…the more they stay the same. Well, in spite of our focus on innovation in education, it’s hard not to go all Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr at times, thinking the status quo in our sector is inevitable. New ideas have a habit of becoming faddish, being adopted or tossed aside…not always based on the research base or local evidence of impact, but on other, more superficial issues (e.g., emphasis by new leaders, comfort-level, alignment to personal philosophies, to name a few).
This week, the Senate held a hearing on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act with its Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), and twitter went wild…well, for educators and policy wonks, anyway (#ESEA). Front and center is the topic of annual assessments: Should we test every year? (Yes! accountability depends on it, measurement helps us know our students, feedback to parents is valued, school choice relates to it, etc…..or No! tests blame and shame teachers & students, narrow the curriculum, happen too much, and are not measuring the “right thing”). Debates ensue that help us see the middle ground: Yes to testing, but better testing, better use of the data, use of complementary testing, measurement of whole children vs. just parts, measurement OVER time rather than small snapshots in time.
The truth is, some policymakers are ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater, weakening requirements for assessment that would not only render accountability for federal dollars impotent, it would also threaten our ability to measure longitudinal trends in student learning. This, coupled with the backlash against Common Core standards and their related common measures, provides a double threat to innovation. Wait: but WHY?
Because innovation depends on data. We can’t possibly know if new, or “new to us” approaches, be they policy, practice, or pedagogy, have the desired impact unless we have feedback that is timely, pinpointed, valid, and importantly, USED. These are basic concepts of continuous improvement, a concept that is decades old and has framed the improvement processes of companies (see: Corning), industries (see: manufacturing), and even countries as a whole (see: W. Edwards Deming in Japan. This concept has been alive in the education sector as well. We were late to the party, but some of us jumped on board.
Now it is time to get serious about it. Should we be testing? That’s not even the right question for our time. Of course we should. The question is for whom, how often, to what ends, and, importantly, how the resulting data are used to improve at every level of the system. Testing once a year and not using that information wisely is too much testing. On the other hand, ongoing assessments on various cycles, from those that are frequent, informal, and classroom-based to those that are annual, formal, and system-based are worth the investment of time needed to administer them if the data are used well: for accountability, sure, and also for instructional and systemic improvement.
The opportunity to harness and use data, not only in a reflective manner, but in a predictive manner, has never been stronger. While educators and policymakers continue to argue about the most basic sources of information, such as annual tests, they miss the boat on richer, vaster, and potentially game-changing opportunities related to big data and predictive analytics. And they risk falling into a backslide to the educational status quo, losing the opportunity to gather the valuable information required to enhance our educational systems and understand if and how innovations are having an impact.
Having sound data, using it well, being serious and consistent about making enhancements…that’s the kind of change that can give our ed sector traction. Data aren’t trendy, and they shouldn’t be political. It shouldn’t be a conversation about “if”, but rather “how” we capture data and put it to use. Let’s raise our game, educators. Embrace change by engaging with it, valuing data rather than demonizing it, improving our information sources as we go rather than throwing away what’s essential to progress.
– Allison Crean Davis