and curricula; sufficient time and manageable pupil-teacher ratios to deliver instruction, especially to struggling learners; more classroom coaching and assistance with disruptive students; sufficient materials; and for the vast number of less experienced teachers, more lesson plans.

At the same time, perhaps most fundamental of all, school systems nationwide have notoriously failed to support teachers with research-based best instructional practices. The beleaguered Baltimore school system is a case in point. Its most basic flaws lie in its well-documented lack of research-based operational plans to improve classroom instruction, especially in reading.

Local leadership aside, it's important to understand who is most to blame for the lack of support for teachers. The pet targets are the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which imposed accountability mandates like high standards and testing, and President Barack Obama and his former U.S. secretary of education, Arne Duncan, who have tried to enforce the mandates.

But think about it. The outside mandates came about because of internal failures: Education leaders didn't self-develop and self-impose accountability measures. Poor academic achievement, most notably among low-income and disabled students, was brushed under the schoolhouse rug.

Sad to say, the education establishment — including national associations, teachers colleges and state departments of education — created the accountability vacuum. And it has not risen to the paramount challenge of improving teachers' working conditions.

So let's be clear about who's really flunking the test. It's not just students who are in crisis. So is our national education leadership. To heed Pogo's famous words, "I have seen the enemy and they is us."

Kalman R. Hettleman is a former member of the Baltimore school board and former state human resources secretary. His email is khettleman@gmail.com.

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