School and district leaders are constantly bombarded with mail (both electronic and postal) and cold calls (mostly via telephone) advertising tools and services that claim to improve student achievement. Different products have had varying staying power. For example, portfolio assessments were a fad of educational reform that lasted throughout the 1990s—only to die a slow death because colleges and universities need a simpler metric to determine admissions. Such fads sprout educational cottage industries to fill the philosophical “what does this mean” and procedural “how do we do this” voids in school settings. As a result, schools have become establishments that need to be in a constant state of readiness: ready both for the next salvation and its savior (who will help explain or institute the new). All the while, experienced educators understand that reforms and reformers will come and go and reside themselves to the fact that “this too shall pass.”
What is the educational reform fad of this era? I suggest that the overwhelming press for student achievement gains (in the aggregate) and the reduction of achievement gaps among student sub-groups have become our “moon shot”. This movement has its roots in and has been promulgated by the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), No Child Left Behind (NCLB). With these and other related reforms we, as educators, were told to “re” vision our underlying purpose. However, with the lack of effective executive or legislative leadership, the inspiration behind this movement has been realized not as tangible to but rhetorical. The contradictions inherent in the tactics we have employed to achieve our “re vision” illustrate this point: NCLB is riddled with mandates and sanctions if targets are not made, yet the current achievement goals are not doable; NCLB dictates that all states must enact valid measures of student achievement, yet the strength of Federalism allowed each state to create their own individual assessments of achievement rendering state performance metrics virtually incomparable.
So why write about NCLB as our rhetorical moon shot? Will we not talk about this reform a decade from now as another passage in the annuals of the educational reform graveyard? Perhaps. However, while I believe in the premise of NCLB, I also believe that the execution has been so deeply flawed that we have too easily used the acronym as another four-letter word to create fear and anxiety. To move beyond rhetoric or dogma and actually realize our moon shot, to advance student learning, our tactics must be focused on the questions we have and a subsequent set of answers grounded in what we already know empirically and conceptually. Here I offer a new educational catechism (a set of important questions (Q) and corresponding precepts (P)) to guide our work to meet the reasonable, measureable, and righteous goals of student learning:
Q: What is the purpose of education?
P: The clear and relentless focus of the enterprise of schooling is student learning. (I should note that I define learning as both a cognitive and affective process; That is, the ultimate outcome of school is learning, but not narrowly defined as content achievement). Only then can we talk about the purpose(s) of developing an informed democratic citizenry and ready workforce.
Q: Should we monitor and hold to teachers accountable?
P: Yes. However, if the purpose of education is student learning (see previous precept), we must monitor student learning and not teaching. That is, too often school leaders conduct performance evaluations focused on the actions of the teacher while they should pay specific attention to the learners in the classroom—a very different, intriguing, and enlightening perspective. In this way we can some to understand what and how to hold teachers to account for.
Q: Can all students learn?
P: Yes. However, we must not rely on a “one size fits all” mentality. That is, instructional equity is not about teaching everyone in the same way. Additionally, specific safeguards must be put into place for the varying degrees of developmental and special needs of learners.
Q: Do all teachers want students to achieve?
P: Yes, and those that don’t have such a belief or dispositional quality are actually conspicuous—We know who these people are and should not have the opportunity to teach our children.
Q: Are all teachers able to be effective instructors?
P: Not all teachers have the capacity (ability, knowledge, and motivation) to be effective. Pre-service and in-service programs must focus on the knowledge and skills necessary to be effective teachers—this includes content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge. This also including not certifying those who do not possess the skills and beliefs highlighted throughout these precepts.
Q: What is the most influential variable to impact student achievement?
P: The most influential variable to raise student achievement (within the school context) is teachers.
Q: What is the most influential variable to impact teachers?
P:The most influential variable on teachers is their school-level leaders: the principal.
Q: What kinds of leadership are most influential in schools?
P: The most influential leadership models in schools are not characterized by position, but by a set of individuals that bring expertise to bear on specific problems. Such collective and engaged leadership includes elements of challenging the status quo, knowledge of instruction, curriculum, and assessment, and monitoring and evaluating programs and practices.
Q: What is the role of the school organization and the educational institution?
P: The organization can subsume (for good and bad) any and all local reform efforts. Moreover, the institution is a powerful force that leads to all school organizations to resist change and to morph into looking like one another. As such, the bureaucracies of the organization and the forces of the institution must allow for innovation and creativity beyond the limits and limitations of the traditions of schooling and education that confine us today. –More specifically, the school organization and educational institution must comply with an educational catechism along with local educators.
Q: What is the role of the community that surrounds our schools?
P: Schools are the community and communities are the school (here I include parents in the definition of community). Social service agencies and schools must be jointly conceived and governed as borderless structures. Additionally, the uniqueness of the context of place and richness of diverse cultures must be recognized and celebrated.
* * * * * * * *
Many of these questions and the corresponding precepts in this catechism are nothing new. Rather, such a catechism is an inspirational call for we, professional K-12 educators, to develop a vision of what we believe in and how we can get there. To achieve our educational “Moon Shot” we need to first know where we are going. This catechism is an initial step to generate professional discourse. I invite readers with feet on the ground like all of you to add to this catechism. In 2001 the beliefs of local educators were not voiced nor heard. At the precipice of a new reauthorization of ESEA we should engage in the process to set the direction and policies for our Moon Shot!