School Leaders Put to the Test

October 1, 2013 at 11:45 am Leave a comment

By Frank Pignatelli, PhD
Instructor and Advisor, Educational Leadership
Bank Street College of Education

In a spirit of bipartisanship a majority of Democrats and Republicans in Washington embraced the No Child Left Behind law in 2001 and, in effect, set the table for the overwhelming weight accorded to standardized testing to determine student academic achievement and school leadership effectiveness.  Some 12 years later with the enactment of Race to the Top federal legislation we are still paying the price.

ProgressRFD-custom1An acutely problematic form of this testing mania is demonstrated in the school report card issued yearly to all New York City public schools.  My concern with this policy initiative deepened when some of the most promising and talented public school leaders I’ve worked with were receiving Ds or Fs.  These leaders remain committed to preparing our children to be active, resourceful, imaginative learners and socially responsible citizens ready to take on the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.  Yet they find themselves having to perform a burdensome balancing shaped by 2 competing visions of what constitutes a good school and effective leadership.  Faced with the specter of letter grades A to F anchored firmly in test performance, their core values are trivialized, the sum of their work reduced to a letter grade arrived at by highly questionable means.

Schools at their best are robust, vibrant learning communities.  The leaders I speak of understand how to grow schools that do this well.  These are schools where literacy skills are embedded in rich curricular offerings that engage learners in ways that draw upon experiences their students can relate to and extend into broader realms of meaning.   One school, for example, does a restaurant study unit.  This involves a wide range of social and academic skills on the part of the students and careful, collaborative planning on the part of the teachers.  The choice of what country to focus on emerges out of guided class discussion.  Trips to restaurants in the neighborhood whose cuisine identifies with that country are research opportunities.  Students learn and hone their research skills as they are actively involved in formulating questions and interviewing restaurant staff.  The different kinds of food offered in these restaurants are a gateway into cultural studies.  Art as well as writing become vehicles to represent what is learned.  Collaborative decision-making and teamwork are essential throughout the learning process.  The culminating activity involves the creation of different restaurants in their respective classrooms complete with menus, food preparation and service to parents.

standardized-testingStandardized testing undermines the capacity of leaders to support and encourage teachers to provide the conditions to do this on a consistent, thorough basis.  These leaders are under the watchful eye of an externally regulated system of accountability predicated upon prediction, control and uniformity.  Notions of school reform driven by test performance and failing letter grades for a school are impoverished substitutes for what these school leaders strive to realize as the instructional leaders they have been educated and aspire to be.   The school leaders I speak of work in the service of creating schools where inquiry-based, project learning such as this restaurant study is cultivated and honed over time; schools where accountability is ongoing, multifaceted and connected in authentic ways to what students are actually learning.  We should be clear: standardized test performance does not define the scope and worth of what a student knows or the kind of person she is; neither does it assess the worth of a school’s leader.

Those who have managed to evade the wrath of low grades express relief and genuine concern for their fellow school leaders who have not fared as well.  All of these leaders, though, speak to me of having to have two separate very different kinds of conversations with their staff—one about what they consider to be excellent teaching and meaningful learning, and the other about preparing their students to demonstrate progress on these standardized tests in order to evade the stigma of a low school report card grade.   They speak about having to combat misconceptions families come to them with when their children don’t make what the Department of Education deems to be adequate progress on these tests.  They speak about the fall-out with foundations from the stigma of a low grade, as they strive to raise much needed additional money to offer a fuller range of educational experiences for the children and families they serve.  They speak about the emotional drain, the wasted energy, the anxiety and demoralizing effect a low grade can exact on their teaching staff.  These schools are deliberately created to be relatively small to combat the anonymity of larger ones.  Yet these leaders speak of the punitive consequences exacted upon a school when just a few students who test low can adversely affect the overall school grade.

We are confronted with a disturbing irony in public education. In our zeal to measure success and failure and be explicit about what it means to improve, policymakers, educational bureaucrats and politicians on both sides of the political spectrum are undermining the very kind of strong, inspiring school leadership that we need.  Cautious, calculated leadership ever-mindful of the bureaucratic hammer that can descend in the form of these letter grades speaks to small-minded leadership.  How we assess the leader of a school should not, and need not, be disconnected from the core values that constitute quality teaching and learning. Putting so much faith in the worth of standardized metrics largely based upon standardized test performance can deaden the capacity of a leader to be creative, take risks and inspire others to reach beyond the measure of a test score to assess growth.

We all pay a heavy price by relying so heavily upon standardized tests to determine a school leader’s effectiveness.   It’s time to take heed of the disabling effects of these school report cards.  The school leaders I speak of deserve all the support that can be mustered.

