Nearly 5 years ago, I sat in a lecture hall at the Department of Government at Harvard University to listen to Margaret Spellings, who served as the Secretary of Education towards the end of George W. Bush’s presidency. I expected her to come in the spirit of reflection, engaging us in a discussion about what went right and what went wrong with No Child Left Behind (NCLB). From my educator perspective, I thought there was certainly a lot of room for improvement and plenty of critique to go around.
What I got was a campaign ad. Ms. Spellings was unflinching in her defense of NCLB. Of course I came in the role of a practitioner, someone familiar with the nuts and bolts of the law and its implications on the ground for educators and students. Ms. Spellings was much more interested in NCLB as a case-study in effective policymaking. “Love it or hate it, NCLB has been a game-changer.” Her assertion was that very few pieces of policy had resonated and traveled as broadly and deeply as NCLB. She even jokingly offered us NCLB paraphanelia, reminding us that NCLB was more than a policy. It was a brand. “We need more NCLB, not less.”
I thought of that encounter this morning as I was engaged with colleagues from six of the largest school districts in California in a discussion about teacher and principal evaluation systems. We are all in the process of developing meaningful systems for assessing performance, providing feedback, and encouraging professional growth with the aim of dramatically increasing student performance. We’re making progress, but we do so while walking the narrow ledge that drops off into quantitative oblivion. Multiple measures of student achievement quickly melt back into a single composite index that’s easy to understand and quantify but relatively useless in practice. Questions of teacher and principal efficacy can quickly deteriorate into arbitrary conversations about cut scores and variable weighting.
We need systems that paint as complete a picture as possible, capturing the complexity and nuances of the classroom. We need systems that bolster the professionalism and prestige of educators – not reduce them to a number. We all wait, a bit nervously, to see what the newest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) will bring. Let’s hope it’s not just a brand.