How top-down policies undermine instruction and feed the testing and accountability backlash

The central idea behind standards- and accountability-driven reforms is that, in order to improve student learning, we need to do three things:

  • Clearly define a minimum bar for all students (i.e., set standards).
  • Hold students, teachers, and leaders accountable for meeting those minimum standards.
  • Back off: Give teachers and leaders the autonomy and flexibility they need to meet their goals.
The push for greater accountability has often been paired with less autonomy and more centralized control.

It’s a powerful formulation, and one that we’ve seen work, particularly in charter schools and networks where teachers and leaders have used that autonomy to find innovative solutions to some of the biggest instructional challenges.

Unfortunately, in far too many traditional school districts, the push for greater accountability has been paired with less autonomy and more centralized control. That is a prescription for a big testing and accountability backlash. 

You needn’t look far for examples of how traditional districts have gotten the accountability balance all wrong. There are a host of stifling district practices that unintentionally hamstring, rather than free, our teachers and leaders. And that unintentionally encourage precisely the kinds of practices most testing critics loathe.

Many of these top-down district policies stem from the earnest desire to replicate the practices of the best and most effective teachers. Unfortunately, what too many state and district leaders miss is that you can’t script your way to great instruction from district offices or from the statehouse. And trying to do so saps teacher and principal buy-in and morale, often while making instruction less effective.

Perhaps the most egregious example is the creation and use of curriculum “pacing guides” that are meant to help teachers align their instruction to the standards.

The theory behind pacing guides sounds good: In a standards-driven classroom (or any classroom, really), the most successful teachers create detailed, long-term plans that are backwards mapped from the knowledge and skills that all students should have by the end of the year. Well-designed long-term plans—or pacing guides—help teachers avoid the practice of opening the textbook on page one and realizing in May that you’ve only gotten halfway through the content you’re meant to teach, forcing you to rush through the rest of the curriculum.

The problem is that there is an enormous difference between a teacher creating her own plan, based on her own curriculum and the specific needs of her students, and one being thrust upon her from a central office. In the case of the former, the teacher understands that the plan is written in pencil, not ink, and she uses real-time information about her students (and from her curriculum) to inform the planning and to make adjustments and changes throughout the year.

With top-down district-created pacing guides, much of that customization and nuance is lost. There is, for example, no one pacing guide that can meet the needs of all students. But even more troubling, when districts force these guides on schools, leaders too often manage not to a clearly defined instructional vision or to student achievement outcomes, but instead to fidelity to the curriculum guide. In some cases, teachers are reprimanded for veering off course.

In a recent article in the Huffington Post, John Thompson described the inherent absurdity of this perfectly. He wrote:

…the worst testing outrage that I experienced…occurred when our frightened administrators forced teachers to attach stakes to bi-weekly benchmark assessments, which previously had been diagnostic. I was supposed to cover a major standard, such as the New Deal or the Cold War every eight minutes, every hour of every day. I was supposed to prepare lesson plans documenting full coverage of world history standards. I was supposed to follow a scope and sequence and in one day cover lessons such as:

Standard 16.4, Examine the rise of nationalism, the causes and effects of World War II (eg Holocaust, economic and military shifts since 1945, the founding of the United Nations, and the political positioning of Europe, Africa, and Asia).

I was supposed to document my approach to teaching, evaluating, and reteaching, while keeping to the pacing schedule with one-day lessons such as:

Standard 7.2, Describe China under the Qin, Han, T'ang, and Sung Dynasties; the traditions, customs, beliefs, and significance of Buddhism; the impact of Confucianism and Taoism, and the construction of the Great Wall.

Of course, it’s ridiculous to teach such enormous swaths of history in a single day. And any reasonable teacher would adjust their teaching by prioritizing important content—ideally with the help of assessment results, quality curricular resources, and so on.

The entire point of standards- and accountability-driven reform is to define what we want students to know and be able to do, to measure whether they’ve learned it, and then to give teachers and leaders the freedom to meet those goals in a way that best serves the needs of the students they teach. If autonomy doesn’t grow in sync with accountability then the testing backlash we are seeing right now will only grow, bringing standards-based reform down with it.

For supporters of Common Core, the stakes couldn’t be higher. It’s time that all of us who care about strong standards put the autonomy agenda back on the front burner where it belongs.

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