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Vail Daily column: Policies prone to misfire

Jason E. Glass
Valley Voices

Educators across the United States (and especially here in Colorado) are awash in a sea of statutes, regulations and directives that have accumulated as a result of the past 15 years of education reform efforts.

While advocates of these reform policies latch on to isolated success stories in an effort to show they are working, the large-scale results are undeniable: Improvement in American education outcomes has actually slowed since the inception of No Child Left Behind, over-the-top accountability, market-based reforms and privatization schemes.

News of freshly passed education legislation lands with a hollow thud in classrooms and staff rooms. The latest new requirements and mandates elicit a range of responses — few of them good. From tired groans to outright exasperation, the response from those actually doing the work of educating students is clear: The education policies that have emerged from Washington and state houses aren’t helping.

But how can this be? Lawmakers are generally well-intentioned and their goal is straightforward and noble: a better education for the students in their state. How is it, then, that these policies miss the mark in terms of having a systemic and positive effect on educational outcomes for students?

I see two major reasons as to why these policies are prone to misfire.

First, top-down legislative policies almost always fail to take into account that the magic of teaching and learning happens at a very micro and individual level between teacher and student.

Consider an early elementary student still learning to read. The skill and patience of the classroom teacher is a critical element to student success. The classroom teacher uses strategies to help the student sound out words, put word-sounds together, develop appropriate pacing and expression and then help the student understand the meaning and importance of what they’ve just read.

Contrast this intimate, micro-level work with some of the laws the Colorado Legislature has passed in recent years. These include things like adding more end-of-year standardized tests and then using those results to rate teachers and rank schools, or having the state education bureaucracy create a fancy website to track school spending (while pre-existing financial transparency requirements seem to work just fine).

This isn’t to say there isn’t a need for things like accountability testing and financial transparency. It is to say that legislative bodies tend to hyper-focus on these types of policies while appearing blind to supports and policies that would actually have a direct impact on the teaching and learning relationship between the educator and the student.

The second way legislators miss the mark is that they habitually pass top-down policies that nearly always fail to address the root cause. We have research going back to the 1960s which tells us that things like living in poverty, individual family dynamics (like having an educated mother) and the environment a student grows up in tend to account for the vast majority of the variance in student outcomes.

To demonstrate this point, let’s consider student test scores. About 70 percent of what determines the result on a standardized test can be attributed to out-of-school factors while only 30 percent can be attributed to in-school factors.

Rather than dealing with the root-cause (in this case poverty and family environment), legislatures instead revert to the “test-rank-punish” model. That is, whatever the problem, you create a test for it, publish the result and then heap some negative consequence on the school (or district) for the outcome. Alternatively, legislatures could be seeking problem solving solutions for the 70 percent of factors that negatively impact student achievement, instead of imposing 100 percent of the accountability on the community school and the people working in it.

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” President Ronald Reagan quipped this now famous phrase in 1986, speaking in the context of what ultimately became a successful effort to simplify federal tax code.

Educators aren’t known to often invoke the spirit of our 40th president, but when it comes to the latest and greatest education law, the message to lawmakers should be clear: Unless you are willing to deeply understand the art and science of teaching and learning and do something to support it, and/or you are willing to address the root cause of differences in student learning … stop helping!

Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at jason.glass@eagleschools.net.


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