If there is one truth that good-hearted reformers forget time and again it is a political one. If you want to make a significant change in school organization, curriculum, instruction, and any school procedure that affect students–make sure you have teachers and parents on board. Case in point is students’ report cards.
That report cards have changed over the years is a fact that any parent and grand-parent can swear to. Some past and current ones illustrate reforms that have occurred.
Get the picture? Over time, report cards have mixed academic performance with classroom behavior and personal traits. They have moved from judging children with percentages to letter grades to narratives joined to district and state standards. And, depending upon whether the report card is for elementary or secondary schools, moved back to letter grades. But the variation in report cards that go home to parents is stunning–rmemebr there are 13,000-plus school districts in the U.S.
Reforms in reporting on children’s performance in schools customarily involved teachers and parents. Some supported changes in report card forms, others resisted. Compliments and criticism flowed back and forth. If large enough groups of either (or both) complained continually, reforms occurred.
Are the contents and format of report card, then, political decisions?
You bet. Without parental support, the principal, superintendent, and school board will hear from those parents who object to additions or subtractions in traditional report cards. Without teacher support, report cards changes will be subverted by inaccuracies and minimal responses.
This political calculus for introducing innovations to schooling is too often omitted from courses taught to principals, superintendents, and school board members. Most educators, however, already know it in their gut without taking a course on Reform 101. But sometimes well-intentioned reformers and educators forget the importance of political support from parents and teachers. Examples?
*Los Angeles Unified contracted
with Apple to spend one billion-plus dollars for iPads for every student to use a newly-developed curriculum and eventually take Common Core tests in 2013. The superintendent consulted no parent or teacher representatives. He got the school board to approved the major change to schools and classrooms. The venture belly flopped with lots of splashes offering little help to teachers and students.
*Michelle Rhee served as Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. schools. Featured on the cover of Time magazine with a broom (she had fired principals and ineffective teachers), Rhee, a former Teach for America graduate, quickly became a super-hero superintendent for those in favor of charter schools, evaluating teachers carefully to rid the system of inept ones, and making principals responsible for raising test scores. In her swift introduction of paying teachers for their performance and scorn for experienced DC teachers who have been in system for decades, she quickly lost the support of the people who do the daily lessons in classrooms. Many of these teachers were voters and in the next election they help oust Mayor Adrian Fenty who had appointed Rhee as Chancellor.
When it comes to classroom teaching, however, super-hero superintendents–beyond their amazing energy, drive, and commitment–are myopic. They, like dozens of policy wonks see charters, pay-for-performance, testing, etc. etc. altering what teachers do daily in their classrooms and magically leading to higher test scores.
Super-hero superintendents, even ones who have had some teaching experience as did Michelle Rhee, are too caught up mandating changes and basking in media attention to spend the time and resources to find out what goes on routinely in classrooms. Without that knowledge, without a commitment to strengthen the teacher corps, and without staying on the job for more than a few years, reform success remains a mirage. Teacher political support is paramount when a superintendent makes policies aimed at improving classroom instruction.
an avalanche of parent opposition, the Mountain View Whisman School District announced last week that it will end the controversial new digital math program Teach to One….
In a Jan. 12  email to parents, Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said the Teach to One pilot program, which has been used in all sixth-grade math classes since the start of the school year, will be discontinued, effective immediately. The decision, Rudolph told parents, stems from test results earlier this month showing that fewer sixth-graders are able to perform at grade level.
The adoption of Teach to One has been a hotly contested move. The program is a new curriculum for sixth-grade students, complete with its own lessons, exercises and assessments done on computers. The selling point of the program is that it’s a “smart” math program with algorithms designed to adjust to each student’s performance, with lesson plans tailored to strengths and weaknesses.
In a lengthy letter last month, parents called on the district to discontinue the program, calling it flawed and brimming with problems. Among the concerns, parents noted that topics are taught in an incoherent and seemingly random order, are riddled with mistakes and outright wrong answers, and students are frequently given math problems that are better-suited for ninth-graders and beyond. Worse yet, many parents say their children are frustrated with math or have lost interest in the subject because of Teach to One. The letter was signed by 180 parents of fifth- and sixth-graders….
[After a study session with parents and teachers about 6th grade math program Superintendent] Rudolph repeated that many lessons have been learned in trying to implement Teach to One, and big improvements need to be made for the next time the district tries something new and experimental. More communication was needed to reach out to parents and the community….
“We have to make sure, if we have a pilot, that we engage parents and find more ways to gain feedback” Rudolph said. “We didn’t do a good enough job of getting enough qualitative data, we owe it to all of our parents that they have a voice to provide that type of feedback”
These examples illustrate anew the necessity of involving teachers and parents in making significant curricular, instructional, and organizational changes in K-12 schools. From school boards to superintendents to principals the politics of reform are essential to master for desired changes to occur.
Including student report cards.