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.

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