Entry filed under: assessment, Bank Street, curriculum, leadership, public schools, school reform, Testing.

If You Know Someone Interested in Becoming an Educator The Importance of a Master’s Degree in Child Life

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed

An Online Conversation

Join the conversation among Bank Street College alumni blogging on education policy, practice, and point of view. Explore issues, ask questions, share what's actually happening in our classrooms, schools, museums, and communities. To submit a post, please send it to:

Your Voice

Post your own opinions about teaching, learning, children, politics, special education, school reform, play, the standards movement, student teaching, museum education, leadership, block building, morning meeting, curriculum mapping, collaboration, isolation, benchmarks, bilingual classrooms, social-emotional development, the arts...right here on The Bank Street Blog!

To leave a comment on a posting, please click on the "comment" link beside the posting date. Comments will be reviewed before they appear.



Some of Our Past Bloggers

Alisa Algava ‘08, leader of a small Hudson Valley progressive school
Gloria Arenson ’58, psychotherapist
Bill Ayers ‘84, UIC professor, Chicago
Fred Baumgarten ‘84, writer/musician/naturalist/father
Keith Berman '03, founder/president of Options for College and Bank Street’s LinkedIn moderator
David Bowles ’08 (SFC ’93), museum educator at the Rubin Museum of Art
Elena Canaras ‘07, Special Education teacher, Hawaii
Virginia Casper, Bank Street faculty member
Jim Clay ‘88, director of a Washington DC Quaker preschool
Mary DeCamp Cotterall ‘87, Reading Specialist, Michigan
Judy Coven ’77, retired public school teacher and former Antioch University faculty member
Leslie Day '93, adjunct instructor at Bank Street and author of Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City
Mary Louise (Molly) Day ‘76, Lab School teacher, Chicago
Liezel de La Isla ‘99, Prague International School teacher
Diane Trister Dodge '70, founder and president of Teaching Strategies, Inc.
Meghan Dunn ’08, 3rd grade teacher, Brooklyn
Steven Evangelista ’01, co-director Harlem Link Charter School, NYC
Janine Fetters ‘02, Senior Associate of Parent Engagement at NACCRRA
Dena Florczyk '88, middle school teacher and founder/director of The Nigerian School Project
Hollee Freeman '94, writes about parenting issues for the alumni blog and was featured on BSCAA's April 2012 Career Panel
Ellen Galinsky '70, is President and Co-Founder of Families and Work Institute and author of Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs
Joanne Ruvolo Gannett ‘84, Columbia College art history professor, Chicago
Joan Goldstein ‘67, sociologist and educator
Margot Hammond, Director of the Center for Early Childhood Professionals
Carol Hillman ‘67, early childhood educator, author, and Long Trip co-leader
Pam Jones ‘05, Bank Street advisor and instructor
Lee Klinger Lesser ‘87, trainer for the Parent Services Project
Preminda Langer ‘97, teacher trainer
Claire Milam ’97, life coach, Austin, Texas
Rabin Nickens ‘03, Speaker, Trainer and Educational Consultant
Beth Norford ‘89, consultant and former School for Children teacher
Susy Ogden ‘97
Marion Palm ‘95, Leadership in the Arts alum, writing tutor, poet and singer
Jessica Poser, assistant professor of art education at UIC, Chicago
Jesse Pugh '76, BSCAA President
Meg Rauen ‘06, former Chicago elementary school teacher, NY
Linda Reing, Bank Street Director of Alumni Relations
Rosalind Rothman '62, retired NYC teacher and guidance counselor
Kyla Ryman '92/'97, educational coach and consultant
Ariel Sacks ‘06, middle school teacher, Brooklyn, NY
Linda Appleman (Guidall) Shapiro ‘81, psychotherapist and author
Barbara Silver ‘80, literacy consultant and former NYC first grade teacher
Andrea Penny Spencer, former Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Bank Street
Debbie Stone ‘84, former teacher/co-director of High Valley School
Rachel Theilheimer ‘74, chair of teacher education at BMCC/CUNY
Theodore Timpson ’05, founder/president of Young Spirit Foundation
Eleanor Traubman '95, is Editor in Chief of Creative Times, a blog which promotes NYC's performing, visual and literary arts
Allison Warren '08, new mom, recent grad, and early childhood teacher
Max Weinberg ‘03, Francis Parker School teacher, Chicago
Ted Wells ‘07, 4th grade teacher at The Park School, Brookline, MA
Tracy Wiessbrod ’03, kindergarten teacher and stay-at-home mom

%d bloggers like this: