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A Tale of Two Reform Stories

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We've been having two different reform conversations about education. One conversation revolves around testing, teacher accountability, measurements, incentives and punishments. One conversation revolves around learning, students, teaching, the future of the classroom, school change, networked learning, and professional growth for teachers. One conversation values teachers and schools, is open to deep conversations about change, recognizes the valuable role of our public schools and funding those schools. One conversation focuses on blaming, on finger pointing at unions, at cutting public school funding, criticizing educators and villifying public education. And the national conversation seems to be more focused on the testing and measurement conversation while the core of the conversations inside many schools is that of growth, learning, student needs, technology and change.

There's a sharp divide between what schools and teachers are being "forced" to do (and increasingly there is a sense of it being forced) and the ways they choose to grow their schools educationally. There's a sharp divide between schools focused on fear, testing, and pressure and schools focused on growth, experimentation and learning. And increasingly a tremendous national frustration with the testing agenda is emerging. In Texas, parent groups against testing are springing up (as they are elsewhere), school boards across the state are signing the Texas Association of School Board's statement against excessive testing, and even the (Republican) state Commissioner of Education Robert Scott has emerged as a voice against excessive testing, giving a barn-burning speech at the Texas Association of School Administrators conference in October where he lashed out, saying that testing had become a "perversion" of its original intent, that it led to a focus on the wrong things, and that the testing had become a "military-industrial complex." Similarly, parents are increasingly frustrated with students spending hours of their time doing test preparation, and the number of lost instructional days due to testing in Texas is increasing ( as this Austin Statesman article makes clear).

The idea that testing can be a useful assessment at the beginning of the year to help individualize student instruction has completely been lost in this system of one size fits all testing. And in some schools, the test dominates both the conversation of students and teachers for months. This means that the time for those meaningful types of conversations about school reform, classroom instruction that matters, professional growth for teachers or focus on best practices with integrating technology literacy for our students is lost.

And perhaps worst of all for our students and schools, as Scott noted, testing has become "big business." One walk through any exhibit hall at a conference will reveal hundreds of companies promising to help districts prepare their students for state testing. The tests themselves cost our state millions of dollars annually and that doesn't include the time spent training teachers to teach to the test. Upon leaving office, government officials too often become lobbyists for testing companies or join their boards. (Follow the trail if you are curious). And Pearson, the company who writes and administrates the tests in Texas, also writes textbooks. Recent testing in New York state revealed such an appalling product that Principal Sharon Emick Fougner, principal of Elizabeth Mellick Baker School in Great Neck, N.Y wrote the New York Commissioner of Education this powerful letter.

And this testing agenda has been the cornerstone of the rhetoric of school failure, with calls for "reform" that really mean accountability and that send a constant negative message about the state of education in this country.

Some parents are unhappy with their schools because they feel the schools are failing their children. But not for the reason you might think, given this "national" rhetoric of school failure. They are unhappy NOT because of test scores, but because the focus on testing bores their child. Because it stresses their child. Because it sucks the joy out of learning. And they are opting their children out of the test. Some parents are unhappy with their schools because they feel like the world is changing, but because schools are focusing so much on this testing agenda, the schools aren't embracing that message of change or having those conversations about what it means to learn and teach differently. We know a great deal about how people learn, how the brain works. We know what builds positive professional environments for teachers where they flourish, grow and ask the important questions. And that is the REAL reform conversation that we should be having in this country.

How is the info/technology embedded world our students enter changing how we should teach? How do people learn best? What makes happy learning and working environments where people are invested and productive? (I can tell you it wouldn't be one with constant stress, threats of punishment, punitive reviews, etc.) How do we build real-world learning into our classrooms? How do we bring passion and joy into learning so that our students crave learning? (I can say that boring them with test preparation is certainly not it.) How can we honor teachers as professionals, help them grow in their profession, mentor and support their growth and invest in them as a resource for our country? I'm not saying there aren't bad teachers, but it too often seems like the best of us are driven out of the system because we can't condone teaching in a system that stifles creativity, working in a profession that is disrespected and poorly paid, (and spending countless hours of our own time and money for that disrespect), and where the national reform conversation is so far afield from the problems we are facing in our own classrooms.

How do we get those focused on accountability reform to listen to those of us having conversations about real reform? Therein lies the question. How do we get them to respect what we have to say? Not as a sound bite or an example to incorporate into a speech but a real understanding of what real reform and deep thinking about learning look like? How do we get them to see the "big business" agenda overtaking schools and leaving our children's needs behind? How do we utilize the amazing resources we have right now -- the teachers in our public institutions, the people on the front line, the writers, philosophers, the education professionals, the blogging community -- how do we listen to and utilize those resources to engage in a discussion of what reform "really" could look like? That's the reform conversation I am interested in, because that's the reform conversation that will ultimately transform our schools, because it is grass-roots, homegrown, realistic, empassioned and informed by practice. That's the reform I believe WILL change the learning environment our students experience. That's the reform conversation I believe will change what classrooms look like and how learning happens. And that's the reform conversation that is the most important one.

Where do we go to find these conversations? Conferences like Science Leadership Academy's home-grown Educon conference for one, where passionate educators have real conversations about instruction and about school change. Grass-roots events like Edcamps which take place all over the country. Online learning events like the Global Education Conference online. Reading bloggers like Chris Lehmann, Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, Will Richardson, and bloggers from inside the school like Karl Fisch, Lee Kolbert, Lisa Parisi and TED Talks like SLA Teacher Diane Laufenberg's and. so many others who are deeply invested in this conversation of reform. (I hesitate to name just a few because there are so many education bloggers working as practicing educators in their own schools and writing about change).

Isn't it time THIS powerful conversation become the focus instead of the "industrial" accountability reform conversation? Isn't it time the grass-roots, in-the-field educators and parents get heard? That's the reform story that matters most if we are going to effect change that really makes a difference. And that's the conversation I want to be a part of.