In my work with aspiring school administrators, I place a heavy emphasis on developing a clear and compelling instructional vision that is mostly impervious to the inevitable shifts and swings in education policy. If the state's testing system changes again (and it will), or if curriculum standards change again (and they will too), it shouldn't cause an enormous upheaval in the life of a school. If it does, then the school may be over-focused on test score outcomes or meeting accountability mandates and insufficiently focused on high-quality classroom instruction and a coherent curriculum.
I tell aspiring administrators not to focus so much on the policy world, not just because it can be a distraction from their core work of teaching and learning, but because history vividly illustrates the limitations of state and federal policy for dramatically improving student achievement. Despite a huge increase in education spending in recent decades and enormous accountability pressures, student achievement at the high school level remains relatively stagnant since the early 1970's, and achievement gaps in Kentucky actually appear to be getting wider.
This isn't just a function of poverty (the favorite scapegoat of many educators). It's a reminder that what happens in our classrooms on a daily basis is more about the individual teachers, the school principal, and the academic culture they create than about how teachers are evaluated, or how schools are rated for performance, or the minutiae of curriculum standards. I wrote recently about what I've observed in low-performing schools; many of these schools are, in fact, different from higher-performing schools because of what happens in the classroom, and not simply because of the students they serve.
This, despite all the intense policy pressure schools face to improve. Frederick Hess, education policy analyst for the American Enterprise Institute, has written about this pattern several times. As he notes, "policymakers can make people do things, but they can't make them do them well." So in Kentucky, for example, we can make principals and teachers use a rigorous new performance evaluation system, but we can't make principals evaluate teachers accurately enough to really distinguish between high and low performers.
So I advise educators all the time: develop a compelling and demanding vision for what high-quality teaching and learning is going to look like in your school, and what kind of people you want students to be at the end of their formal schooling experience, and pursue that vision relentlessly using best practices applied to your context. And don't worry so much about what the Kentucky Board of Education does next.
The irony? Two weeks ago Governor Matt Bevin appointed me to the Kentucky Board of Education.
I'm tremendously honored, of course. Serving on the state board of education was never an aspiration. It certainly never crossed my mind when I was teaching middle school social studies in the mid-1990's. But I've tried to focus all of my professional energies these last 20 years on helping teachers and school administrators get better at their practice so more of their students have a shot at success in school and life. And to the extent that I can do that on the state board of education, I will certainly try.
This new role does not change my mind about the limitations of policy. At the end of the day, nothing I do on the Board will ensure there is a great teacher in every classroom or that every child has an equitable shot at life success via a well-crafted education. That responsibility still lies at the local and classroom level.
But there are things policymakers can do to help hard-working and dedicated parents and educators create maximum capacity for their schools. For example:
- Accountability matters. For all of the flaws of the old No Child Left Behind regime, the modern emphasis on closing achievement gaps has been a tremendous boon for education practice. While achievement gaps remain a glaring problem, the collective responsibility we feel now from the local to the national level for improving student achievement is a direct result of policy. Kentucky will soon get to rework its accountability system under the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and assuming federal regulators allow us a high level of flexibility, the way we structure the new system will further shape the priorities educators respond to in their work and how we define school success.
- Curriculum matters. I've written a lot over the last year about my rediscovery of curriculum and how what we teach matters as much as how we teach. Educators are sometimes too self-constrained by their assumptions about Common Core, but there's no doubt that standards make a big difference in the shape of learning in our schools. I believe curriculum will be a renewed focus for Kentucky in coming years, especially as we seek to learn what is best in Common Core and what needs to be left behind, revisited, or added.
- Innovation matters. One thing I'm absolutely convinced of is that effective schools in the 21st century cannot look like the industrialized, teacher-focused, one-size fits all schools of the past. We need to design education policies that encourage more fluid and personalized educational systems that maintain rigorous curricular standards but foster individual learning that is responsive to each child's unique readiness level, passions, and needs. Such learning environments require a significant rethinking about the structure of schools. Kentucky's Districts of Innovation program is a step in that direction, as are many of the innovations emerging from the GRREC/OVEC Race to the Top personalized learning initiative. Policies that help diversify the range of learning models and schooling structures available to Kentucky families need to be adopted and encouraged and wherever regulation stands in the way of education innovation, we need to offer more flexibility.
But this is perhaps where we reach one of the limits of education policy in Kentucky, because we remain one of only seven states with no meaningful school choice law. As long as most families are beholden to the educational options being offered by their local school district - even when their local school district is a good one - there is a ceiling on the amount of innovation that is possible and a diverse marketplace of educational options will remain out of reach. As a Board member I serve all Kentucky children, and every family deserves access to excellent public schools, charter schools, and non-public schools regardless of their income or ZIP code.
The Kentucky Board of Education does not make law; it only crafts policies that help implement existing law. So in my role as a board member I am unable to bring school choice to the Commonwealth. But as a private citizen I will continue to encourage the state legislature to pass a charter school law, scholarship tax credits, education savings accounts, and supports for homeschooling families and then will do my best to ensure those laws are implemented to the maximum benefit of Kentucky families and thereby accelerate the pace of education innovation and improvement throughout the state.
Ultimately, our schools will only be great because of the students, parents, and educators in local communities who work together to make them great. But I'll do my best to help create the conditions for that greatness to flourish.