School change: Are we doing anything right?

by Steve Wyckoff on September 14, 2010

I speak to groups often about school change and I frequently hear the same question, “Don’t you think were doing anything right?” The answer is “yes” with a great big BUT. That “BUT” is this.

We are doing the best job in education that we have ever done, at what we’ve always done. The problem is this, what we’ve always done is not the right thing to be doing in the 21st century.

The problem is school change happens so slowly, or not at all, that over the years, and now even decades, we have fallen further and further behind. Most of you are too young to remember this chronology but in the 60s we saw major shift when we included special education students in regular education classrooms.

Between that time and 1983 we saw a very gradual gap develop between what we were doing in schools and what we needed to be doing with our students to prepare them for their future. In 1983 the report, A Nation At Risk, was the first shot across the bow of public education.

Between 1983 and the late 1980s we saw an increase in the criticism of public education that led to a highly contentious conversation about “outcome based education.” That was a really the beginning of the conversation fueled by our students’ inability to adequately perform in society.

Between the late 80s and the early 1990s we saw states all across the country mandating accreditation processes based on outcomes rather than inputs. Kansas was no different. The Outcome Accreditation Task force was charged with creating the structure for a new accreditation process that would become known as QPA, Quality Performance Accreditation. In the interest of full disclosure I was part of that task force.

Following the implementation of accreditation processes focusing on outcomes across the nation, there was a mass movement to understand and identify standards, align curriculum, and base accountability on state level standardized assessments. The crowning jewel of that movement is No Child Left Behind.

And now in Kansas we have the Kansas Education Commission trying to figure out what the next iteration of  NCLB will look like. Again, in the interest of full disclosure I am part of the Kansas Education Commission.

I can tell you what it shouldn’t look like. It shouldn’t look like schools have looked for over 100 years. The problem is this. We have spent the last 25 years seriously trying to improve public education by getting better at what we’ve always done. Somewhere along the line we should have started the conversation about what we should be doing instead of what we’ve always done.

So when somebody asks, “Are we doing anything right?” It depends on your perspective. If you’re asking, “Are we getting the things right that we’re working on?” The answer is “yes” we’re doing a tremendous job. If you’re asking, “Are all the things were working on the right things to be working on in order to prepare our kids for the 21st century?” the answer is “absolutely not.”

It’s not too late, but we need to get moving. School change doesn’t just mean that we change how we do what we’ve always done, it means to change what we’re doing.-  Steve Wyckoff

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