Pulling the Goat

After graduating from college in 1987, I served in the Peace Corps for two years.  I was assigned to the tiny island nation of St. Kitts/Nevis in the West Indies.  The islands in the Caribbean are beautiful, but the economies struggle due the challenges of maintaining industry and tourism structures.

The people in the West Indies were very accepting of Americans, although many of them thought that we were all just like the people on the TV show Dallas.  It was a life-changing experience for me.  In many ways it put me on a path that has taken me to where I am today.

When I arrived on the island, I immediately began doing the things people associate with the romantic vision of Peace Corps service.  I bought two chickens so that I would have eggs.  Neither bird ever laid an egg.  I eventually ate them both.  I also bought a goat with idea that it would keep the grass around my house trimmed.  Of course, it didn’t like the grass in my yard, so I had to walk it a half mile down the road every morning to a nice patch of grass that it preferred.

Walking the goat every morning taught me some important lessons.  I don’t know if every goat is the same, but mine didn’t like to be led or pulled.  He wanted to go in front and resisted every effort to be pulled in a direction that I wanted to go.  I eventually relented and usually got where I wanted to go a little faster with the goat leading.

That lesson has stayed with me for a long time and is a fitting analogy for the state of education today.  National and state initiatives treat educators much like I treated the goat.  Federal and state officials want to be out in front pulling the obstinate education reform goat along their own preferred path.  What they don’t seem to understand is that the goat has its own idea of where it should go.

Everyone outside the walls of the American schoolhouse seems to have a million ideas on how to improve education.  Everyone is an expert because they have all been to school. What would happen if state, federal, and district officials allowed teachers and principals to lead the school reform efforts in America?  What would happen if they let the goat lead?

I imagine if teachers and principals were allowed more autonomy they would be able to address the specific needs of their students without the burden of implementing one-size-fits-all curricula and programs.  There would be less testing and more relationship building.  Teachers would spend more time teaching and using formative data to revise their instruction.  Instructional changes would happen in a timely manner and students would make greater progress.

The ESSA signed in December is a start in the right direction.  It gives states back more control over reform efforts, although the carrot and stick funding formulas still exist.  Maybe states will begin asking for the opinions of teachers and school leaders.  Maybe local districts will consider letting the goat lead.  That wouldn’t be a baaaaad thing, would it?

Turning a Cruise Ship

President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) on December 10, 2015.  According to the government’s webpage, the reauthorization of NCLB represents “good news for our nation’s schools.”

The bipartisan law proclaims to:

  • Advance equity by upholding critical protections for disadvantaged and high-need students.
  • Require—for the first time—that all students in America be taught to high academic standards that will prepare them to succeed in college and careers.
  • Ensure that vital information is provided to educators, families, students, and communities through annual statewide assessments that measure students’ progress toward those high standards.
  • Help support and grow local innovations—including evidence-based and place-based interventions developed by local leaders and educators.
  • Sustain and expand historic investments in increasing access to high-quality preschool.
  • Maintain accountability and action to effect positive change in our lowest-performing schools.

Edweek recently noted that ESSA will continue to hold states accountable to the Education Department.  States will have to submit accountability plans starting in the 2017-18 school year.  States will be allowed to pick their own accountability goals, both long-term goals and smaller, interim goals. These goals must address proficiency on tests, English-language proficiency, and graduation rates.  Interestingly, states will no longer have to do teacher evaluation through student outcomes as they did under NCLB waivers.

What does all of this mean for teachers and school administrators?  It means that they go to work tomorrow and the next day knowing that change is coming, but also knowing that the implications of ESSA will take a while to be seen.  Fortunately, most of us won’t be sitting around waiting for direction.  We will continue to work passionately and persistently for all students.

Watching education reform lead to measurable change is like watching a cruise ship turn.  The average cruise ship speeds across the ocean at around 27 miles per hour.  At an average weight of over 150,000 gross tons, it can take a long time to turn one around.  It’s a maneuver that requires the collaboration and teamwork of many people.  From the captain on the bridge to the mechanics in the engine room, everyone needs to do their job.

ESSA holds the promise of great things for our children.  Much like ESEA in 1965, NCLB in 2002, and Obama’s Race to the Top initiatives, ESSA has the potential to make a difference for American students.  Whether that potential is realized depends on a “crew” of politicians and education officials working together to turn the education reform ship in the right direction.  As 2016 begins, let’s watch and remain hopeful that the journey and destination will be worth the wait.