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Posted at 09:36 AM ET, 07/13/2011

Moving past excuses from the no-excuse reform crowd

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This was written by Barnett Berry, founder and president of the Center for Teaching Quality, Inc., based in Hillsborough, N.C., which seeks to improve student achievement by advancing teaching as a 21st-century, results-oriented profession.

By Barnett Berry

As summer temperatures rise, tough talk about silver-bullet solutions is wilting:

In Atlanta, revelations of rampant cheating on high-stakes tests have rocked the reputation of the city’s schools and administrators. At the center of the scandal is a superintendent previously championed by reformers who emphasize high-stakes accountability and assessment. As reported in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution , top administrators “ignored, buried, destroyed or altered complaints about misconduct, claimed ignorance of wrongdoing and accused naysayers of failing to believe in poor children’s ability to learn.”

In Washington, D.C.—where concerns about possible widespread cheating during the Michelle Rhee era remain unresolved—standardized test scores for 2011 showed little movement.

Then there’s the mounting evidence that highly acclaimed charters are unlikely to serve the most disadvantaged students. In The New York Times, Michael Winerip recently explored ways in which some of the city’s charter schools pressure students to “thrive or transfer,” noting the relative scarcity of students with disabilities at such schools.

At the Aspen Ideas Fest, a well-known reformer revealed his relish in attacking teacher unions. Upon being blasted by bloggers, the reformer apologized for the “arrogance in my tone.” However, video footage of his talk (which was not a brief sound bite) presents disturbing evidence of the divisive rhetoric and tactics that get in the way of meeting children’s needs.

Of course, accountability is an important tool for reform. Charter schools can help to incubate good ideas and practices outside the confines of district bureaucracies. Teacher unions do need to change. But none of these silver bullet solutions — high-stakes tests, charter schools, dismantling unions — is enough to meet the challenge of providing 21st-century students with the schools they deserve.

Given all the recent evidence of off-kilter priorities, Paul Tough’s recent New York Times piece on the “no excuses” reform crowd is well-timed. Tough notes that the same reformers who insisted high expectations (and high-stakes tests) would cure what ailed low-income urban schools are now pointing to excuses. They’re discovering that high-stakes tests and tenure reform cannot (by themselves) help students overcome the conditions of poverty.

Significantly, Tough notes that the situation isn’t hopeless—just more complicated than some have been willing to admit. He points out that dichotomous debate (charters versus traditional public schools, teacher unions versus administrators, etc.) simply cannot address the quandary in which America finds itself. Instead, improving our public schools requires nuanced conversation and comprehensive solutions.

Tough argues that if we are to educate all children to achieve high academic standards, we must tackle the challenges of poverty head-on.

He highlights tactics that have repeatedly been proven effective on a small scale: “supplementing classroom strategies with targeted, evidence-based interventions outside the classroom; working intensively with the most disadvantaged families to improve home environments for young children; providing high-quality early-childhood education to children from the neediest families; and, once school begins, providing low-income students with a robust system of emotional and psychological support, as well as academic support.”

Clearly, such a shift in strategy will require creativity, investment, and partnerships. But it will also require us to unleash the power of the abundance of teaching talent we have in every school in this nation.

Who better to help ensure educational equity than our most accomplished teachers? Why not structure their work (and workdays) to strategically deploy their expertise? Our best teachers could provide targeted intervention for the children and families who would most benefit from their experience and knowledge. They could help develop, staff, and assess high-quality early childhood programs. They could work with community partners to ensure all children have access to the academic, emotional, and psychological support they need to succeed.

Too often, we shuffle our best teachers into full-time administrative roles, pulling them away from the children who need them most. Too often, we pile “reforms” on teachers without inviting them (and supporting them) to take on meaningful roles in solutions. And too often, America’s schools fail our least advantaged students and families.

Let’s drop the excuses. Let’s not kid ourselves about silver-bullet solutions. Let’s do the difficult work. And let’s welcome teacher leaders as partners in making it happen.

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By  |  09:36 AM ET, 07/13/2011

 
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