Innovation and High-Stakes Accountability

classwithteacherIt seems to me we have two forces shaping educational policy: one is the call to innovate, reflected in the USDOE’s Investing in Innovation (i3) grants and in calls from the US Secretary of Education to seek innovative solutions to persistent problems of student underperformance; the other is a culture resulting from high-stakes accountability where teachers and principals are afraid to make a mistake that might cost them points on the state accountability index.  These two forces are not just different; they are in direct opposition to each other.  So, what are educators to do?

Conventional wisdom says that if you keep doing the same thing, you’ll get the same results.  So for educators to boost achievement at schools that have a history of low performance, or to close achievement gaps that have existed for years, they need to seek innovative solutions rather than hunkering down and doing the same things they’ve always done only with greater intensity.  For example, drilling students for weeks on test taking skills and on rote learning will have limited impact on student learning or test scores.  Yet research from the National Governors’ Association points out that when schools are pressured by high-stakes accountability to quickly boost student scores, they are less likely to innovate because they are afraid to make mistakes or do anything that might adversely affect student scores.

classwithteacher2Just think if artists and inventors were afraid to make mistakes or venture into new territory, how poor our culture and quality of life would be.  Somehow we must create the space for educators to try new practices, to use their imaginations and to respond to students’ needs and interests without constantly looking over their shoulder.  I am not suggesting that schools don’t have a responsibility to ensure student learning and success, but only that to achieve that, educators must have some latitude in trying out different structures and practices without fear of being labeled as failing after one year.  Most innovations take some time to implement well, and if there are benchmark indicators of progress, those should be considered as schools make improvements.

All of us have a role in creating the conditions for schools to excel: public officials, district and school leaders, teachers, professional development specialists, parents and community members.  We need to rediscover our voices and our imaginations, and put those to work to help our schools develop into the kinds of places where students and teachers want to be, and where deep and sustained learning takes place.  I’m just sayin’…

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