Ten years ago, George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, the law that has dominated U.S. education—and the education policy debate—for the entire decade. While lawmakers are struggling to update that measure, experts across the political spectrum are struggling to make sense of its impact and legacy. Did NCLB, and the consequential accountability movement it embodied, succeed? And with near-stagnant national test scores of late, is there reason to think that this approach to school reform is exhausted? If not “consequential accountability,” what could take the U.S. to the next level of student achievement?Here's my answer: accountability plus teacher implementation of sound strategies, built through sustained collaboration with colleagues.
Some accountability plans assume that teachers already know what to do and how to do it. If that were true, then carrots and sticks would be very likely to work. Nationally, I think No Child Left Behind has been a huge trial of that theory, producing some progress but nowhere near enough.
Some other accountability plans assume that teachers may not know how to do it yet, but they can quickly figure it out. It looks me like that was the KERA theory. The Department would create guidance documents and brief district leaders, district leaders would brief teachers, Regional Service Centers would provide back up support, and four professional development days (or maybe nine for just a few years) would be plenty of time to get the strategies up and running. We got some important improvement from that approach, but we, too, did not get the full scale of change we wanted and expected.
From accountability efforts to date, I believe we should learn that the teaching strategies that can make the biggest difference are not, in fact, obvious and easy for teachers to implement. Instead, understanding and applying them requires long cycles of learning: exploring a key idea, applying it in practice, reflecting on what happens, applying it in practice with some new insight, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. Further, even if a teacher develops tremendous skill at using that idea with most kids, every group of student will include a few that need a variant approach, so there will always be more to learn and more to puzzle out. That means teachers will always need one another, and the collaborative learning process will always need to be a central part of how strong schools do strong work.
Winning at basketball requires a scoreboard--but it also requires practice, coaching, and teamwork to develop winning skills. Winning in education requires matching elements: first goals, assessments, and consequences, and then also sustained, focused collaboration among teachers to develop the deep skills that will move all students to success.
(Tomorrow: some thoughts on how Kentucky can build and sustain that collaboration.)