Monday, 22 November 2010 18:14

Meet Me in the Middle


If I had one wish for the education “reform” movement today, it would be to hear everyone lower their voices and discuss issues of arm-in-armsubstance instead of perpetuating the uncivil, misleading posturing that currently dominates the airwaves.  The opinions generated by the leaders and employees of nearly 15,000 public school districts across the country, together with parents, higher education officials, politicians, policymakers, consultants, journalists, and bloggers ensure a diversity of perspectives that make consensus all but impossible if we insist on being “right” and call everyone who disagrees with us “wrong.”

Indeed, perhaps if we focused on the word “inform” instead of “reform” we would actually get somewhere in our efforts to improve American education.  Perhaps if we actually took the time to inform ourselves about the complaints, ideas, suggestions, thoughts, feelings, and proposals of those who think we should be doing things differently, our school districts would truly become learning organizations that bring people together rather than driving wedges between them.

Since being appointed in 2008 as superintendent of Canyons School District, a 34,000 student district which is the first new school district to be created in Utah in nearly 100 years, I have become increasingly frustrated with the polarized, and often ignorant, accusations that are hurled about cavalierly with complete disregard as to their impact on honest, competent people.  I also find that it is far easier for critics to stand rigidly behind a political shield than to drop the armor and engage in real dialogue about the issues.

For example, I continue to hear national so-called experts breathe contempt against “non-traditional” superintendents, ignoring the fact that some of us, although we did not come up through the ranks of school administration, love children, and are working very hard with teachers, principals, and parents to provide support and improve achievement in a very complex environment.  It doesn’t make sense to me that, at the same time we discuss the urgency of preparing students to live and work in a “flat world,” where skills and knowledge are increasingly transferable, we quickly retreat into our caves when someone starts demanding credentials.

Another hot button issue is the use of standardized tests.  While I fully agree that norm-referenced tests should not be the sole focus of our schools, and that they fail to assess important skills such as one’s ability to collaborate, problem-solve, communicate, and use technology, I fail to see the wisdom in abandoning them completely.  Every profession and occupation, from law to plumbing, requires tests to determine competence, and I believe education should be no different.  The question is not whether or not to use tests, but rather which ones to use.  In Canyons School District, we have begun administering the EXPLORE, PLAN, and ACT exams to our 8th, 10th, and 11th graders in an attempt to discover how many of our students are meeting the ACT’s College Readiness Benchmark Scores because I believe that in today’s economy, we are failing our students if they leave high school unprepared for postsecondary education.  We will use this data with teachers from Kindergarten through the 12th grade to help them align their curriculum and instructional strategies with the demands of our modern world.

A final example of the false dichotomies that have been created in education reform debates is the conflict over charter schools.  Here, perhaps more than anywhere else, context matters.  When I practiced law in the South, representing public school districts, I became very disillusioned with the reality that charter school operators often proposed new charters in a thinly veiled attempt to further segregate the public school system, siphoning off white students while poor, black students were left behind.  I also find it disingenuous for charter schools to tout their high achievement rates over traditional public schools if they rarely, if ever, serve students with disabilities.

Yet to characterize all charter schools as the enemy of public education is not only grossly unfair, it is inaccurate.  Many, like the KIPP academies, are demonstrating that poor, minority children can achieve if they are provided high expectations, outstanding teachers, and quality curriculum.  Others, like the Open High School of Utah, are pioneering on-line, open-source models that work exceptionally well for students and families.

One of the first things I did as superintendent was reach out to all of the charter and private schools within our district boundary, and we have already had two very productive meetings where we talked about our common goals and how we could serve each other.  I look forward to engaging with these fine people much more in the future in the hope that, as we compete for students and reputation, we will also find legitimate ways to collaborate.

So to all those both inside the system, who think I’m off base or don’t like change, as well as those outside, who want to tell me what to do, I ask: just talk to me.  You might find out I have more in common with you than you think.