Achieve (dictionary definition)

I consider my blog a place to work out not-quite-crystallized thoughts and start conversations. This post is an example of a topic that I need to wrestle with, and I’m looking for your help to do so.

I wrote the other day about how Educon challenged some of my assumptions, and is continuing to do so. I have also been thinking about where I personally land on the school reform movement. Much of what the “reformists” say grates on me and feels wrong for kids, but I believe part of that is because it feels like a personal attack on my calling, my chosen profession, and my passion for helping kids learn. I also realized that my understanding of the movement is based primarily on what other people tell me it is. I have not spent enough time with the primary source material.

So I decided to check it out for myself. I visited the Students First web site, and read through the policy agenda posted there. (A caveat: I have not read the entire document thoroughly—what follows is based on the summaries at the site.) I was a bit surprised to find that they endorse many things that I believe are critical to improving education: putting students first, elevating the profession of teaching, striving for excellence, using public resources wisely to support learning.

Let me also say up front that I support the principle of accountability and for eliminating inequities in public education. I am not afraid of being held to a high standard of performance and getting constructive feedback and working at improvement when I don’t live up to that standard. (An aside: as an administrator, I am now faced with the challenge of how to provide that kind of feedback and help my teachers raise their game. I have not yet mastered that skill and am constantly reflecting on how I can do a better job.)

Digging into the Student First agenda a bit further, I realize that they have used language that it would be difficult to disagree with. It puts them in a powerful position to potentially argue, “If you oppose our movement, then you must not want to put students first,” or “you must be against elevating the teaching profession.”

Hardly. Where we differ though is on the assumptions behind the words. Let’s take the issue of student achievement. I absolutely want students to achieve. I also think that our students (speaking globally, not about my district in particular) probably aren’t achieving at the level they are capable of. So how can I possibly disagree with Students First?

I don’t. What I disagree with is their definition of achievement (which, by the way isn’t explicitly stated at the site, unless I missed it). By inference, and through my experience with NCLB, achievement to this organization means performance on high-stakes reading and math tests. If this inference is wrong, by the way, I welcome feedback from anyone familiar with the organization to point me to more thorough definitions of the term so I can better understand it.

Please don’t misunderstand: I want my students to have excellent reading and math skills. I just don’t believe that an annual, week-long, multiple choice test is adequate to judge these skills.

But I also think achievement is a more complex, more subtle thing than this, and I’m not certain Students First understands or is interested in this. Again, if I’ve mischaracterized the organization, show me—help me understand where I have it wrong, but to me their goal doesn’t really seem to be to help teachers get better, it seems to be to categorize all teachers as either “good” or “bad” and then to get rid of the bad ones.

The debate will never be resolved, and we will never be able to really communicate and work together to create the best possible education for our children, until we can agree on the definitions and assumptions that form the foundation of the goals. The conversation first needs to be about what achievement means, what excellence means, what quality means. Only then can we work on creating effective ways of evaluating it—and I’m certain those ways will involve multiple measures and multiple criteria.

We could, and should, examine much of the language on all sides of the debate about school reform to find the underlying assumptions. I know I am looking much more closely at my own, and I challenge you to do the same. What assumptions do you have that color your responses and drive your thinking? What am I not considering here that I need to be? Where are the points of agreement we can work from to build consensus?