Change that matters

Recently, I spoke at a meeting of several state-level education leaders to discuss my views on the new proposed regulations covering the Every Student Succeeds Act (the major federal education law, formerly known as No Child Left Behind). Being an expert on my opinion, I was fully qualified to contribute my thoughts.

The focus of my talk was about how practitioners out in the field were receiving the new law and the proposed regulations and what impact those discussions were having. While the reception to my remarks was welcoming and civil, I don't believe my comments were well-received.

In my professional judgment, few people actually working in schools are paying much attention to state-level regulations that relate to federal law.

More directly, the effort and energy being put into these regulations is driving the work and setting the agenda of the "edu-crats" and politicos. It is having scant impact on the day-to-day work of teachers and principals.

The real work in schools happens at the micro-level, meaning at the interaction between the teacher and student around a meaningful task that gives the student a chance to learn and practice some new skill or competency.

The work of these regulations happens at the macro-level. It is concerned with how to interpret and weigh test scores, rank and punish schools and districts and in the construction of websites to present all this big data.

In short, the practitioner level doesn't have much time for or interest in regulations on the Every Student Succeeds Act.

This wasn't what the group wanted to hear. They were proud of their plans and outreach efforts in their states and wanted others to be as excited about this work as they were.

To be clear, my criticism is not around the efforts and thinking going into all these state level plans. In Colorado in particular, our state education agency has done a nice job trying to inform and reach out to schools and communities and incorporate their feedback in the regulations. The Colorado Department of Education has also worked hard to try and balance the cacophony of competing interests and opinions on the myriad of complex policy issues the new regulations must cover.

An enormous expenditure of professional firepower, dollars and time is being spent in states across the country (including ours) figuring out how to tinker with school accountability systems in light of the new flexibility provided under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

My point is that the field doesn't particularly care and, regardless of what changes come forward, it's not going to matter.

Arguments about testing, school rankings and accountability, school choice, funding and educator evaluations roil the education policy landscape. For more than 15 years now, our country has pursued this set of policies as our approach to improving education in America. Yet, our aggregate results (both on national and international assessments) are either flat or worse than they were before this agenda took hold. This theory of change is failing by its own measures of success.

I'm not saying these concepts aren't important, that they can't bring about some positive changes and that they don't need to be attended to soon.

I am saying that unless you change the quality of the relationship between the teacher and student, it doesn't matter. Unless you change the quality of the material and concepts the student is learning, it doesn't matter. Unless you change the preconditions to learning and the impacts of poverty that students bring into classrooms, it doesn't matter.

Unless you genuinely change the learning experience of the student … It. Doesn't. Matter.

We do need a transformative revolution in education. But let's not confuse the revolution we are getting with the revolution our kids really need.